To Hang or Not To Hang

Terrorist Azfal Guru was captured after his attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001. Despite being sentenced to death by hanging, his execution has been delayed for almost a decade due to the political implications of his life and what it means to the Muslim vote.

The Hamletian dilemma of “To be or not to be” pales in comparison to the dilemma of “To hang or not to hang” being faced by the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in India. As though the massive corruption scandals, ranging from the allotment of spectrum for mobile telephony to the Commonwealth Games scams were not enough, the already embattled Prime Minister Singh now faces increasing public discontent over the delay in hanging a terrorist for his involvement in the storming of the Parliament of India on December 13, 2001.

Security forces repelled the audacious attack on the Indian Parliament after a fierce struggle that killed five terrorists. Five security personnel were also killed in the battle. A car loaded with improvised explosive devices, which had been used by the terrorists to enter the Parliament premises, miraculously failed to explode, thereby averting further carnage.

The terrorists had planned to take Parliament members attending the session hostage. The idea for this plan was perhaps drawn from the preceding hostage situation in India in 1999, in which an IC 814 flight was hijacked and flown to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. After seven days of fruitless negotiations, the government was compelled to release three terrorists in exchange for the release of hostages. One of the released terrorists, Ahmed Omar Saeed Shaikh, was subsequently arrested in Pakistan for the brutal murder of journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002.

The Parliament attack nearly brought the long-time feuding neighbours India and Pakistan to a nuclear flash point, as the then-Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee ordered the Indian army to the Pakistan border as a measure of reprisal for the alleged Pakistani involvement in the attack. The war was averted through the US’s diplomatic intervention and request that both countries withdraw from the brink. The US, on the verge of invading Afghanistan for its own retribution against the 9/11 attacks, needed the Pakistani army to remain on its border with Afghanistan in order to prevent Talibani forces from fleeing into Pakistani territory.

Mohd. Afzal (Afzal Guru), a member of the terrorist organization the Jaish-e-Mohammed, was arrested and sentenced to be hanged until death for his involvement in the Parliament attack. The Supreme Court confirmed the death sentence on Afzal Guru, on December 27, 2006.

In India, death by hanging is the only mode of carrying out the death penalty. However, the Constitution of India, under article 72, incorporates the provision of a review petition of the death penalty. The President of the country has the power to pardon and to suspend, remit, or commute sentences. The president is only a nominal head of the state however, and is supposed to act on the advice of the cabinet.

In an absurd situation that became a classic case of “whodunit”, each concerned government ministry disclaimed any information about the clemency “file” of Guru, (which apparently disappeared) as the buck was passed from one ministry to another. Unsubstantiated misgivings like “law and order disturbances” in case Guru was hanged were cited. Finally, after nearly six years of a merry-go-round, the file was referred to the President’s secretariat in the last week of July 2011, with the recommendation of the Home Ministry to reject the petition. The President has yet to exercise her powers under Article 72 on the clemency plea.

The prevarications of the Singh-led UPA over Guru’s review petition have become an exemplary manifestation of all that ails Indian policy in its bid to counter terrorism. The ailment in turn is guided by the suicidal policy of appeasing radical Muslims for electoral gains, which is being followed by the dominant Congress party.

Meanwhile, Guru has become the most potent symbol of Indian strategic failure to combat terrorists who are becoming more brazen after each attack. Questions are now being raised about the abject failure of the state to protect its citizens, and comparisons are being drawn with the success of the US in preventing any terror attack on its homeland post-9/11. The Israeli tenacity and its modes of retribution, high-handed though they may be at times, are also looked at with envy.

Mumbai, New Delhi, Pune, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Varanasi—the list of Indian cities getting hit by terrorists is increasing. All of the attacks have been the handiwork of Islamic terrorists, who detest everything a secular and democratic polity of India espouses.

Despite this, the U.P.A government has failed to formulate a singular, dedicated policy to counter the monster of terrorism. The seeds of the absence of any cohesive counterterrorism strategy lie in the appeasement policy being followed by the Congress party, which has ruled India for the major period post-Independence in 1947. The Congress, which is also the dominant party in the present ruling U.P.A coalition, is considered to be soft on Islamic terrorism in an effort to appease Muslims, whom it considers its captive vote bank. Resultantly, the radical and extremist Muslim voices have been encouraged to take centre stage, with the moderate Muslim voices being compelled to recede into the background.

