by Arundhati Roy
What are the political consequences of the secret and sudden hanging of Mohammed Afzal Guru, prime accused in the 2001 Parliament attack, going to be? Does anybody know? The memo, in callous bureaucratese, with every name insultingly misspelt, sent by the Superintendent of Central Jail No. 3, Tihar, New Delhi, to “Mrs Tabassum w/o Sh Afjal Guru” reads:
“The mercy petition of Sh Mohd Afjal Guru s/o Habibillah has been rejected by Hon’ble President of India. Hence the execution of Mohd Afjal Guru s/o Habibillah has been fixed for 09/02/2013 at 8 am in Central Jail No-3.
This is for your information and for further necessary action.”
The mailing of the memo was deliberately timed to get to Tabassum only after the execution, denying her one last legal chance—the right to challenge the rejection of the mercy petition. Both Afzal and his family, separately, had that right. Both were thwarted. Even though it is mandatory in law, the memo to Tabassum ascribed no reason for the president’s rejection of the mercy petition. If no reason is given, on what basis do you appeal? All the other prisoners on death row in India have been given that last chance.
Since Tabassum was not allowed to meet her husband before he was hanged, since her son was not allowed to get a few last words of advice from his father, since she was not given his body to bury, and since there can be no funeral, what “further necessary action” does the jail manual prescribe? Anger? Wild, irreparable grief? Unquestioning acceptance? Complete integration?
After the hanging, there have been unseemly celebrations. The bereaved wives of the people who were killed in the attack on Parliament were displayed on TV, with M.S. Bitta, chairman of the All-India Anti-Terrorist Front, and his ferocious moustaches playing the CEO of their sad little company. Will anybody tell them that the men who shot their husbands were killed at the same time, in the same place? And that those who planned the attack will never be brought to justice because we still don’t know who they are.
Meanwhile, Kashmir is under curfew, once again. Its people have been locked down like cattle in a pen, once again. They have defied curfew, once again. Three people have already been killed in three days and fifteen more grievously injured. Newspapers have been shut down, but anybody who trawls the internet will see that this time the rage of young Kashmiris is not defiant and exuberant like it was during the mass uprisings in the summers of 2008, 2009 and 2010—even though 180 people lost their lives on those occasions. This time the anger is cold and corrosive. Unforgiving. Is there any reason why it shouldn’t be?
For more than 20 years, Kashmiris have endured a military occupation. The tens of thousands who lost their lives were killed in prisons, in torture centres, and in ‘encounters’, genuine as well as fake. What sets the execution of Afzal Guru apart is that it has given the young, who have never had any first-hand experience of democracy, a ringside seat to watch the full majesty of Indian democracy at work. They have watched the wheels turning, they have seen all its hoary institutions, the government, police, courts, political parties and yes, the media, collude to hang a man, a Kashmiri, who they do not believe received a fair trial. With good reason.
He went virtually unrepresented in the lower court during the most crucial part of the trial. The court-appointed lawyer never visited him in prison, and actually admitted incriminating evidence against his own client. (The Supreme Court deliberated on that matter and decided it was okay.) In short, his guilt was by no means established beyond reasonable doubt. They have watched the government pull him out of the death row queue and execute him out of turn. What direction, what form will their new cold, corrosive anger take? Will it lead them to the blessed liberation they so yearn for and have sacrificed a whole generation for, or will it lead to yet another cycle of cataclysmic violence, of being beaten down, and then having ‘normalcy’ imposed on them under soldiers’ boots?
All of us who live in the region know that 2014 is going to be a watershed year. There will be elections in Pakistan, in India and in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. We know that when the US withdraws its troops from Afghanistan, the chaos from an already seriously destabilised Pakistan will spill into Kashmir, as it has done before. By executing Afzal Guru in the way that it did, the government of India has taken a decision to fuel that process of destabilisation, to actually invite it in. (As it did before, by rigging the 1987 elections in Kashmir.) After three consecutive years of mass protests in the Valley ended in 2010, the government invested a great deal in restoring its version of ‘normalcy’ (happy tourists, voting Kashmiris). The question is, why was it willing to reverse all its own efforts? Leaving aside issues of the legality, the morality and the venality of executing Afzal Guru in the way that it did, and looking at it just politically, tactically, it is a dangerous and irresponsible thing to have done. But it was done. Clearly, and knowingly. Why?
I used the word ‘irresponsible’ advisedly. Look what happened the last time around.
In 2001, within a week of the Parliament attack (and a few days after Afzal Guru’s arrest), the government recalled its ambassador from Pakistan and dispatched half a million troops to the border. On what basis was that done? The only thing the public was told is that while Afzal Guru was in the custody of the Delhi Police Special Cell, he had admitted to being a member of the Pakistan-based militant group, Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM). The Supreme Court set aside that ‘confession’ extracted in police custody as inadmissible in law. Does what is inadmissible in law become admissible in war?
