Afzal Guru: India's test by fire

Indian Parliament

Image by Wee Kojak via Flickr

I have been thinking about this for a long time, and I have been wondering what would the right thing be. On one hand, we have an attack on the Parliament. On another, we have lack of conclusive evidence. It is crucial that the culprit must be punished. It is equally crucial that we don’t harm the country worse than the Parliament attack, which is how I have started seeing the calls for Afzal Guru’s hanging.

We have a constitution. We have a legal process. In the Parliament attack, we presented a case with the evidence we had. It was not conclusive. More important than individual emotions over the matter is the law of the country. I am not saying Afzal Guru is innocent. I honestly don’t know. What I am saying is that the way the evidence stands, it is not proven conclusively through legal process. There is a reason the legal process exists, and it is greater than any individual or group in the country. It is greater than you, me Afzal Guru, Kashmir, BJP, whoever. It is India.

And the people of India have forced the courts to sanction mob justice:

The incident, which resulted in heavy casualties, has shaken the entire nation and the collective conscience of the society will be satisfied if the capital punishment is awarded to the offender. ~ Supreme Court Judge

The “mercy petition” which actually is a constitutional power to the president to commute sentences where s/he believes justice is not done could save more than Afzal Guru, it is saving our collective conscience from having a human sacrifice for our bloodlust.

When it comes to the life of a person, and where the fairness of the trial has been challenged by people around the world, I think rather than being senselessly combative, it is important to take a pause and see the merit in their words. If the validity of a process is being challenged, and there is no answer to the questions raised, what does it mean when we use the threatening potential of a mob to create chaos to overrule the objections? Is this how we can hope for better justice to prevail in our country?

I think, if we hang Afzal Guru, we will have made an attack on the fabric of India that is far worse than any terrorist attack, because we the citizens of the country will have made a blatant demonstration that we don’t trust our Constitution to deliver justice. One Afzal Guru living or dying isn’t as important as the fact that the law of the land is respected by everyone, not overruled by public opinion when we want someone to hang for a serious crime.

Today, we see in Pakistan Quadri being showered with petals after he has committed the murder of the governor in broad daylight. We see mobs preventing justice to many innocents, because the ‘public’ believes they are criminals. Yet, as we stand outside the country, it is so easy for us to see that it is the masses rising in revolt that blackmails the country into doing what they wish. Let us remember that this has nothing to do with the law and everything to do with who can hold the country hostage.

I don’t see how someone wanting to see Afzal Guru dead can condemn the showers of rose petals on Taseer’s butcher Qadri without a dazzling display of double standards. The mob there believes a criminal a hero. The mob here believes a criminal sentenced to death on insufficient evidence the villain. Neither is about fair trial.

What we are doing with Afzal Guru is no less than that. It *seems* to be far more innocent, but make no mistake, at the essence of it, it is the same. We are engaging in mob justice to destroy the constitution. Arundhati Roy puts it well (I just love her quotes – they hit the nail on the head), even while I find her shrill and self-defeating:

To invoke the ‘collective conscience of society’ to validate ritual murder, which is what the death penalty is, skates precariously close to making lynch law valorous”. She further adds: “It’s chilling to think that this has been laid upon us not by predatory politicians or sensation-seeking journalists (though they too have done that) but as an edict from the highest court in the land.

It is painful to believe someone is a killer and watch him walk free. Yet, it is also necessary to accept that it isn’t always about what we want. There is a man’s life on the line here, and the investigations haven’t brought up enough evidence to implicate him. Do we realize that in our arrogance, we are essentially saying that legal methods of proscecution are not important and that we want a man killed? Who are we killing? Afzal Guru, or our very own motherland? One terrorist is not the end of the world. But setting precedents of mob justice will destroy our country. We already saw it with the Babari Masjid case. Now we see here. There are many instances.

Sure, we have a right to justice too. We can bring in more proof. Get him convicted fair and square. Or this one person we believe is a terrorist may have got off scot free through investigative incompetence or sheer luck. But our investigation methods are improving as a result. We are able to get more and more people convicted on the basis of evidence. If this case takes us back to the dark ages of law, all it will take to misue law is to announce the criminals to mobs and watch them get convicted.

Not just that. Do you know what a powerful weapon we give Pakistan’s Kashmir cause by doing this? I’m not speaking of protests and attacks. That we don’t have conclusive evidence is a fact. All it will take is for one terror organization to announce his innocence and the identity of real culprits (safely out of reach in pakistan or something) to ignite the entire country and bring us right back to the communal riots of an era gone. That is precisely why the law usually wants to be really really certain before giving someone the death penalty. Kill one innocent person through mob justice, and every oppressed person will rise in another mob to vent their frustrated revenge and grief.

Do we need that? Does India need that? Does Kashmir need that? Is it possible for us to follow our own legal system and at the same time unarguably show Kashmir that we have changed from persecuting them to supporting justice for all of India – them, us and all.

I don’t give a damn whether Afzal Guru lives or dies. I am not even a bleeding heart about death penalty. My problem is with the choice of my country to sentence someone based on mob will, and then block clemency through mob will. To illustrate with Prakash Javadekar’s words “Those who are supporting Afzal by demanding that he should not be hanged are not only acting against public sentiment in the country but are giving a fillip to terrorist morale,“. But justice shouldn’t be hostage to public sentiment is my point. Any person in the country should have a right to justice even if they stand alone. Offending public sentiment shouldn’t be such an obstacle in asking for justice.

The demand is not for his freedom, but fair trial. What is the worst that could happen? He doesn’t get killed? Why is it more important than being constitutional to  see someone killed? Who is Afzal Guru, and why is my country’s legal system being eroded because of him? Why is the legal system considered so incompetent that mobs must decide?

When the mob has such power over the judiciary, my idea of democracy is under attack. THAT is my problem.

Think carefully. We are an intelligent country. Is killing one man more important than justice? We are lucky we have the capability to look at new perspectives and reevaluate how we think. I invite you to think very seriously about this.

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About the Author

Vidyut
Vidyut is a blogger on issues of National interest. Staunch advocate of rights, learning and freedoms. @Vidyut

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