Bringing the Parliament attack convict to justice should have been a victory for the government. But Afzal Guru's secret and hasty execution will go down as a political move. “I was not expecting this to happen,” says Amarjit Singh Dulat, former chief of Research & Analysis Wing and an expert on Kashmir. “It was done in haste and was purely a political decision, which shows disregard for the ground situation in Kashmir.”
The decision was not an easy one to make. Afzal's mercy petition, filed by his wife in October 2006, had been shuttling between Rashtrapati Bhavan, the home ministry and Delhi government for over six years. Presidents A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and Pratibha Patil were not in favour of death penalty. When Pranab Mukherjee took over, he returned Afzal's mercy petition to the home ministry for consideration on November 16, 2012. Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde returned it to the President on January 23, who rejected the petition on February 3, paving the way for the execution on February 9.
Home minister Shinde is seen as the man who walks the talk. The decision to hang Afzal, shortly after the execution of Ajmal Kasab in November last year, was comparatively a tough one. Kasab was a Pakistani and his guilt was established beyond all doubt. But Afzal was an Indian and was not directly involved in the Parliament attack. Even the Supreme Court found that he was implicated not by direct evidence, but by a clutch of circumstances. Afzal had no lawyer to assist him when he made a televised confession in handcuffs. He later said he was forced to read out the script given to him by his interrogators.
Supreme Court lawyer Kamini Jaiswal, who represented Afzal, believes he did not get a fair trial. “There was a matter that was pending before the Supreme Court saying that a delay in disposal of mercy petition can be a ground for remission,” she said. “Legally, no execution should take place till the case is decided.”
The execution may not give the Congress an edge over the BJP in garnering Hindu votes, but it would definitely bolster the party's defence ahead of the 2014 polls, said a senior Congress leader. The BJP's growing onslaught over Afzal, particularly Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi's offensive, had pressed the need for the decision. Apparently, the Congress's calculation is that it would not lose any minority vote on this count as no Muslim would ever sympathise with Afzal. There could be sympathies for him in Kashmir, but the reality is that the state is hardly significant for the Congress when it comes to the national scene.
But the government may have to take steps to pacify Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, who has criticised the handling of the execution. “The government should implement as speedily as possible a large number of recommendations contained in the reports of the Prime Minister's five working groups and in the report of the group of J&K interlocutor,” said journalist Dileep Padgaonkar. “We need to now move forward. We need to strengthen the peace process in Kashmir.”
With the execution, the BJP, which accused the Congress of playing vote bank politics over Afzal, has lost a vital weapon. However, it is not willing to admit that. “Corruption was and will always be the most potent ammunition against the Congress, and we expect many more scams to keep surfacing,” said BJP spokesperson Rajiv Pratap Rudy. “This execution was something they had to do under pressure from the public, including us in the BJP.”
With Afzal dead, questions over his body remain. Minister of State for Home R.P.N. Singh defended the government's decision not to hand over Afzal's body to his family saying, “I know it is painful for the family. But there were genuine security concerns.” He said that in 1984 when Kashmiri separatist leader Maqbool Butt was hanged he, too, was buried inside Tihar jail because of security issues.
Denying Butt's family his body, immortalised him. He became a martyr in Kashmir, and his hanging subsequently inspired an entire generation against India. Despite the curfew, a grave, complete with a headstone, has been prepared for Afzal in the martyrs' graveyard in Srinagar. The call for azaadi is rising again in Kashmir.
with Vijaya Pushkarna
By Vijaya Pushkarna
Some sections in Punjab are apprehensive whether Balwant Singh Rajoana will meet Afzal Guru's fate soon. Rajoana, an activist of the Babbar Khalsa International, was the standby human bomb for Dilawar Singh who blew up himself and chief minister Beant Singh in 1995.
Rajoana was slated to be executed on March 31 last year, but the Union government stayed it after Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Badal dashed to Delhi, and called on President Pratibha Patil, seeking clemency for him.
The Badals said that his execution could result in the revival of militancy in Punjab. All political parties barring the BJP supported this move.
Union Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde pointed out that Afzal Guru's case was different from those of Rajoana and Rajiv Gandhi's assassins Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan. “After the rejection of mercy petitions, cases were filed in the Madras High Court [on behalf of the Rajiv assassins] and the Supreme Court [on behalf of Rajoana]. These cases are still under consideration before the judiciary. Hence Afzal Guru's execution was different,” he said.
The mercy plea of Prof. Devinder Singh Bhullar, who was convicted for the death of nine people in his bid to assassinate Congress leader Maninderjit Singh Bitta, was rejected in May 2011. His family then moved the apex court pleading that the death sentence be commuted as he was not mentally sound. This petition, too, is pending before the Supreme Court.
The Badals are now silent about the Rajoana issue. This silence is said to be part of Akali Dal's strategy "to win elections in Punjab with broad-based Hindu support as well,” said a senior Akali leader. However, it is unlikely that the BJP, which had been pressing for Guru's execution, will say that Rajoana be spared.