In its final judgement on the case, apart from the now famous statements about “satisfying collective conscience” and having no direct evidence, the Supreme Court also said there was “no evidence that Mohammed Afzal belonged to any terrorist group or organisation”. So what justified that military aggression, that loss of soldiers’ lives, that massive haemorrhaging of public money and the real risk of nuclear war? (Remember foreign embassies issued travel advisories and evacuated their staff?) Was there some intelligence that preceded the Parliament attack and the arrest of Afzal Guru that we had not been told about? If so, how could the attack be allowed to happen? And if the intelligence was accurate, and infallible enough to justify such dangerous military posturing, don’t people in India, Pakistan and Kashmir have the right to know what it was? Why was that evidence not produced in court to establish Afzal Guru’s guilt?
In the endless debates around the Parliament attack case, on this, perhaps the most crucial issue of all, there has been dead silence from all quarters—leftists, rightists, Hindutva-ists, secularists, nationalists, seditionists, cynics, critics. Why?
Maybe the JeM did mastermind the attack. Praveen Swami, perhaps the Indian media’s best known expert on ‘terrorism’, who seems to have enviable sources in the Indian police and intelligence agencies, has recently cited the 2003 testimony of former ISI chief Lt Gen Javed Ashraf Qazi, and the 2004 book by Muhammad Amir Rana, a Pakistani scholar, holding the JeM responsible for the Parliament attack. (It’s touching, this belief in the veracity of the testimony of the chief of an organisation whose mandate it is to destabilise India.) It still doesn’t explain what evidence there was in 2001, when the army mobilisation took place.
For the sake of argument, let’s accept that the JeM carried out the attack. Maybe the ISI was involved too. We needn’t pretend that the government of Pakistan is innocent of carrying out covert activity over Kashmir. (Just as the government of India does in Balochistan and parts of Pakistan. Remember the Indian army trained the Mukti Bahini in East Pakistan in the 1970s, and six different Sri Lankan Tamil militant groups, including the LTTE, in the 1980s.)
It’s a filthy scenario all around. What would a war with Pakistan have achieved then, and what will it achieve now? (Apart from a massive loss of life. And fattening the bank accounts of some arms dealers.) Indian hawks routinely suggest the only way to “root out the problem” is “hot pursuit” and the “taking out” of “terrorist camps” in Pakistan. Really? It would be interesting to research how many of the aggressive strategic experts and defence analysts on our TV screens have an interest in the defence and weapons industry. They don’t even need war. They just need a war-like climate in which military spending remains on an upward graph. This idea of hot pursuit is even stupider and more pathetic than it sounds. What would they bomb? A few individuals? Their barracks and food supplies? Or their ideology? Look how the US government’s “hot pursuit” has ended in Afghanistan. And look how a “security grid” of half-a-million soldiers has not been able to subdue the unarmed, civilian population of Kashmir. And India is going to cross international borders to bomb a country—with nuclear arms—that is rapidly devolving into chaos? India’s professional war-mongers derive a great deal of satisfaction by sneering at what they see as the disintegration of Pakistan. Anyone with a rudimentary, working knowledge of history and geography would know that the breakdown of Pakistan (into a gangland of crazed, nihilistic, religious zealots) is absolutely no reason for anyone to rejoice.
The US presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Pakistan’s official role as America’s junior partner in the war on terror, makes that region a much-reported place. The rest of the world is at least aware of the dangers unfolding there. Less understood, and harder to read, is the perilous wind that’s picking up speed in the world’s favourite new superpower. The Indian economy is in considerable trouble. The aggressive, acquisitive ambition that economic liberalisation unleashed in the newly created middle class is quickly turning into an equally aggressive frustration. The aircraft they were sitting in has begun to stall just after takeoff. Exhilaration is turning to panic.
The general election is due in 2014. Even without an exit poll I can tell you what the results will be. Though it may not be obvious to the naked eye, once again we will have a Congress-BJP coalition. (Two parties, each with a mass murder of thousands of people belonging to minority communities under their belts.) The CPI(M) will give support from outside, even though it hasn’t been asked to. Oh, and it will be a strong state. (On the hanging front, the gloves are already off. Could the next in line be Balwant Singh Rajoana, on death row for the assassination of Punjab’s chief minister Beant Singh? His execution could revive Khalistani sentiment in Punjab and put the Akali Dal on the mat. Perfect old-style Congress politics.)
