The government took longer to hang Afzal Guru than it did Ajmal Kasab, but ultimately, the ends of justice have been met in both cases. So have been the ends of politics. It will be pointless to see these executions in isolation, like those of ordinary murderers. Since terrorism and insurgency are essentially political acts, their impact on the national political scene is obvious.
Where Kasab was concerned, the implications of his hanging were simpler since he was a foreigner. As such, his death was not expected to create any law and order problems. Guru’s case was different. Although he carried out acts of terrorism similar to those of Kasab at the behest of the same inimical foreign power, he was an Indian citizen.
Guru’s trial, sentencing, mercy petition and execution could not but have a political fallout. The government, therefore, had to move with far greater caution than it did in Kasab’s case.
The government’s difficulties were compounded by the fact that there are organisations such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and political parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which are known for their anti-Muslim worldview. Not surprisingly, they were trying to score political points by interpreting any delay in the execution as pusillanimity on the government’s past for fear of antagonising Muslims.
Former BJP president Nitin Gadkari even taunted the government saying it was treating Guru as a “son-in-law”.
Then, there were others on the opposite side like former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and his daughter, People’s Democratic Party leader Mehbooba Mufti, who favoured a stay on the execution. There were also gadflies like Booker prize winner Arundhati Roy who wanted a stay.
The fact that curfew has been imposed in Kashmir underlines the Indian government’s uneasiness about how the state will react to Guru’s hanging. That the state’s legislative assembly once considered calling for abrogation of the sentence is noteworthy in this context.
It is patent enough that politics played a part in the decade-long delay in carrying out the sentence handed down by the Supreme Court in 2002. If the BJP spent its time accusing the government of Muslim appeasement, the government was unsure of the timing of the execution.
It goes without saying, however, that the government was being over-cautious. Any fear that Muslims would resent the hanging despite the belief in some quarters, including lawyers, that Guru did not get a fair trial, was unfounded. The reason is that it has long been evident that terrorism does not enjoy any support among the vast masses of Muslims in India.
Even in Kashmir, it is only a few small groups who are anti-Indian. There are, of course, political elements in Kashmir who make a political career out of criticising India. But, their influence is limited, as elections in the state have shown.
The government, therefore, need not have taken such a long time to hang Guru, not least because he was part of an operation to eliminate the country’s political leadership. It is worth remembering that the attack on parliament in 2001 brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war.
The execution could have taken place in 2006 when the sentence was scheduled to be carried out. But the government developed cold feet after then Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad sought a postponement.
Now that the deed has been done, it is worth considering the lessons from the case. The first one is that it is pointless delaying the inevitable. Once the Supreme Court has given its verdict, it should be carried out within a few years. True, the paraphernalia of mercy petitions cannot be ignored, however heinous the offence. But, once the clemency pleas are considered and rejected, as in this case, no time should be lost in sending the prisoner to the gallows.
Otherwise, the accusation will stick that the government has been guided by political considerations. Since it is a charge which cannot be avoided whether the court order is promptly followed or not, there is no point in wasting time, especially by a government which is often accused of not knowing its mind.
In this particular case, after taking a decade to take a decision, the government is still likely to face the charge that the hanging is a political ploy to deprive its opponents a propaganda plank in the run-up to the state elections this year and the general election in 2014. It has even been suggested that the government may bring the general election forward to this year.
Since political motives are seen in both the prolonged delay and in the present decision, the futility of procrastination is obvious.
Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst.