Does India have to be so afraid of its citizens?

Last Updated: Mon, Feb 11, 2013 10:51 hrs

Two executions in three months - President Pranab Mukherjee has already set a record, a year before the party he owed allegiance to for over three decades faces its trial by the people.

The only surviving militant from the Mumbai terror attacks of 26/11, Ajmal Amir Qasab, was hanged early in the morning of November 21, 2012. A couple of months later, Afzal Guru, convicted of involvement in the Parliament attack of 2001, was hanged, again early in the morning, again without the media getting to know in advance.

But this time, even Guru`s family wasn`t informed. According to what they`ve told the media, they weren’t even allowed to claim Guru`s body – an option given to the family of Qasab. Apparently, there were security concerns over Guru’s burial in his hometown.

While the facts of the case aren’t quite clear, let’s assume that Afzal Guru was rightly convicted, that his execution was mandated. Even so, is this how a democracy handles a hanging?

To read about the security measures put in place, one would think a much-beloved leader had been put to death. There was a complete government-ordered shutdown in the Valley, with texts, access to social media, and movement being blocked.

In Delhi, a senior journalist, Iftikhar Gilani, was detained by police. The only charge against him appears to be that he is the son-in-law of Kashmiri separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani. His wife was detained too, and he said his school-going children were locked up in a room of the house. His treatment has been condemned by Press Council Chairman, Justice Markandey Katju, who has called for punitive measures against the policeman who detained him.

The fact that all of this could happen in a democracy is frightening.

It`s frightening that a well-known journalist can be detained without grounds.

It`s frightening that an entire state can be cut off from access to any communication.

It`s frightening that a man’s family should learn of his execution in Tihar Jail on television.

It`s frightening that a convict’s relatives should be denied one last meeting with him, that they should be denied the chance of burying him in their hometown, and are reportedly waiting for permission to pray at his grave.

And all of this is even more chilling because of what may happen in the coming months.

Also on death row are the assassins of Rajiv Gandhi, and several Khalistani militants. The death sentences they have received, and the rejection of their mercy pleas, has been cause for furore among several factions in the state they belong to.

Is this going to be their manner of execution too? Will they be put to death early in the morning, suddenly? Will journalists rush eagerly to their houses, to hear stories from and click pictures of their shocked families? Will there be preventive shutdowns in Tamil Nadu and Punjab too?

Does the word ‘democracy’, derived from the Greek for `rule of the people` have any relevance anymore?

In the past few months alone, there have been several high-handed measures by this government, ranging from the gagging of media and arrest of journalists and cartoonists, to cutting off of communication lines and knee-jerk attempts at censorship.

While I see that it made some sense to hang Qasab quietly, I’m troubled by the secrecy around Afzal Guru’s hanging.

There was absolutely no doubt about Qasab’s terrorist activities, and a prior announcement would have entailed fuss about the correctness of the death penalty, about his elevation to ‘martyrdom’ and about whether the government was distracting us from the impasse in the 26/11 case by throwing us a bone.

In Afzal Guru’s case, he was convicted with many, many questions unanswered, without his involvement being clear. Over the last ten years, the media has published multiple interviews with him and his family, which have raised more questions.

Perhaps the best option for the government would have been to have him give up on life in jail, and succumb to illness or duress.

But, since he didn`t, and perhaps because the BJP has been highlighting the Congress` failure to hang him, they decided they couldn`t hold out any longer.

And for reasons best known to them, they decided it wouldn`t do to stoke the debate before he was hanged. It wouldn`t do to let people speak about it, it wouldn’t do to let his family visit him, it wouldn’t do to let his burial take place in his hometown, it wouldn`t do for the country to function normally.

All this begs the question: When a convict on death row is given the punishment awaiting him, should a democracy really be so afraid of its citizens?

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The author is a writer based in Chennai.

She blogs at

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