But that old-style politics is in some difficulty. In the last few turbulent months, it is not just the image of major political parties, but politics itself, the idea of politics as we know it, that has taken a battering. Again and again, whether it’s corruption, rising prices, or rape and the rising violence against women, the new middle class is at the barricades. They can be water-cannoned or lathicharged, but can’t be shot or imprisoned in their thousands, in the way the poor can, the way Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims, Kashmiris, Nagas and Manipuris can—and have been. The old political parties know that if there is not to be a complete meltdown, this aggression has to be headed off, redirected. They know that they must work together to bring politics back to what it used to be. What better way than a communal conflagration? (How else can the secular play at being secular and the communal be communal?) Maybe even a little war, so that we can play Hawks & Doves all over again.
What better solution than to aim a kick at that tried and trusted old political football—Kashmir? The hanging of Afzal Guru, its brazenness and its timing, is deliberate. It has brought politics and anger back onto Kashmir’s streets.
India hopes to manage it with the usual combination of brute force and poisonous, Machiavellian manipulation, designed to pit people against one another. The war in Kashmir is presented to the world as a battle between an inclusive, secular democracy and radical Islamists. What then should we make of the fact that Mufti Bashiruddin, the so-called Grand Mufti of Kashmir (a completely phantom post)—who has made most abominable hate speeches and issued fatwa after fatwa, intended to present Kashmir as a demonic, monolithic, Wahabi society—is actually a government-anointed cleric? Kids on Facebook will be arrested, never him. What should we make of the fact that the Indian government looks away while money from Saudi Arabia (that most steadfast partner of the US) is pouring into Kashmir’s madrassas? How different is this from what the CIA did in Afghanistan all those years ago? That whole, sorry business is what created Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda and the Taliban. It has decimated Afghanistan and Pakistan. What sort of incubus will this unleash?
The trouble is that the old political football may not be all that easy to control any more. And it’s radioactive. Maybe it is not a coincidence that a few days ago Pakistan tested a short-range battlefield nuclear missile to protect itself against threats from “evolving scenarios”. Two weeks ago, the Kashmir police published “survival tips” for nuclear war. Apart from advising people to build toilet-equipped bombproof basements large enough to house their entire families for two weeks, it said: “During a nuclear attack, motorists should dive out of their cars toward the blast to save themselves from being crushed by their soon-to-be tumbling vehicles.” And to “expect some initial disorientation as the blast wave may blow down and carry away many prominent and familiar features”.
Prominent and familiar features may already have been blown down. Perhaps we should all jump out of our soon-to-be-tumbling vehicles.
Spring announced itself in Delhi. The sun was out, and the Law took its Course. Just before breakfast, Afzal Guru, prime accused in the 2001 Parliament Attack was secretly hanged, and his body was interred in Tihar Jail. Was he buried next to Maqbool Butt? (The other Kashmiri who was hanged in Tihar in 1984. Kashmiris will mark that anniversary tomorrow.) Afzal’s wife and son were not informed. “The Authorities intimated the family through Speed Post and Registered Post,” the Home Secretary told the press, “the Director General of J&K Police has been told to check whether they got it or not.” No big deal, they’re only the family of a Kashmiri terrorist.
In a moment of rare unity the Nation, or at least its major political parties, the Congress, the BJP and the CPM came together as one (barring a few squabbles about ‘delay’ and ‘timing’) to celebrate the triumph of the Rule of Law. The Conscience of the Nation, which broadcasts live from TV studios these days, unleashed its collective intellect on us — the usual cocktail of papal passion and a delicate grip on facts. Even though the man was dead and gone, like cowards that hunt in packs, they seemed to need each other to keep their courage up. Perhaps because deep inside themselves they know that they all colluded to do something terribly wrong.
What are the facts?
On the 13th of December 2001 five armed men drove through the gates of the Parliament House in a white Ambassador fitted out with an Improvised Explosive Device. When they were challenged they jumped out of the car and opened fire. They killed eight security personnel and a gardener. In the gun battle that followed, all five attackers were killed. In one of the many versions of confessions he made in police custody, Afzal Guru identified the men as Mohammed, Rana, Raja, Hamza and Haider. That’s all we know about them even today. L.K. Advani, the then Home Minister, said they ‘looked like Pakistanis.’ (He should know what Pakistanis look like right? Being a Sindhi himself.) Based only on Afzal’s confession (which the Supreme Court subsequently set aside citing ‘lapses’ and ‘violations of procedural safeguards’) the Government of India recalled its Ambassador from Pakistan and mobilised half a million soldiers to the Pakistan border. There was talk of nuclear war. Foreign embassies issued Travel Advisories and evacuated their staff from Delhi. The standoff lasted for months and cost India thousands of crores.
