India Finds Executing Extremists Isn't So Easy

a | A

By Chandrahas Choudhury

For the second time in three months, the Indian state applied the death penalty last week with the execution of Mohammed Afzal Guru, one of the prime plotters of the armed attack on India's Parliament in 2001. In November, the state executed Mohammad Ajmal Kasab, the only surviving member of the Pakistani terrorist squad that entered Mumbai by sea in November 2008 and brazenly shot more than 160 people.

Although India is in a minority of nations that still have the death penalty on the books, the sentence is implemented far less often than it is handed down. Before Kasab's execution, there had been only two hangings in India in the last 17 years. Afzal Guru had been sentenced to death in 2002, and remained in jail for more than a decade before he was hanged Feb. 9.

It's worth comparing the two cases to examine the nuances in the debate about the death penalty. But the comparison also illuminates the space for controversy that exists between the workings of law in adjudicating the death penalty and the workings of states in carrying out executions.

One might argue that, while Kasab's case clearly demonstrated the inevitability -- even desirability -- of the death penalty in the rarest and most exceptional circumstances, the manner in which Afzal Guru was hanged raised many vexed questions about principles and propriety. Many Indian voices of great judgment and subtlety weighed in. It might be said that while the news of Kasab's death resulted in a kind of catharsis, that of Afzal Guru stimulated a much more somber introspection.

Introspection, for instance, about politics, nationalism, state repression and militancy. While Kasab was a young jihadi who had been completely brainwashed by his handlers in Pakistan, Afzal Guru was after all an Indian national who in the 1990s became a militant in support of the separatist cause in Kashmir, the border state where India has enforced a difficult and sometimes brutal occupation since independence in 1947. Afzal Guru then became disillusioned with militant violence. He surrendered to Indian forces, agreed to work with them in murky circumstances, continued to be harassed by them, and finally turned hostile again, plotting and arranging the logistics of the attack by five terrorists on India's Parliament on Dec. 13, 2001. The assailants killed 10 people before they were themselves killed, leaving a trail of evidence that led back to Afzal Guru.

The political context outlines the gap in cases such as Afzal Guru's between the law on the one hand and the idea of justice on the other. But notwithstanding the arguments of skeptics such as the writer Arundhati Roy, who argued in a characteristically sarcastic piece in the Guardian that the case against Afzal Guru didn't hold up, the circumstantial evidence seems to point fairly convincingly to the fact that he was one of the main minds behind the plot. Roy's claims were in different ways refuted by Praveen Swami in the HinduSushant K Singh in Mid-day and by Pratap Bhanu Mehta in the Indian Express. These writers pointed out that India's Supreme Court had actually overturned the sentences passed by lower courts on individuals charged with being Afzal Guru's co-conspirators, while upholding the verdict on Afzal Guru himself. Bhanu Mehta observed:

If you read the Supreme Court judgment upholding Afzal Guru's sentence in its entirety, it is very hard to sustain the charge that the court is being malicious, biased or has no concern for fairness. It does quite a job of sifting through various arguments. Indeed, there are moments where it is easy to use the court's own scrupulousness against it....

In this instance, though, at least from the outside, there does not seem to be damning evidence of bad faith in the judicial process itself. The courts took a call, with all the attendant imperfections that are associated with the process. And we have to give that call some presumptive authority; and the state has to act upon it.

It could be persuasively argued that the Indian state, however, was guilty of bad faith in the way it finally brought an end to Afzal Guru's life. After waiting 10 years -- a time in which the convict suffered in jail without knowing what was going to happen to him and spoke of feeling like he was "part of the living dead" -- Afzal Guru was abruptly executed without being allowed to meet his family one last time. Indeed, the decision about his execution was communicated to the family in the most insensitive way -- in a letter that arrived two days after the execution. The chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Omar Abdullah, spoke not just for Kashmiris but for thousands of dismayed Indian citizens from other parts of the country when he said in a forthright and nuanced interview:

The long term implications of Afzal Guru's execution are worrying as they are linked to the people of Kashmir, especially the younger generation. Like it or not, the execution has reinforced the point that there is no justice. We will have to deal with how we can change that sort of alienation….

