Afzal Guru’s Hanging Sparks Death Penalty Debate
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Afzal Guru’s Hanging Sparks Death Penalty Debate


The hanging of Afzal Guru, who was convicted for the 2001 attack on the Indian parliament, has raised many unpalatable questions.

Was it vengeance or justice? Was it a surrender to “the collective conscience of the nation” or a failure to honor the human rights of a man who was punished for dissent, despite the insistence by many that he was not involved in the crimes for which he was accused?

In the bigger picture, Guru’s hanging has also sparked debate about the use of the death penalty to satisfy public anger, while ignoring the root causes of anger and dissent.

On February 9, the uncertainty surrounding Guru’s fate ended with the sudden announcement that he had been executed by hanging in New Delhi’s high-security Tihar Jail. For almost seven years, a mercy petition filed by Guru’s wife had been pending. However, Indian President Pranab Mukherjee finally rejected the petition on February 3.

According to Amnesty International, Guru’s hanging represents India’s second execution in the past three months. Ajmal Kasab, the main accused in the 26/11 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, was hanged last November.

Some analysts believe that the government aims to send a strong message of zero tolerance for terrorism. But is death really a deterrent to terrorism? And more specifically, will Guru’s execution deter dissent in the Kashmir valley?

Since the Supreme Court of India sentenced Guru to death in 2005, doubts have been raised about the merits of the case against him. Both the evidence and the process used to convict him were questioned.

The apex court found Guru guilty on the basis of circumstantial evidence. In an article in the Hindu titled “Unanswered Questions are the Remains of the Day” Anjali Mody wrote: “Anyone conversant with how this case was prosecuted will admit that where Mohammed Afzal was concerned there was a presumption of guilt. He had nothing that amounted to legal representation”.
In the court’s verdict, one paragraph stated: "The incident, which resulted in heavy casualties, had shaken the entire nation, and the collective conscience of society will only be satisfied if capital punishment is awarded to the offender. The challenge to the unity, integrity and sovereignty of India by these acts of terrorists and conspirators can only be compensated by giving maximum punishment to the person who is proved to be the conspirator in this treacherous act" (Emphasis added by writer and social activist Arundhati Roy in an article published in Outlook Magazine in 2006).

In the same article, Roy wrote: “To invoke the 'collective conscience of society' to validate ritual murder, which is what the death penalty is, skates precariously close to valorising lynch law.”

Taking note of the two executions in quick succession, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has urged the Indian government to “end this distressing use of executions as a way to satisfy some public opinion.”

Political analysts view these executions as an attempt by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government to change the image that it is soft on terror. They also argue that if the government had commuted Guru’s death sentence to life imprisonment, the Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) could have gained a chance to polarize the situation just one year away from general elections.

But this political one-upmanship is harming the cause of peace in Jammu and Kashmir and chokes the liberal voice in the valley. There is strong sentiment in the state that justice has not been done in the case of Guru, who has become a scapegoat. In this atmosphere of anger, fringe elements have a greater chance to influence the youth of the region.

Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Omar Abdullah, echoed the sentiment in an interview with NDTV when he said that “the long term implications of Afzal Guru’s execution are worrying as they are linked to the people of Kashmir, especially the younger generation. Like it or not, the execution has reinforced the point that there is no justice. We will have to deal with how we can change that sort of alienation.”

Even more worrying is the alienation of liberal voices from popular political discourse in the country. According to political analyst Professor Badri Raina, crying for the death penalty means deviating from the Gandhian philosophy of nonviolence, which he called a “gruesome contradiction”.

The death of Afzal Guru leaves us with many questions which India must address if it wants to continue evolving as a vibrant and robust nation.

