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Warning: Handle with care

Is the death sentence commensurate with Afzal's level of involvement in the crime? asks Barkha Dutt.

india Updated: Nov 11, 2006 03:15 IST

If you have been following this debate in the media, it would seem there are only two views on Mohammed Afzal. He is either the brutal face of terrorism — the man who deserves death because he led the attack on India’s Parliament — or he is a wronged man — a victim of India’s opaque criminal system and the godchild of India’s oppressive Kashmir policy.

How about option three?

He is neither. And the truth, as always, lies somewhere in the middle.

Here’s my own position: there are several compelling reasons why Afzal should not be hanged. But these are legal and strategic arguments and not ideological and emotional ones. In the gladiatorial fight being played out between those baying for Afzal’s blood and those painting him as a pitiful prisoner, the actual debate seems to have been hijacked.

In many ways, it is the right demand being made for the wrong reasons.

Till the professional do-gooders got into the act (and possibly hurt Afzal’s chances of clemency), even the Kashmiri politicians lobbying for him never suggested that the man was innocent. Yes, investigating agencies often trump up evidence and coerce confessions out of people they want to nail. But remember, this is the same judicial trial that acquitted another man sentenced to death by a lower court, precisely because the charges against him were concocted rather than credible. Despite overwhelming public prejudice and anger, Professor SAR Geelani was able to walk free and return to a normal life as a teacher of Arabic because of Ram Jethmalani’s forceful intervention (we won’t comment here on his current misadventure). So, when clemency-seekers for Afzal now accuse the judiciary of playing to a vengeful public gallery, it seems like misplaced energy.

A more valid question may be to ask why Afzal was never able to get the benefit of a high-profile private lawyer. We only need to turn to Jethmalani’s latest antics in the Jessica Lall case (he’s even managed to create a brand new suspect) to know that a feisty defence can effectively blur the lines between innocence and guilt. So yes, to that extent, it has not been a level-playing field for Afzal.

But at the heart of the debate is a much bigger legal and philosophical question. Despite the rhetoric in some quarters, it’s obvious that Afzal is indeed guilty as charged — he sheltered the terrorists who attacked Parliament and provided them logistical support. Of course, he needs to be punished and punished hard.

But is the death sentence commensurate with his level of involvement in the crime? Or is he being asked to pay with his life because the terrorists who led the actual attack are dead, and the men who masterminded the assault are sitting in Pakistan (one of them released by the Indian State, after the IC-814 hijacking)?

Think about it: had one of the terrorists been caught alive or were Maulana Masood Azhar still on Indian territory, they would have been the ones on death row; Afzal would have been considered a secondary player in the case. He would have served time in prison for sure, but is unlikely to have been hanged. So, have we succumbed to our psychological need to see extreme punishment meted out for an extreme crime? It may be an entirely understandable emotional response, but is it either fair or smart? Especially when the stakes are so high?

A dangerous polarisation has been thrown up by the Afzal debate: Kashmir is speaking an entirely different language on the case from the rest of India. It is a rare political consensus for the Valley, and New Delhi would be unwise to ignore the counsel of men and women who have learnt how to read the dark shadows of violence. Yes, the 2002 elections ushered in a new age for Kashmir; yes, the tourists are back and the mobile phones have finally arrived; and yes, ordinary folk are tired of being trapped between the battle-lines. But it’s equally true that normalcy in the Valley has been trailed by an insidious, hidden stalker — religious radicalism.

Talk to young people in the Valley, and you may return scared just how embittered they are and how indoctrinated they seem. Make a visit to the small ‘martyrs’ graveyard’ in the centre of Srinagar: the tombstones are tributes to the fighters from Afghanistan, Sudan, even Birmingham. Islamic fundamentalism has grown long and deep roots in the Valley and is in danger of converting a political resistance into a religious movement.

The anger and hatred is simmering just under the surface. All it needs is a matchstick to ignite it. Hanging Afzal could make it erupt into flames. So, those who argue that his death sentence is important as a deterrent to future terrorists may want to pause and think: like it or not, the hanging would create a martyr out of a criminal, and in the long run, it may even give birth to more men who feel the gun is their only weapon against the world.

Yes, the attack on Parliament was an attack on the Indian State. But in smaller ways, there are such attacks every day, in every part of the country where security forces wrestle with insurgency and political resistance. In the past we have sat at the dialogue table with men from Kashmir’s largest indigenous militant group; in the North-east we never stop negotiating with the Ulfa or the NSCN. And the reason is obvious: no government can afford to not pursue peace; national interest would not permit that. Equally, no government can afford to be seen as soft on terror, especially not in the times we live in when we shiver before every flight and shudder at what may lie hidden in the crowded bazaars we once felt so at home in.

But it’s time to realise that our safety and security lies in peace that is durable, rather than in punishment that is visible.

So, yes, Mohammed Afzal must pay a price. But should it be life? If 14 years is not harsh enough, let’s redefine the terms of life imprisonment. But, let’s pause and think very, very hard before we press delete on his life. Unlike our computer keyboard, there will be no undo option, and the consequences may put much more than just him on the line.

Barkha Dutt is Managing Editor, NDTV 24x7

First Published: Nov 11, 2006 03:15 IST