As a human being, I cannot reconcile to the fact that Afzal Guru was not allowed to see his family. That is one of the biggest tragedies of this execution.

And in an excellent piece titled "Unlocking the secrets of a secret execution," the lawyer Nitya Ramakrishnan wrote:

A long tradition of binding the collective to standards that keep it from being on a par with a common criminal has grown not out of any sympathy for crime but out of the wisdom that only in such a way can our collective aspirations be fulfilled. It is not Afzal’s wrongs that must determine whether the Indian republic follows its traditions....

Can India be justly proud of saving the Parliament House from terrorists when its might quails at allowing the prisoner’s family a meeting, a personal funeral?...

Afzal, during the trial, did some remarkable things. Once, he interrupted the proceedings to say that a prosecution witness was, in fact, speaking the truth when he said that Afzal had gone along to buy his car. This was the car in which the intruders were supposed to have entered the Parliament complex. Afzal also spoke frankly of his militant years in Muzaffarabad and his voluntary surrender to the Indian authorities. His narrative of how the authorities dealt with him after his return should cause us all concern, if even part of it is true. Though he had set up a small medical equipment business, the army and the State Task Force (STF) wouldn’t just let him be. They kept picking him up, detaining him for long spells of torture, demanding money for his release and so on....

Why a man who had voluntarily renounced militancy should turn back on the decision is a question that needs to be asked, and the answers will reflect adversely on the Indian state.

Ramakrishnan's searching questions to the Indian government, both about its handling of Afzal Guru's execution and its overall policy in Kashmir, lead us back to the political aspects of the case. While Afzal Guru was sentenced to death by the state, he also became in his decade of imprisonment a mascot of the Kashmiri separatist cause.

This is a political movement that, for all its problems, includes many moderate voices who have conclusively established the culpability of the Indian state in perpetrating a reign of terror and violence, and who are as critical of terrorism as they are of state violence and want to see the cycle of violence in the region brought to an end. That peace process now seems fraught with renewed hostilities and suspicions. Immediately after Afzal Guru's execution, a curfew was imposed in Kashmir to clamp down on the protests that such a move would inevitably provoke. Many Kashmiris took to the streets in defiance of the curfew, and three people were killed in skirmishes between protestors and the police. Meanwhile, the news broke that an empty grave had been reserved for Afzal Guru in a graveyard in Srinagar meant for martyrs of the freedom struggle.

The correspondent Randeep Singh Nandal wrote from Srinagar, the tense capital of Jammu and Kashmir, in the Times of India, "In the space of a few hours, Kashmir seems to have turned back 10 years." The journalist Rajdeep Sardesai spoke for many Indians in a Twitter post on the third day of the curfew: "Just asking: if rest of india was denied newspapers 3 days we'd call it emergency! What should kashmiris say?"

And the political commentator Pratap Bhanu Mehta struck a welcome note of restraint and reflection when he warned:

The Indian state has, again unwittingly, exposed its deep fragility. It had to take precautions in Jammu and Kashmir against violence. But how long can the Indian state continue on the presumption of distrust against ordinary Kashmiris? In the guise of saving them, the Centre wastes no opportunity to underscore its essential suspicion of Kashmir: it isolates it, cuts it off from elementary connections of modern life like internet and cable television, puts virtually the whole state under curfew. This is not the sign of a state tough on the war on terror. It is the sign of a state too frightened of its own people, too easily ready to sequester them. Both the BJP and the Congress will serve India better if, the next time they want to appear tough on the war on terror, they measure themselves by their ability to bring Kashmir into the fold of normal life. We may have hanged Afzal Guru. But the process of restoring the larger credibility of the state has barely begun.

It was hard then to see Afzal Guru's execution as representing any kind of closure, unless it's one that doesn't console so much as unsettle.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. Follow him on Twitter @Hashestweets. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the author of this blog post: Chandrahas Choudhury at

To contact the editor responsible for this post: Max Berley at

-0- Feb/13/2013 23:07 GMT