To hang a man: How to read Afzal Guru's death

Last Updated: Sat, Feb 09, 2013 10:05 hrs

Only in two instances does death seem to satisfy.

When it comes by old age (these days 90+) or when it is retribution for revolting acts established beyond doubt (as in the case of Adolf Hitler).

In no other occurrence does death bring everyone together on the same page. As it will be with Afzal Guru. We don’t know how people will respond to his hanging.

Some might see it as an act of crime by the Indian state. This point of view rests on the assumption that Guru was innocent of the crimes he was charged with: conspiring against the state and assisting those who waged war against the state.

Some might see it as the natural consequence of Guru’s deeds. This point of view rests on the theory that Guru was guilty as charged. There is crime and, therefore, punishment.

There are others who would have preferred to let Guru die of old age or illness in prison. And there are people who wanted him freed.

The specific instance here is the 2001 attack on India’s parliament.

It cannot be anybody’s case that a crime was not committed. The issue is whether Guru was involved in it.

It is almost impossible to establish conspiracy totally and utterly beyond doubt. It would need actual video footage with clear audio of the plotters at work to nail it.

India does not possess such proof against Guru. The next best alternative is to go by available evidence.

Judicial verdicts are mostly arrived at by a process of elimination. Evidence is almost always circumstantial and the judges are mandated to apply their mind and weed out doubt as much as humanly possible.

This is an imperfect exercise by its very nature. All of human activity is imperfect to varying degrees.

There can never be a perfect hanging. Countries can either abolish it or practice it the way they wish to.

China, Iran and Pakistan, for instance, seem to find the death penalty an appropriate form of justice. They do it often.

Then, there are countries like the UK, Canada and Australia, which have over time done away with capital punishment.

India allows it with the rider that it be used in the rarest of rare cases. This is partly because Indians are never sure of what they want. They always think in terms of Plan B.

The 2001 attack on parliament was a rarest of rare case. It hadn’t happened before, and hopefully, it won’t happen again.

Since it is a rarest of rare case, the death penalty comes into play. The thing then is to nail the guilty.

Here, evidence is almost never perfect. You have to go by what you have. This is where the integrity and skill of the police come into play. Indian sleuths are, well, not the best in the world.

The police present such shoddy evidence on many occasions that everyone tends to distrust them. Guru’s religion is of no consequence here. It would be equally tricky were he Hindu or Sikh, for instance.

Judges and politicians become wary when things get vague, however slight, in such cases. They don’t want to take a stand.

India went through the judicial process with Guru. A lower court, a high court and the Supreme Court by turn agreed on capital punishment for him.

The politician then comes in. Indian political parties are notoriously conservative, whichever ideology they go by. They prefer to let things happen by themselves. They get into a fix when asked to take a stand.

Guru’s case got complicated because the government took so long to act on what the courts said. When this happens, people look for motives.
In a transparent system that operates by clarity, convicts are punished once the courts have completed their job.

It is possible that all the courts in this case got it wrong. It is also possible that they got it right. We will only know later, when something turns up to endorse or reject a judicial verdict.

Since governments are not mandated to look into the future and hypothesize, they have to act. They did not pardon Guru. And since Guru did not die of illness, the government had to do something.

The timing of any decision will be questioned if it is not taken when appropriate. The UPA had dithered until now. This made people wonder if they were considering possible political loss or gain.

This is irrelevant in a case of crime. But then we come to the other 476 convicts on death row in India.

There are people senior to Guru on death row still waiting. This too creates suspicion. If the government has chosen to apply the death penalty, it must do so without fear or favour.

Uttar Pradesh has 174 people on death row; Karnataka has 61, Maharashtra 50, Bihar 37, and so on. Their cases too have to be disposed off swiftly.

There is a third factor that complicates things. Punishment needs to be applied without prejudice. We still have no closure in the 1984 anti-Sikh mass murders and the 2002 Gujarat anti-Muslim massacres.

This makes Indians wonder. The only way to eliminate suspicion is to get on with it. Close all cases of heinous crime ASAP.
If Guru was totally innocent, he is not the first innocent person to die. He won’t be the last either.

India will not be a perfect nation. We can and must be a progressive nation. We must be just. We have to do what we have to and move on.

To let the past paralyse the present is of no use. Guru is gone. Now, we have to deal with 476 others.

Either we abolish the death penalty, or we use it. We can’t simply wait.

Also by the author:

10 great reasons to leave India

Alcohol, rape and the Supreme Court

Vijay Simha is an independent journalist and sobriety campaigner based out of New Delhi. His most recent journalism assignment was as executive editor with The Financial World, New Delhi, and

He was a guest on Season 1 of the popular Indian TV show Satyamev Jayate, hosted by Aamir Khan.

Vijay blogs here and may be contacted at

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