'I never sought clemency for Afzal'

However, the J&K CM says he believes that life sentence is more brutal than death penalty, reports Saroj Nagi.

india Updated: Oct 31, 2006 16:26 IST
Saroj Nagi

In his first public comment on the issue, Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad on Tuesday claimed he did not seek clemency for terrorist Afzal Guru.

But he confessed he did not contradict these reports because it helped him check the agitation in his state against capital punishment for the man who had masterminded the attack on Parliament House.

"I did not contradict it because, firstly, I had never said such a thing and secondly, when a statement attributed to me, rightly or wrongly, puts a lid on the agitation there is no harm in remaining silent. After all, silence is golden at times," he said, after releasing Chairman and ITDC Managing Director Pervez Dewan's book on Jammu published by Manas Publications.

"I do not run a 24-hour news channel that I should keep on making comments every now and then. I have a government to run," he shot back to a query.

In the same breath, the CM added that he "personally" believed that life imprisonment was a more rigorous punishment than death sentence because in the former the person "dies slowly, inch by inch".

He also clarified that those advocating clemency were only seeking to convert Afzal's death sentence into life imprisonment.

Azad did not elaborate, but the confusion over his reported plea to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for clemency for Afzal helped him take the sting out of the agitation.

The date fixed for Afzal's execution—October 20, the last Friday of the holy month of Ramzan—could have sparked off a major agitation in the Valley, the consequences of which would have been felt not just in India but across the globe, with the agitationists perhaps using the occasion to stoke anti-US sentiments.

For those out to exploit the hanging and showcase Afzal as a martyr, the day suited them, with huge congregations in mosques across the world their captive audience.

The CM's camp is convinced that had the situation not been contained there would have been terrorist incidents across India in the run up to the hanging.

Politically, the confusion over his remarks helped Azad change the Congress' profile in the Valley and alter the perception that the party was not in tune with local sentiments.

His Cabinet colleague Mangat Ram Sharma's statement that Afzal should be punished for his crime also helped the local Congress unit prevent the BJP from exploiting the issue in the Jammu region. Sharma reportedly issued the statement after consulting the CM.

Reluctant at first to respond to the Afzal issue, the CM, who completes one year in office on November 2, ended his interaction after taking a couple of questions on the Afzal issue and a dig at the media for not seeking a clarification from him over his reported call for clemency.

When Azad's plea for clemency was first reported, the Congress' central leadership had distanced itself from it, stating that it was "neither endorsing nor rejecting" the viewpoint which reflected the CM's personal views and the popular sentiment in the Valley.

Asked if there were differences between him and the central leadership on the Afzal issue, Azad retorted: "Where does the question of difference of opinion arise when my views have not even been sought by the media so far."

He said that though every report quoted him favouring clemency, not one reporter had contacted him. A local newspaper had attributed his "so-called quote" to "sources close to the CM".

The reports came in the backdrop of his conversation with the Prime Minister at the Congress Chief Ministers' conclave in Nainital in September when the latter had asked him about the situation in the state.

The CM said he informed the PM of the two agitations going on in J&K—one for an increase in the number of haj pilgrims from J&K and the other against Afzal's death sentence.

He wrapped up the press interaction saying that he would now like to close the chapter on the Afzal issue.

First Published: Oct 31, 2006 13:10 IST