On the 14th of December 2001 the Delhi Police Special Cell claimed it had cracked the case. On the 15th of December it arrested the ‘master mind’ Professor S.A.R Geelani in Delhi and Showkat Guru and Afzal Guru in a fruit market in Srinagar. Subsequently they arrested Afsan Guru, Showkat’s wife. The media enthusiastically disseminated the Special Cell’s version. These were some of the headlines: ‘DU Lecturer was Terror Plan Hub’, ‘Varsity Don Guided Fidayeen’, ‘Don Lectured on Terror in Free Time.’ Zee TV broadcast a ‘docudrama’ called December 13th , a recreation that claimed to be the ‘Truth Based on the Police Charge Sheet.’ (If the police version is the truth, then why have courts?) Then Prime Minister Vajpayee and L.K. Advani publicly appreciated the film. The Supreme Court refused to stay the screening saying that the media would not influence judges. The film was broadcast only a few days before the fast track court sentenced Afzal, Showkat and Geelani to death. Subsequently the High Court acquitted the ‘mastermind’, Professor S.A.R Geelani, and Afsan Guru. The Supreme Court upheld the acquittal. But in its 5th August 2005 judgment it gave Mohammed Afzal three life sentences and a double death sentence.
Contrary to the lies that have been put about by some senior journalists who would have known better, Afzal Guru was not one of “the terrorists who stormed Parliament House on December 13th 2001” nor was he among those who “opened fire on security personnel, apparently killing three of the six who died.” (That was the BJP Rajya Sabha MP, Chandan Mitra, in The Pioneer, October 7th 2006). Even the police charge sheet does not accuse him of that. The Supreme Court judgment says the evidence is circumstantial: “As is the case with most conspiracies, there is and could be no direct evidence amounting to criminal conspiracy.” But then it goes on to say: “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.”
Who crafted our collective conscience on the Parliament Attack case? Could it have been the facts we gleaned from the papers? The films we saw on TV?
There are those who will argue that the very fact that the courts acquitted S.A.R Geelani and convicted Afzal proves that the trial was free and fair. Was it?
The trial in the fast-track court began in May 2002. The world was still convulsed by post 9/11 frenzy. The US government was gloating prematurely over its ‘victory’ in Afghanistan. The Gujarat pogrom was ongoing. And in the Parliament Attack case, the Law was indeed taking its own course. At the most crucial stage of a criminal case, when evidence is presented, when witnesses are cross-examined, when the foundations of the argument are laid — in the High Court and the Supreme Court you can only argue points of law, you cannot introduce new evidence — Afzal Guru, locked in a high security solitary cell, had no lawyer. The court-appointed junior lawyer did not visit his client even once in jail, he did not summon any witnesses in Afzal’s defence and did not cross examine the prosecution witnesses. The judge expressed his inability to do anything about the situation.
Even still, from the word go, the case fell apart. A few examples out of many:
How did the police get to Afzal? They said that S.A.R Geelani led them to him. But the court records show that the message to arrest Afzal went out before they picked up Geelani. The High Court called this a ‘material contradiction’ but left it at that.
The two most incriminating pieces of evidence against Afzal were a cellphone and a laptop confiscated at the time of arrest. The Arrest Memos were signed by Bismillah, Geelani’s brother, in Delhi. The Seizure Memos were signed by two men of the J&K Police, one of them an old tormentor from Afzal’s past as a surrendered ‘militant’. The computer and cellphone were not sealed, as evidence is required to be. During the trial it emerged that the hard disc of the laptop had been accessed after the arrest. It only contained the fake home ministry passes and the fake identity cards that the terrorists used to access Parliament. And a Zee TV video clip of Parliament House. So according to the police, Afzal had deleted all the information except the most incriminating bits, and he was speeding off to hand it over to Ghazi Baba, who the charge sheet described as the Chief of Operations.
A witness for the prosecution, Kamal Kishore, identified Afzal and told the court he had sold him the crucial SIM card that connected all the accused in the case to each other on the 4th of December 2001. But the prosecution’s own call records showed that the SIM was actually operational from November 6th 2001.
It goes on and on, this pile up of lies and fabricated evidence. The courts note them, but for their pains the police get no more than a gentle rap on their knuckles. Nothing more.
Then there’s the back story. Like most surrendered militants Afzal was easy meat in Kashmir — a victim of torture, blackmail, extortion. In the larger scheme of things he was a nobody. Anyone who was really interested in solving the mystery of the Parliament Attack would have followed the dense trail of evidence that was on offer. No one did, thereby ensuring that the real authors of conspiracy will remain unidentified and uninvestigated.
But now that Afzal Guru has been hanged, I hope our collective conscience has been satisfied. Or is our cup of blood still only half full?