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A FINE BALANCE

- The UPA cannot benefit politically from Afzal Guruís hanging

The functionaries of the government of India who took the decision last Friday to proceed with the execution of the convicted terrorist conspirator, Afzal Guru, the next morning, didnít merely concern themselves with the letter and the spirit of the law. They were equally mindful of the political ramifications of a case that had, over the years, become an intensely partisan issue.

Having allowed the mercy petition to meander its way through various ministries in Delhi and the departments of at least two state governments, the Centre was fully conscious that Afzal Guru had become a nightmare issue. The United Progressive Alliance governmentís non-decision on carrying out the sentence had given the street corner ultra-nationalists of various hues a convenient stick with which to attack a supposedly weak and indecisive executive. Public opinion, backed by volubly aggressive television chat show hosts, too was firmly behind the harshest exemplary punishment being awarded to an Indian national who had colluded with radical Islamist groups in organizing an audacious attack on the Indian Parliament on the morning of December 13, 2001. Indeed, it can be said with certainty that the baying for Afzalís blood had overwhelming popular sanction.

Nor can it be said that the clamour for retribution was unwarranted. The attack on Parliament, carried out by a determined group of indoctrinated mujahedin from Pakistan, was a daring operation that had the potential of causing grievous damage to Indiaís democracy and even triggering another India-Pakistan war. Had it not been for the quick thinking on the part of a few policemen and employees of Parliament ó nine of whom died in the attack ó who shut the main door, it is entirely possible that there would have been a prolonged siege and even a massacre of members of parliament and ministers who happened to be inside the building at the time. Along with the hijack of the Indian Airlines flight to Kandahar in December 1999 and the 26/11 massacre in Mumbai, the Parliament House attack would have been added to the litany of jihadi triumphalism.

The government quite legitimately calculated that the execution of Ajmal Kasab and Afzal Guru in quick succession would firmly put an end to the charge of the Bharatiya Janata Party that it was ďsoft on terrorismĒ. Coming as it did in the wake of a ghoulish environment that followed the brutal gang-rape of a young student in Delhi, the governmentís belief that Afzalís execution would reinforce its moral credentials wasnít entirely out of place. The growing euphoria around the robust, no-nonsense leadership style of the Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi, also contributed to the last-minute show of urgency.

It is not that Congress strategists actually believed that the execution of Kasab and Afzal would transform the public mood and serve to equate Manmohan Singh or, for that matter, Sonia Gandhi with Indira Gandhi, who remains the all-time icon of resolute governance. At best, they clung to the belief that with the Afzal issue out of the way, a Modi-led campaign would have one less issue to confront the incumbent government.

One day, when one of those privy to the final decision decides to go public, the real story of the timing of Afzalís execution will be known. However, pending this wait, there is some basis to the belief that the government was hostage to the fear of a possible legal stay on the execution. The Supreme Court had upheld the death sentence on Afzal in its judgment of August 4, 2005 when it also proclaimed that ďThe collective conscience of the (sic) society will be satisfied only if the death penalty is awarded to Afzal Guru.Ē The sentence was initially due to have been carried out on October 20, 2006 but was stayed following a mercy petition to the president of India. This meant that Afzal remained on death row for more than seven years, an inordinately long time by any reckoning.

The prolonged delay in carrying out the sentence meant that there was a possibility (though not a certainty) that the Supreme Court could use precedents set by itself to commute the sentence to life imprisonment. In 1983, the apex court had suggested that mercy petitions be decided in three months. Again, on September 18, 2009, it reminded the government of its obligation to come to a decision on 26 mercy petitions pending with the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

The former president, Pratibha Patil, is the only person who can reveal whether there was wilful procrastination on the part of the government. But for a very long time, the suspicion in political circles was that the government would craftily fall back on legal subterfuge to save itself from the political complications arising from not merely the Afzal case, but also those involving the killers of Rajiv Gandhi and the former Punjab chief minister, Beant Singh. Each of these cases had become intensely politicized.

Falling back on the judiciary to settle an issue that is in the executive domain has become a habitual practice for this government. Yet, even assuming a Ďliberalí bench had deemed that a prolonged delay in carrying out a death sentence should automatically lead to the sentence being commuted to life imprisonment, it is doubtful whether the government could have evaded responsibility for dragging its feet on the Afzal case. On the contrary, the failure to execute a man who plotted the attack on Parliament would have been pinned on the UPAís alleged Ďminorityismí. However, this was a risk the government could have taken if no fresh terrorist attack had intervened to make it a top-of-the-mind issue. The argument that hanging Afzal wasnít worth the resulting complications in the Kashmir valley would not have been brushed aside by a Middle India whose verdict on the UPA in the general election isnít going to be moulded by the khoon ka badla khoon principle.

So why did the calculations go awry? The government was aware that Afzalís execution would give the separatist movement a boost in the valley and lead to mainstream politicians echoing the rhetoric of the extremists. It was also mindful that the overall insensitivity that marked the transmission of news to the condemned manís family ó sending the notice of execution by speed post ó would offend ordinary standards of decency. And yet, it proceeded with remarkable ham-handedness, pleasing neither the ultra-nationalists nor the uber-liberals.

ďHang AfzalĒ was not a slogan that was naturally associated with the Congress; it belonged to the BJP. If the Congress looked like being electorally vulnerable, it wasnít on account of its perceived reluctance to put a noose round Afzal Guruís neck. Indeed, there was nothing in the public reaction to Kasabís execution barely three months ago to suggest that the UPA government had suddenly acquired a muscular image.

The situation hasnít altered with Afzalís execution. On the contrary, the Congress has to contend with the sectarian propaganda that it has one standard for some sections and another standard for Muslims. Such low-level politics should not be given any respectability but at the same time, it can hardly be denied that this is precisely the message that will be disseminated from the pulpits.

The muddle the government finds itself in prompts some unfortunate conclusions. First, that it reacted in a knee-jerk manner to the presidentís rejection of Afzalís mercy petition on February 3. Perhaps it was even taken by surprise by the presidentís decision to actually apply his mind and had no forewarning of the decision. This may explain why its administrative response was so utterly ham-handed that it lost any potential political benefits from doing what unfortunately had to be done.