Updated: February 13, 2013 07:40 PM GMT
What distinguishes a civilized state from a barbaric one? Can a state stoop to the levels of a terrorist or criminal?
These questions arise because of the way in which Mohammad Afzal Guru, convicted of an attack on parliament in 2001, was hanged last week. There are many who believe that he was more sinned against than sinning, given his background as a police informer.
Well-known writer and social activist Arundhati Roy had asked a series of questions related to the attack on the Indian parliament 11 years ago in which all the five terrorists involved were killed. It is a different matter that till today their identity has not been revealed.
Guru was convicted for his involvement in the “conspiracy” to attack the Indian parliament 11 years ago, though all the others accused were found to be innocent and released. Since the highest court of the land found him guilty and worthy of capital punishment, let it be assumed that justice was done in his case.
However, while awarding the severest punishment for Guru, the Supreme Court said, “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.”
It is the first time in independent India’s history that a person was hanged to satisfy the “collective conscience of society” and not in accordance with the law of the land.
In all civilized societies there are certain traditions followed before and after the hanging of a person. One of them is to fulfill the person’s last wish, if it can be fulfilled. It is reported that Guru did not have any wish, other than permission to write a letter to his wife. Hopefully, his letter will be handed over to her.
It is also customary to inform the family about the timing of the execution so that it can receive the body. But in this case, the jail authorities sent a letter by “Speed Post” to his wife, informing her of the president’s rejection of his mercy petition and the date and time of the execution.
In these days of instant communication, the purpose of informing the family by “snail mail” is questionable. As was only to be expected, the letter reached the family two days after the hanging. This was to facilitate burying the body in the Tihar jail premises, where he was hanged, on the specious plea that the family had not turned up to receive it.
While those who planned the dubious strategy have certainly succeeded, it has not shown the Indian state in a good light. The heavens would not have fallen if Guru was allowed to spend a few minutes with his wife and child a day before the execution.
Similarly, they should have been allowed to carry the body to Srinagar. Disrespect of the dead is considered a sin in all religions.
Why did the state maintain so much secrecy? It probably thought that if the body arrived in Srinagar or Sopore, his home town, it would have inflamed passions. What it does not realize is that in the main cemetery in Srinagar, there is an area dedicated to “martyrs” and he would at best have been buried there.
India behaved like the US when it buried the body of al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden at sea. Surely, it could have conducted itself better by strictly following the jail manual that describes the way in which a condemned prisoner should be treated.
Amnesty International cannot be faulted when it says the “execution indicates a disturbing and regressive trend towards executions shrouded in secrecy and the resumption of death penalty use in India”. After quietly suspending the practice of execution for several years, the nation has placed hanging, instead of justice, on a fast track.
In doing so, it does not go by any chronological order. For instance, the killers of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi who had also been sentenced to death could not be hanged because of political protest from Tamil Nadu. The charge against Guru is that he took part in a “conspiracy.”
There is another conspiracy case related to the destruction of the Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya in 1992. It resulted in riots in which hundreds of people were killed but the Indian criminal justice system has not succeeded in bringing the guilty to book.
The secret hanging should be seen in the context of this ambivalence. The state should at all times uphold the rule of law, irrespective of the political, religious or caste affiliations of the accused.
Alas, in the case of Afzal Guru, it failed.
AJ Philip is a senior journalist based in New Delhi
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