A case in point as to how the radical Muslim elements have been permitted to subjugate the moderate and modernizing Muslim voices in the country is the removal of Ghulam Mohammad Vastanvi, the vice chancellor of the theological Muslim University (the Darul Uloom Deoband) by radicals in the University’s governing council. Vastanvi was ostensibly removed from his post for praising the developmental works of Narendra Modi, the chief minister of the state of Gujarat who is a reviled figure among radicals because of his alleged role in the 2002 Gujarat riots.  But it is perhaps the worst kept secret in the country that Vastanvi, who holds an MBA degree, was removed because of his efforts to modernize the Darul Uloom; the University’s respectability among Indian Muslims is misused by fundamentalists to promote their orthodox theological issues.

That the Muslims have been utilized only as a vote bank is evident through the report of a government-appointed committee under the chairmanship of Rajinder Sachar, a retired judge. The report has brought on record the backwardness among Indian Muslims, who account for around 14% of the Indian population. The report indicates that in premier colleges only one out of 25 undergraduate students and one out of 50 post-graduate students is a Muslim. The drop-out rate among Muslims is the highest. The representation of Muslims in bureaucracy has been found to be abysmally low. Therefore, it is quite evident that most Muslims have been allowed to wallow in ignorance and illiteracy, to be remembered only during elections.

The Congress also perhaps refuses to accept the fact that some of these drop-outs end up wearing suicide vests or take up the assault rifles, under the patronage of the fundamentalist maulanas. The maulanas in turn are allowed to prosper because it is believed that they have a hold over the common Muslim masses that are supposed to cast their votes en masse. The established policy therefore appears to dangle the carrot of saving terrorists like Guru and thereby projecting oneself as the savior of the Muslims. The damage done to the country and Muslims themselves by such perverted policies is incalculable.

The aspect of subversion of due process of law is only a minor detail in the larger picture of games being played out by politicians on the chessboard where Muslims are treated as mere pawns.

The signals emanating out of the power centers in New Delhi suggest that the President might not dispose of the clemency petition on Guru any time soon. The link is being drawn to the upcoming assembly elections due in 2012 in the state of Uttar Pradesh, where Muslims constitute a large proportion of population. The political career of Rahul Gandhi, the son of Sonia Gandhi (the U.P.A chairman and the de facto ruler of the country), is dependent on the Uttar Pradesh elections. A good showing in the U.P elections sends the largest number of Parliament members because it is the most populous state. A win will boost Rahul Gandhi’s image, which has been sagging due to corruption scandals in the U.P.A government, and is bound to catapult him as the leading candidate to become the Prime Minister if the U.P.A gets another mandate in the Parliamentary elections in 2014. On the other hand, poor or even average results have the potential to lead to a gradual fragmentation of the U.P.A coalition, with political parties—notorious of being unfaithful partners—deserting a sinking coalition.

The Congress therefore perceives the utility of the totem of Guru as a guide across the politically turbulent waters. The implementation of law and the fight against terror can therefore wait. The reason as to why India has been labeled as a soft state is therefore not far to see.

Senior officials in the Home Ministry, speaking anonymously, corroborate the perception that delaying the execution of a legally pronounced judgment is leading to a rapid demoralization of the security and intelligence agencies in the vanguard of the Indian war against terror. These agencies perceive that their efforts are being compromised or even negated by the government due to political expediency. The threat perception of an attempt to create a hostage situation in order to bargain for the release of Guru is also not ruled out. The fears have been confirmed by the September 7, 2011 bomb blasts at the Delhi High Court that claimed 19 lives. The terrorist organization responsible for the blasts warned of more such attacks if Guru was not released.

For western observers, the utilization of terror convicts for garnering votes might appear surreal, but in a country where Osama look-a-likes have been paraded to campaign in the Muslim-dominated areas in the past, the U.P.A and Congress in particular are not willing to take any chances. Therefore, while no voice is raised in support of moderates like Vastanvi, the “Save Afzal” campaign has numerous takers in the ruling elite.

The discontent against the government’s wavering tactics is steadily rising however. The government might feel secure thinking that the hanging issue may not be as emotive as the disgust against corruption and so people might not take to the streets as they did in their support to the social activist Anna Hazare, but the silent anger, especially among the middle class, is palpable. The apprehension that Ajmal Aamir Kasab, the lone surviving terrorist of the Mumbai 26/11 carnage, might also one day walk away free on similar considerations arising out of the vote bank politics is leading to a revulsion for the political classes, whose star is already at a low ebb. This revulsion expressed itself in an SMS which did its round after the US forces took out Osama. The SMS read, “Nobody is safe in Pakistan, not even Osama. Everybody is safe in India, even Kasab.”

The albatross of Afzal Guru, around the Prime Minister’s neck, tells a similar tale.

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