Arundhati Roy’s OPED piece on December 23 (Who killed Reality TV?) evoked my curiosity and admiration. The death sentence on Mohammad Afzal Guru has also been a sentence on our frivolous societal behaviour. We have been deluged by floods of reportage, comments, display of anger, hatred and compassion in the media.
The judicial process has been politicised, communalised, lionised, demonised and defied. While the constitutional right to expression is well reflected in such wide varieties of reactions, we tend to forget that by communalising, politicising and passing witch-court verdicts on a person condemned to death by the Apex Court, we exhibit the worst kind of animal psyche we suffer from.
Sentencing Afzal is not the same as a medieval burning at stake. It is a complicated legal process involving criminal jurisprudence, legal hair-splitting, and constitutional sanctity. The legal and the constitutional processes have not yet been exhausted. The Apex Court is yet to deliberate on the curative petition and the President is yet to put his seal on the mercy petition. Yet, we are baying for his blood. Whose thirst will be quenched by the blood of an alleged offender — that of a disaffected Kashmiri, a disgruntled Naxal, a desperate Tripura tribal or a starving peasant in Vidharba?
Certain institutions like the higher judiciary, the media and civil protests still uphold the values of our democracy otherwise paralysed by a communalised, sectionalised and criminalised political system.
The legal process of sentencing Afzal has often been overshadowed by public outrage. However, displays of ‘electronic patriotism’, through the Internet or SMS, often expressed in slaughter-house lingo, is no patriotism at all. Spot SMS polls on news channels may make sense in telemarketing circles, but sentencing Afzal is not about telemarketing.
Even if it is accepted that the trial of Afzal has been fair at every stage of the legal process — which is contested by many like Arundhati Roy — we have to take into account that the higher judiciary has, of late, carried out spectacular revisions of judgments (Priyadarshini Mattoo and Jessica Lall cases). What is the harm if Afzal gets a fresh chance to exhaust all avenues before he walks up to the gallows?
Why should the sentencing of Afzal be treated as a political issue? One spectrum of political view seems to be defensive and shy, while the other is itching to set the lynch mob on him. Has Afzal become a pawn on a political chessboard to be shifted around?
The politicians had created a symbol of Sikh resistance between 1975 and 1980. They demolished it by using excessive force in 1984 and invited a decade-long turmoil which was exploited by Pakistan. In the case of the hanging of Maqbool Butt in 1984, the government had ignored certain ground realities. Maqbool was sentenced to death in 1976. Why did the government wait for years to hang him in 1984?
Jarnail Singh and Maqbool had emerged as symbols of resistance movements in Punjab and Kashmir. Pakistan, with the assistance of the Royal Saudi Intelligence and the CIA, was emerging as the vanguard of Islamic jehad in Afghanistan. It was preparing to step into the troubled waters of Punjab and the process of igniting bushfire in Kashmir had begun. Political compulsions of the ruling party in Punjab, Kashmir and the rest of India had prompted them to ignore the geostrategic realities of Pakistan working on a blueprint of diverting the Afghan victory to its traditional ‘war field’, India.
If Jarnail Singh’s elimination had intensified the Sikh imbroglio. Maqbool Butt’s hanging in 1984 also cemented the will of the disaffected political groups in Kashmir to join hands with Pakistan. I had the opportunity to interact with Maqbool in a Tihar cell and found him a man completely disillusioned with Pakistan’s intentions in Kashmir. Could we not have used that disaffection towards Pakistan to the advantage of the Kashmiri people? Instead, General Zia ul-Haq simply took advantage of our gladiators-in-the-amphitheatre-style approach towards national security.
From my grassroots experience as an intelligence operator, I have always felt that New Delhi had not chosen the correct time to storm the Golden Temple or hang Maqbool Butt. Both incidents brought disastrous consequences to the country.
It is hoped that the political class in India would like to look at the past and move forward more tactfully. Kashmir is in the middle of a new ferment. The people of Kashmir are disillusioned with Pakistan. Even the people of Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir and the Northern Areas (Balawaristan) have started agitating against Islamabad’s stranglehold and total absence of democratic rights. Should we stop the new ferment by hanging a man who is yet to use his democratic rights by Indian laws and Constitution right now?
I agree with Arundhati Roy that some of the news shown on television is absurd. I also endorse Barkha Dutt’s views that some of these shows are educative and well researched. However, some of the anchors with whom I have shared the studio lights were not interested in knowledge, research and relevance. On one occasion, the anchor, on a hook-up with a Mumbai-based reporter, dished out sensational information about Groupe Islamique Arme (GIA) of Algeria having entered India. I continued to protest that individual GIA members may have links with the Al-Qaeda but they had not shown up in India. The anchor blocked me out and continued disseminating unresearched intelligence gossip.
On another occasion, another channel ‘brought in’ Al-Qaeda into heartland India. My protests that Al-Qaeda had pitched camps in tribal areas bordering PoK and North and South Waziristan and that the ISI was bargaining with them to shift tent to Indian Kashmir went unheard. Such uneducated dissemination of information generates panic, confusion and hatred towards a particular community. The news channels are otherwise doing a fine job. But while treading complicated national security issues, they are need to observe more restraint.
Maloy Krishna Dhar is a former Joint Director of the Intelligence Bureau and author of Open Secrets: India’s Intelligence Unveiled.
(With Malice Towards One And All by Khushwant Singh will return next week)