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Stick to the core values

Afzal Guru should not be executed. But if the Congress tries to exploit this case electorally, it might end up damaging the party in J&K and at the Centre. David Devadas writes.

india Updated: Dec 02, 2012 22:35 IST

Afzal Guru, who has been convicted for the December 13, 2001, attack on Parliament House, should not be hanged for at least five reasons - and these are quite apart from such moot questions as the efficacy of capital punishment. The most obvious reason he should not be hanged is that he was not present at the site of the crime during the attack, and there is no clinching evidence that he planned it. Particularly after the commutation of the death sentences of Kishori Lal, who burnt to death many Sikhs in Trilokpuri in 1984, and Dara Singh, who burnt to death missionary Graham Staines and his two children in Orissa, one could argue that Guru's is not among those rarest of rare cases for which the Indian law requires capital punishment.

The second reason is the distressing set of questions raised by Guru's testimony that counter-insurgency operatives in Kashmir sent him to Delhi before the attack on Parliament House. A deep, dark cloud of suspicion hangs over a very large number of 'encounters', arson and other insurgency-related events in Kashmir over the past couple of decades. Given this experience, it is easy for Kashmiris to believe that Guru was set up by counter-insurgency operatives colluding with intelligence strategists. It is, therefore, imperative that the air be cleared, at least over this most heinous attack, if not over all those other incidents. This is one of the most vital of the 'confidence building measures' of which one hears much talk. Guru's death might instead ensure that the air is never cleared.

The third reason stems from the second, but relates to law and order in the near term and national security in the longer term. Public anger in Kashmir over the hanging of Guru could be intense. Furious stone-pelting demonstrations were sparked in the summer of 2010 by a series of incidents in which the forces of the state were perceived to have murdered innocent citizens. These included the murder at Machil of three unemployed youths, who were described as militants, and the killing of the teenaged Wamiq Farooq in an enclave across the Dal Lake from Srinagar. Guru's execution might spark similar, uncontrollable rage in Kashmir.

The fourth reason why Guru should not be hanged has to do with the realpolitik of governing India. A country so vast and complex must painstakingly build consensus. It must seek to accommodate alienated citizens, not crush them with the mailed fist of a security apparatus. An attack on Parliament House should cause soul-searching about possible functional lacunae in the praxis of democracy rather than a circling of the wagons. The US has paid a heavy price for the neo-conservative-led response to the 9/11 attacks (which occurred just a couple of months before the Parliament attack). It lionised the Taliban among many Muslims across the world, when it could have further isolated them.

The fifth reason is political, but is intertwined with the fourth. Those who steer India's destiny must stand firm in the face of conservative, xenophobic demands. The Congress, which leads the coalition at the Centre and is part of the coalition that rules Jammu and Kashmir, can only do itself damage by resorting to the politics of appeasement. Even if this damage is not immediate, it would certainly corrode the party in the long term. It is easy to forget how dismally the Congress performed in 1989, after it sought to win Muslim and Hindu support respectively through politically loaded moves. It sought Muslim support by appeasing conservatives who wanted the Supreme Court's judgment on the Shah Bano case (maintenance for an indigent Muslim divorcee) reversed. Then, the party's managers sought Hindu support by unlocking the doors of the Babri mosque for public worship of the Ram Lalla idol there. Both moves backfired: the Shah Bano case discredited the Congress among middle class Hindus; and Muslims recoiled at the unlocking of the mosque door. The Congress was reduced to less than 200 Lok Sabha seats, and seemed headed for much worse in 1991 before Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated. Analysts had begun to write the party's obituary.

The Congress can only grow by remaining true to its core values - harmonising the aspirations of the various peoples of India. Trying to compete with exclusivist politics of any sort can only hurt it. The Congress took a courageous decision not to play pro-Valley or pro-Jammu politics when the transfer of land to the Amarnath shrine board in 2008 led to agitations in both provinces. The party paid a price - it lost seats in the Jammu province to the BJP in the 2008 state assembly elections - but it has gained respect and support in the long term. The Congress should fare well in the next assembly elections unless the state gets polarised (Jammu vs Kashmir, Hindu vs Muslim, anti-terrorism vs human rights) again. If, however, party strategists weigh the pros and cons of Guru's execution in terms of possible electoral gains or losses, they might end up damaging their party, in the state and at the Centre in the long term.

David Devadas is the author of In Search of a Future: The Story of Kashmir

The views expressed by the author are personal