The Sham that is Death Penalty

Pranav Jagdish

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Pranav describes himself as:

I am a Bachelors in Technology (Computer Science and Engineering) pass-out. I hold a liberal mind-set. I describe myself as a freethinker and atheist who is for critical analysis of religion and humanism in the world. I have a keen interest in current affairs and world politics.

He can be contacted at [email protected]

On 9th February, India hanged Afzal Guru the main accused in the 2001 Attack on the Indian Parliament. Or was he?

For what Indians will never know is Afzal Guru in the end was just a very small pawn. It is still contested though whose pawn he was. He continued to allege in all 3 levels of his trial that he was sent to Delhi on the orders of Security agencies in Kashmir. Obviously, the final judgment is in front of us, but contrary to the common media-infused belief that he was a member of some of the most leading Kashmiri insurgency movements like the Jaish-e-Mohammed or Lashkar-e-Toiba, it has still not been established to this day if he had any connections with such organizations. Our media has never shed light on its mistakes ever. When the attack took place, and the Delhi Police Special Cell famously declared it had cracked the case, the media applauded the efforts of the investigators.

However, the police did what George Carlin had said they always do – lie in the courts. They produced four accused. The mastermind S.A.R Geelani along with Shaukat Hussain Guru and his wife Afsan were also accused of the crimes for which Afzal Guru would ultimately be hanged. S.A.R Geelani was ultimately declared the mastermind behind the whole attack. Today he is a free man. The death sentence awarded to him was struck off and he was acquitted by the High Court. The stigma however still remains. Recently there have been reports full of such instances. The Indian media has jumped off to conclusions on various cases. It has named terrorists without waiting for the verdict of the courts. It has never apologized for showcasing innocent individuals as terrorists. I, personally was told of an instance in the town of Bhatkal in Karnataka. A man was picked up by a Special Task Force for having links to bomb blasts in Pune and links to SIMI. My friends from Bhatkal knew the man, and told me that he was not as mentally or physically able to be declared a terrorist mastermind. He was beaten and tortured by the police, only to be later acquitted using a wedding clip wherein for a fraction of a second he can be seen in the background – hence demolishing the claims of the investigating agencies. This story is no different than that of the co-accused of Afzal Guru. Afsan was meted out a sentence of 10 years rigorous imprisonment. She was later acquitted by the High Court. Shaukat Hussain, who was also awarded the death penalty, was too let go. His sentence was commuted to ten years of rigorous imprisonment. He would be released a few months before completing his verdict owing to good conduct.

Death-PenaltyThe Supreme court maintained in its essence that it was awarding Afzal Guru the death penalty on the basis of mob-justice. No seriously that’s what the judgment stated. It called for making his life extinct for he was a surrendered militant and he shouldn’t have taken part in such heinous activities. It stated that the evidence against him was circumstantial and that the whole nation was calling out for justice for an attack on what was in all its right an attack on the holiest institutions of the Indian state. Needless to add the holiness and purity of that institution is hotly contested.

A few months before this incident, another terrorist, was hanged for waging war against the Indian State. For all we know, Ajmal Kasab did deserve the death penalty. That’s where even some individuals who see death penalty as a political tool face a dilemma. This is perhaps because the 2008 Mumbai attacks were so horrid and unimaginable in their ferociousness. Perhaps they are even incomparable to any other terrorist attack in India’s history. But again what does pain me, and should pain all of us, is the public mood. What should pain us is that conscience of the public that led the Supreme Court to hang Afzal Guru. Are we a modern state? Are we a modern people? Are we moving towards modernity and enlightenment or backwardness and barbarism?

Whenever, I see people demanding death for any crime, without a delay, portraits and paintings of the masses watching joyously the guillotine of the French Monarch and his wife and various other noblemen during the French Revolution pop up in front of my eyes. Is that what we are? Savages?

I won’t regret saying that if there were public hangings in India, the media shamelessly will televise it, and people will enjoy it. They might even allow their kids to watch it. If thats the barbarism we are moving towards, then we ought to be scared. The day the voices of these individuals and groups demanding death for anyone who so much as lifts a finger against India starts holding sway, we could very much have a police state. We already have a sham for freedom of expression. Soon, we could see it vanishing altogether. The right wing cannot be allowed that power. These are the same people demanding death for Arundati Roy, Binayak Sen and even Irom Sharmila. They see everyone who criticizes India as monsters. Anyone who tries to talk for the rights of the oppressed is seen as a terrorist. Lets just put this example in perspective of where right wing nationalism has brought us. On February 11th 1984, when Maqbool Bhatt was hanged in Tihar Jail, Kashmiris hardly cared. He was a member of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front. The Kashmir insurgency had not yet fully blown out of proportions. Sheikh Abdullah had passed away and people were looking up his son Farooq Abdullah as the next leader of Kashmir. But, Indira Gandhi’s rightist policies (after all she introduced India to Hindutva) coupled with right wing nationalism always hell bent on viewing Kashmiris as separatists, made Kashmiris turn to more violent means to get their voices heard. The results of that rise in right wing nationalism is today in front of us for Kashmir still burns. In fact such is the condition of Kashmir now, that the Indian government enforced a curfew of Kashmir. It usually used to be the Hurriyat Conference or some other political movement calling the shots when it came to shutdowns. How ironic it can get, that today Kashmir has distanced itself so much from mainstream Indian ideologues, that the Indian state has to enforce shutdowns to prevent protests in support of a terrorist who was hanged for attacking the Indian parliament. Kashmiris hold sympathies with Afzal Guru for many reasons. Perhaps the most important is that his story is same as that of any other surrendered militants in the Kashmir valley. They are tortured endlessly in the most brutal of ways that might put even the stories of Guantanamo to shame (Just to be clear the torture chambers still remain). Their family members are used as ransom. You are forced to think – maybe putting down the gun was a far worse option than picking it up.

