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

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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.

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