The ‘Hanging’ of the Peace Process

With the death sentence of Mohamed Afzal Guru being postponed from 20th October as it awaits the decision of clemency by the Indian President Abdul Kalam, there is a glimmer of hope to his family that he may live to return home. But this glimmer is not just confined to his family nor to his fate only; it is much more farreaching because if he is pardoned, it would signify a triumph to the advocates of democracy world-wide, but more importantly to the local Kashmiris rekindling their lost trust with the Indian democratic system. It would serve as the ‘mother of all’ confidence building measure boosting up the current peace process and also determining the fate of many others, be they innocent civilians, militants or the military.

That is if he is pardoned, as so far the biggest ‘democracy’ of the world has shown minimal use of justice in the modus operandi leading to the death sentence of Afzal Guru. First of all the decision of the Indian judiciary system in pronouncing him guilty of being an accomplice in planning the December 2001 Indian Parliament bombings has to be challenged. Not only is there severe lack of evidence for his involvements in the said event, but many argue that he was made a ‘scapegoat’ in a case that is full of conspiracies. His confession, made in front of the media and then dictated and delivered in a sealed envelope to a judicial magistrate, was seen as the prime piece of evidence that led to his conviction, a confession that very ‘coincidently’ fitted hand in glove to all the other evidence already gathered by the Police. However, it is apparent from his correspondences to his lawyers and supporters that he was forced to confess for the safety of his family. And in a statement on the Delhi high court record, Afzal Guru has accused a Senior Police Officer of forcing him to facilitate one of the ‘terrorists’ killed in the parliament attack with accommodation and transport. Even though later the Supreme Court discarded his confession, they still upheld his death sentence based on evidence that is highly circumstantial and inconclusive.

If it is a case of wrongful indictment, then it is not a question of Guru being pardoned, but of his charge being quashed and him being compensated for the false indictment. But this is wishful thinking in a system where it is not unusual to see innocent Kashmiri Muslims being killed or languishing in jails under repressive Acts such as the Public Safety Act and Prevention Of Terrorism Act (and although POTA no longer exists, people held under it are still awaiting trial), and where suing the government for wrongful action would just lead them back to jail or dead. Even if he is guilty, is the death sentence a fair punishment for someone who is only indicted for facilitating the attack, particularly when the three others who were also equally, if not more, accused for the planning of the incident only received some years? Putting aside the question of whether Afzal Guru is guilty or not, the unfairness of his trial on his behalf and the lack of transparency is another blow to the India’s so called democratic system. From the time he was arrested to some weeks later, with the arrest itself being a controversial issue, Guru had no legal advice or representation. He was denied the legal support of his choice, and when finally he was appointed a lawyer, it was a junior one with little experience who did not even visit Guru once in jail to heed his views. The lawyer did not summon a single witness for Guru’s defence and was not competent enough to cross-examine the prosecution witnesses. When the other lawyers, which he asked for to represent him, refused, the judge asked Guru to cross-examine the witnesses himself!

The tragedy is compounded as the mainstream Indian political groups, from the fundamentalist BJP to the secularist Congress, are politizising the issue standing side by side with fringe groups like RSS and Shiv Sena who are raking up anti-Kashmiri hate sentiments across India. This has done little to improve the situation, if anything they have hindered and are still hindering the course of justice to take its place. The radicals of the BJP shouting that Guru deserves his sentence and that pardoning him would undermine the ‘democratic’ process of India’s judiciary system. Nor has the action of the Indian media been conducive to Guru’s sentence. During the ‘media confession’, Afzal Guru stated that Abdur Rehman Geelani, one of the others accused in the trial, had no part to play in the parliamentary attack. The media withheld this information on the investigating officer’s, Asst Commissioner of Police Rajbir Singh’s, request. It was three months later that this account was revealed when the confession was re-broadcasted by the television channel Aaj Tak. Of course later Guru ‘managed’ to change his confession, accusing Geelani fully into the conspiracy. It is almost as if his case was a ‘trail by media’ with the outcome depending on the success of the propaganda they managed to expose to India’s lay and decision-makers alike. Both the media and the politicians have been responsible for exploiting Guru’s case to arouse emotions to further enhance the communal divisions between Hindus and Muslims, for their own political gains, in the game of identity politics.

The hanging of the JKLF leader Maqbool Bhat in 1984 made him into an icon of liberation, with his picture framed in the offices and homes of many freedom fighters. The hanging of Afzal Guru would do much more than that; it would lose the little trust Kashmiris have left on the Indian democratic system making them more vigorous for independence than ever before, there would be unforeseen violent repercussions which would see more Gurus and Bhat’s being hanged, most of all it would serve as the watershed event which turned the peace process backwards, and just when people have begun to see a glimmer of light at the end of the long harsh tunnel.