It’s also not wrong to state that the Government is doing its math. It doesn’t take a wise man to notice that the UPA-II is a very unpopular government. With Modi celebrating his victory in Gujarat, and Rajnath Singh yelling “All aboard the Ramjanmabhoomi express”, India is again facing a rise of Hindutva – though to what degree we will only know in the next Lok Sabha polls. Afzal Guru and Ajmal Kasab were hence hanged to quench the thirst of scores of patriots and nationalists. A few voting for Congress would surely be great, Won’t it? Hence, Yes these two death penalties were a politically motivated act. Whether it was the Congress doing its maths or Pranab Mukherjee trying to leave a mark on Indian history (being in a somewhat uneventful office of the President, thats all he can do), thats a whole different debate. I, simply fail t understand, why killers of a former Prime Minister and a former Chief Minister are still not hanged? Weren’t those crimes as heinous as those of Kasab and Guru, or are we now using some scale to measure how evil is a crime? The BJP’s double standards are easily put to the forefront. It’s happy seeing Muslims hang, but will not see a Sikh hang because their ally will take offence. They will not accept that Hindus have participated in terror-related acts.

But this is where it gets tricky for the liberals and secularists. I will add atheists, agnostics and humanists to that same definition. Recently, there has been debate in atheist circles of addressing Islamophobia and promoting inter faith dialogue. (see here and here) While the articles discuss Islamophobia in U.S.A. , We have to understand that the situation in India is way worse. For all of the prejudice that freethinkers might have against Islam, we can say India with its lack of freedom of expression, is perhaps not the right place to have critical analysis of any religion. Hence Islam or Hinduism, they are all the same for us liberals. But to sit aside and watch the endless promotion of stereotypes is not healthy for a nation. As Christopher Hitchens once mentioned in his article on India in 1997, that as India modernises, there is a need amongst millions to get a new identity(He was referring to the Jihad Vs. McWorld view presented by Benjamin Barber) That identity today is being provided by right wing Hindu groups like the RSS, VHP and Bajrang Dal (to name a few). “Pehle Kasai, Phir Isai” (First Muslims, Then Christians) is the famous war cry of Hindu mobs during riots (or so it has been reported many a times). I would go one step ahead and add “Phir Sikh, Phir Buddhists, Phir Jains, Phir Yuhidi, Phir Naastik” (Then Sikhs, Then Buddhists, Then Jains, Then Jews, Then Atheists). That list can go on forever. I can support those views on why Hindus have been anti-Jain, anti-Buddhist and anti-Sikh in the past (you could read Al Biruni’s tenth century book on India’s history and a study of its religions – Tarikh Al-Hind and look at various facts associated with the 1984 Sikh Program). You would only conclude that the right wing fascist juggernaut will never rest!

In fact it wouldn’t be wrong to say that in the end it will be various Hindu akharas and Hindu sects fighting amongst one another for dominance for after all Hinduism is hardly a religion, and it too reels from the same ills of Islam or Christianity – its sects (only here each sect has its own god and its not just a difference of methods to attain heaven)

Hence those who keep a rational approach should now agree to resist Islamophobia (and in general fear and stereotypes of any religion). We should thrive to promote critical thinking, but make sure we don’t end up unknowingly allying with forces that would prove disastrous to us too. In short we have to first support the cause of humanity. We have to resist this Islamophobic media. We have to resist the barbarism that our society reels from. We have to resist right wing nationalism of all sorts. We have to promote knowledge, even if that knowledge is suppressed. Patriotism is an over rated feeling in today’s globalised world. Nationalism goes one step ahead of that. Without falling for it, and in turn ourselves crossing that line over to the right, we have to let people know what really happened in the case of Afzal Guru and how he was not the Godzilla that the media has portrayed him as, but in fact a small puny little toothless hound who was escapegoated so that the bloodlust of a billion people could be quenched.