The Political Noose

This is what it has come to… three bits of luggage, a new town every now and then and me plodding along. Like the chap who wears a rosary and tucks a bottle of whisky under his tunic, or the girl who bats her eyelashes and pockets money, the communist who sold out or like the unfinished apple now turning a deep shade of brown.

I tend to think in metaphors these days. One of the most powerful metaphors is of course hangman. When I think about it what does a hung man represent? To you, to me and to the Indian democracy?  Imagine; a hung man against a hinged door. I see democracy unhinged.  

Take Afzal for example. Here, in India we have the right wing that believes Afzal should be hung.The left believes he shouldn’t mercifully– the tragedy with the left in this country though is that they never take a strong stand when they should. The left remains entirely ambivalent on whether capital punishment is acceptable or not.

It clarifies that it is not being soft in the context of terrorists– hanging Afzal is merely inappropriate because it would stall the peace process in Kashmir. Indeed it would, but here’s what the real question is: If it didn’t would it be OK to hang a man? Is revenge really what a criminal justice system is built on?

Pause for a moment. For the sake of argument let me say the moral questions surrounding capital punishment are irrelevant, what about outcomes? What would Afzal’s hanging mean for India and Indian politics? As far as I can tell hanging Afzal would turn India into a wee bit more of a police run state, kill whatever little democratic dissent this country still has, undermine the peace process in Kashmir and of course give strength to the saffron bandwagon.

Look at the facts for a moment. While the attack on Parliament (several people believe the attack was orchestrated) was one of the most vicious attacks on Indian democracy it did not quite succeed. Ideally any investigation that followed ought to have been stringent and transparent to say the least. That is not quite what happened though. It is public knowledge that the police created most of its evidence, elicited confessions through torture and lied for most part through this particular investigation.

The three people who claimed responsibility for the attack– Ghazi Baba, Masood Ahzar and Tariq Ahmad were not investigated, confused with the Afghanistan hijackers and amazingly because all the five attackers were shot we have no clue they really were. Afzal was made to incriminate himself in the national media at a media conference which a senor police official later denied under oath in court.

 What happened was that two of the three accused (Sandhu and Geelani) were acquitted.  Afzal, said the supreme court, had no evidence that pointed to him belonging to any terrorist outfit. Interesting then that a man acquitted under POTA due to lack of evidence should suddenly have to pay the price all over again.

These are the facts, then there is perspective. Law tells me that death sentence is an option only in the rarest of rare cases. I have two questions: What makes an attack on the parliament so sacrosanct that it merits the death penalty, especially without adequate evidence against the accused, without the accused even being allowed access to a lawyer during interrogation? Secondly, why does Afzal’s crime (if at all) deserve death penalty when corrupt officialdom deserves pardon or worse still– overlooking?

The sad fact is that the rising ‘Nationalism’ in the Indian citizenry is what the court feels it must pay attention to. Consider this: When Afzal a poor man who could not hire a lawyer asked for a lawyer, he was refused by all four arguably because they were scared that they would suddenly become ‘anti-national’.  When Ram Jethmalani offered his counsel, Hindutva forces ransacked his office– the nationalism-democracy trade-off playing itself out. But wait, India is not all that undemocratic and the justice system isn’t all that despicable. So  on July 12, 2002 the judge in question appointed a junior lawyer as his amicus curiae and gave Afzal the right to cross examine the witnesses.

Writing a blog entry about Afzal is of course far far easier than practising criminal law without training (read Afzal’s letter to the AIDC and to his supreme court lawyer). In this country, members of the media who always do it right and several other proud citizens of India– think that hanging Afzal without giving him the right to defend himself is the vindication of nationalism and the preservation of the human rights of others in the nation. They wish to tell us, that it is fair to ignore Afzal’s story, his history and that of of the Kashmiri people.

How long before the authority in India understands the lessons that Gandhi left for us decades ago? How long until they open their eyes and see that state sanctioned murder is the last thing that will cause flowers to bloom in Kashmir instead of rivers of blood.

As Nandita Haksar said: “The fight for Mohammad Afzal’s life is a fight for all that is good and meaningful in Indian democracy; the cry for revenge and his death represents the dehumanized and authoritarian aspects of the Indian State and civil society.

Update: Please do sign the petition against Afzal’s Death Sentence.

9 thoughts on “The Political Noose

  1. @Saurabh, JhQuest and Harris,

    There is no denying that Afzal is a renegade. Having said that the argument is merely this: That Afzal be allowed a fair trial, that death penalty be abolished (in his case too) since death penalty per se is immoral and inhuman. As far the question of being Kashmiri goes, I don’t believe that any judgement is fair unless it takes into account the context and circumstances that caused the crime. One cannot divorce history from action, especially in this case. That he is a Kashmiri does not preclude punishment, but it certainly merits special attention.

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  2. Hello Saurabh,

    If I understood your first point correctly, you are making the argument that since the Indian constitution guarantees the right to equality before the law to all, in asking that he be tried at par with crimes committed by other Indians (letting the perpetrators of the Gujarat genocide go free for instance), we are ironically considering him an Indian; something that he ostensibly set out to resist in the first place?

    I just want to submit that Article 14 in the Constitution gives the right to ‘all people’, not only to the citizens of the country.

    Article 14: “The State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India. “

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  3. Well said, though this whole Afzal issue is funny, I am unable to make my mind up either way. It is obvious to everyone that there was a mistrial, and the obvious way out would be to go back to the courts again and make sure Afzal gets a fair trial. Am sure the Prez can recommend this as part of the clemency plea. However, what do you do if the courts still find him guilty. I have always respected Yaseen Malik as a true voice of Kashmir but for once I do not find myself agreeing with him that Afzal should be pardoned, even if found guilty, just to make sure his hanging does not impact the ground situation in Kashmir. Have to agree with Saurabh that pardoning Afzal just because he is Kashmiri, is a mockery of the courts and the very process of democracy. I do not see any reason in that.

    @ Anoop, I do not agree that “We are a nation of murderers”, quite the contrary in fact, that’s why we are here discussing this, unlike some states like Pakistan or DPR Korea.

    I am for sure against the death penalty, but that means changing the constitution, however, until that is done, there is no reason why we should not stick to the current constitution, lets not confuse this with Afzal’s case.

    In summary,
    Send Afzal back to court, give him a fair trial.
    Respect and follow what the courts say then.
    Get rid of the death penalty.

    PS: How will anything, let alone this kill democratic dissent, this would just make our resolve more stronger

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