February 18, 2013 at 18:44

Eelam Tamils had first hand experience of the IPKF human rights abuses and the IPKF was in Eelam for peacekeeping. Why do you want to illegally occupy another nation and terrorize its people?  Noone can win another by violence and illegal occupation. India must allow independent international human rights investigators, NGOs in Kashmir and your propaganda as the Kashmiris as terrorirsts or their actions as terror won't work. Of course when innocent civilians are oppressed and discriminated, they are going to protest, show their anger in a democratic way and state terrorism is not the answer. By denying the family to meet Guru prior to the execution, India has exposed it's dark side and disrespect to democratic values to the world. Ariel, write sensibly and the ordinary people all over the world are civilized and knowledgeable to understand who terrorizes whom.

February 16, 2013 at 00:36

Afzal Guru was a freedom fighter for Indian occupied Kashmir freedom struggle, which has taken more than half million lives of Kashmiri freedom fighters since September 1947.Even though he was not involved in the attack,but still he was given death sentence. Hoping Indian government Stop lebeling Self determination as an act  of  Terrorism ..There are about eight freedom struggles going on in Indian  Held Provences since Independence of India.1947. Besides there is Maoist  insurgency going on in India by poor india peasent,and more than Two hundred District are under maoist insurgency.

February 14, 2013 at 12:30

Before espousing the cause of Tamils and Kashmiris, open your eyes to the atrocities perpetrated by Wahabi-indoctrinated radicals who eliminated Hindus and Pandits in Kashmir. Less said the better about LTTE. Just condemning a state's response to terror is utterly idiotic.

February 14, 2013 at 12:26

Why does Gandhian philosophy come to the forefront when an execution of a condemned prisoner is undertaken after following the due process of law? Guru was found guilty of waging war against the state by three courts after weighing the evidence led in the case.

Secondly, what is the alternative to eliminating terrorist who have killed with impunity? Are these radicals going to turn to the path of non-violence after having led a violent life? If they are incarcerated for life, the state risks hijacking of aircraft and taking of hostages (like in IC 184) and the state will be under pressure to release these violent lunatics. Hence following the principle of rarest of rare for awaring death penalty, physical elimination of terrorists is the only viable solution.

Himanshu Kumar
February 13, 2013 at 13:53

once a person has been cnvicted by the Hon"ble  appex court  and a mercy petition has also  been rejected by the President of India then one should not question about evidence/ground on which  conviction is based or the long term or short term  implication of execution of punishment. It is necessary to establish rule of law as wel as constitution of india.

bangalore shivashankaran manjunath.
February 12, 2013 at 23:42

The practice of taking life constitutionally leaves a very sad question, whether the citizens of India are qualified to practice principles of democracy. The intense quest to take a life for life is gaining not only popularity, but the spontaneousness is shocking. While animals are showing incidents of becoming humane, human beings are showing affinity towards beastality. Human mind capable of optimal exploitation of respect to life and its delicacies, is giving way to material coldness. Giving life to life is the search now. 

Nishant Bhamre
February 12, 2013 at 18:40

Its definitely an action of defiance from congress that they are a zero tolerance government. But the question is that "has the government echoed wrong doing, by washing there hands in midst of on going national movements and anger across the country". may afzal was a criminal or may be not, no government or political party is bigger than justice. Congress certainly has tried a gimmick, that has horribly gone wrong. Who knows if at the real mastermind is still walking across kashmir, planning to stab another one. Congress has just played down there final card.

February 12, 2013 at 17:36

Omar Abdullah's interview to the NDTV has spoken million words to the democratic world. The secret execution and burial, the denial of the family members to meet Guru and failed to fulfill democratic values highlighted the Indian regime's actions that are not democratic and inhuman. India is the worst human rights abuser in South East Asia, continue to terrorize the innocent Kashmiris and collaborated with the Sri Lankan regime that alleged to have committed genocide of the Eelam Tamils and continue to deny international independent human rights investigation. India cannot boast itself as the largest democracy anymore!

usha singh
February 12, 2013 at 11:20

Such people should be hanged immediatley…I am happy that atleast now the step was taken…we should come up with such steps to show our zero tolerance

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