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Straining justice quality

A needless debate has started on the proposed hanging of Mohammad Afzal, an accused in the Parliament attack case, writes Pankaj Vohra.

india Updated: Oct 09, 2006 06:27 IST

A needless debate has started on the proposed hanging of Mohammad Afzal ‘Guru’, an accused in the Parliament attack case. Virtually, all political parties in J&K and some civil liberty groups have appealed for the grant of clemency. They argue that his side of the story was not heard and that he was not directly linked to the execution of the crime. Therefore, it would be unfair to hang him. He should instead be sentenced to life and the State could use this period to try and reform him.

This demand, however, fails to stand up to reason. Afzal was part of the conspiracy to storm Parliament on December 13, 2001, and this amounted to waging a war against the State. Had the designs of the terrorists who entered Parliament succeeded, a large number of our elected leaders may have lost their lives. The targeting of Parliament itself was an indication that the militants had been emboldened by their earlier successes and wanted to hit out at the very temple of our democracy. The apex court has ruled that hanging should be ordered in the rarest of the rare cases. And no case fits this description better than the attack on Parliament.

Granting clemency to Afzal would indicate that India is a soft State incapable of dealing with its enemies. This may sound harsh, especially since more and more people are beginning to believe that capital punishment should be banned. But waiving of the death penalty in this case will not be in the national interest. A clear message needs to be sent out that attacks against the State will not be tolerated. Realising this, Indira Gandhi had decided against showing any leniency to Maqbool Butt, who had hijacked an Indian Airlines aircraft in the early Seventies. Butt was executed in 1984 to drive home the point that no one messes with the Indian State.

The clemency demand by political groups in J&K is not free from internal politics and the game of one-upmanship. Ghulam Nabi Azad is in no position to oppose this demand since the issue is being hawked as one involving Kashmiri sentiments, which could considerably ease tensions. Yet, how the approval of Afzal’s mercy plea could improve the situation in Kashmir is beyond comprehension.

Some groups supporting Afzal also say that it will help strengthen our secular fabric. But, in fact, it would do incalculable damage to our secular beliefs. This issue must be seen as a crime against the State and not from the perspective of whether the accused is a Hindu or a Muslim, a Kashmiri or a Khalistani and so on. And a person who acts against the State must pay. In Britain, Guy Fawkes, who was caught in the attempt to blow up their Parliament, paid the price with death. And every year, Guy Fawkes Day is observed to mark his arrest and execution.

If Afzal is granted a reprieve, how will justice be done to the families of those who lost their lives defending the State and Parliament on that fateful day. While the media carries reports about the movement for the grant of clemency to Afzal daily, there is no mention of the families of those who died in service to the nation in Parliament and in other places of the country. In future, would such a reprieve not encourage security forces to use the instrument of fake encounters to rid the nation of terrorists? And why should the State pay for Afzal’s upkeep in jail when he has acted against it?

However, hanging Afzal on October 20 would be a mistake. This is the eve of Diwali. The date is also politically incorrect as it happens to be a Friday and falls in the month of Ramazan. This fact is bound to be exploited by militants in the Valley. The Centre must find out why the Delhi government recommended this date when the hanging could have taken place on a weekend after the month of Ramazan. The PM must himself look into this. A fresh date, therefore, must be fixed and communicated only a week earlier even though security forces would want him to hang on that day since it is also the eve of the martyr’s day observed all over India.

Ironically, while there is a demand for granting clemency to Afzal, there is also pressure on our criminal justice system to execute the killers of Jessica Lall, Priyadarshini Mattoo and Nitish Katara. Where is the justification in demanding the execution of the accused in these cases, which were against individuals, and allowing the accused in a crime against the State to get a reprieve?

There cannot be two yardsticks of justice and the judiciary is competent to decide who deserves what punishment. In Afzal’s case, the matter was heard right till the apex court and all aspects concerning his involvement were argued. There is no guarantee that he will reform in jail. And how do we know that later, some terrorist group will not hold people to ransom to demand his release. We all know what happened in the cases of Maulana Masood Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed Omar Saeed and Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar, who were released in exchange of hijacked passengers in Kandahar.

Their groups actively participated in the planning of the 9/11 attacks and in the Parliament attack. The BJP, which was in power at that time, lost its moral right to speak on the issue by releasing the terrorists, though subsequently it has been making some noises to oppose clemency for Afzal.

The argument that Afzal should be shown mercy as he did not pull the trigger is fallacious. While James Wilkes Booth may have pulled the trigger on Abraham Lincoln, there were others tried for the same charge since they were a part of the larger conspiracy. Kehar Singh, who was executed for killing Indira Gandhi, had not pulled the trigger either.

There is a tradition of forgiveness in this country but it has been often proved that this may not be the best policy. Prithviraj Chauhan defeated Mohammad Gauri a dozen times and forgave him each time. But after the one battle that Gauri won, he ordered Prithviraj’s blinding. Forgiveness does not always pay. And India should not show itself up as a soft State by granting reprieve to those who endanger its sovereignty. The fear that Afzal will become a martyr for Kashmiris is unfounded. This is an insult to the patriotism and nationalism of law-abiding Kashmiris. Afzal must be hanged if India has to survive. Between us.