India’s far right has found its holy cause for the immediate future: the hanging of Mohammad Ajmal Amir Kasab and Mohammad Afzal also known as Afzal Guru. The political lynch mob is pressing for the ultimate punishment for the duo on death row as the litmus test of the government’s loyalty to the nation.
Kasab, in his early 20s, and Afzal, in his mid-40s have been convicted for their alleged roles in two of the most talked-about instances of terrorism. Kasab was sentenced to death on May 6, 2010, on charges related to the Mumbai terrorist strike of November 2008. Afzal was awarded capital punishment in 2004 for his alleged part in the attack of December 1, 2001, on India’s Parliament. He was scheduled to be hanged on October 20, 2006.
The date of Kasab’s execution has not been fixed, and he may appeal against the verdict of a special court in Mumbai. Afzal’s execution was stayed after his wife submitted to the president of India a “mercy petition,” on which political pressures have continued to delay a final decision.
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Kasab’s is a crucial case for the far right and its political front, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The Pakistani’s boyish, beardless visage is the face of “cross-border terrorism” that the party vows to fight to the finish if returned to power. Television channels had already made him the most familiar face of the Mumbai outrage long before the court verdict. The country had watched for more than a year the mostly lone figure with an AK 47 assault rifle slung over his shoulder at a notably deserted Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (formerly Victoria Terminus), Mumbai’s main railway station.
The political and media pursuit of the case was of a character that condemned him long before the final judgment. When the death sentence was awarded, all one could hear was a chorus of demands for his early, if not immediate execution – in order to deny Kasab any escape route, through a presidential pardon or an appeal to a higher court. No one commented on the rationale of the judge’s statement ruling out any scope for the reform of the young convict.
Nor did anyone disapprove of Kasab’s description as “the agent of the Devil himself” by special public prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam, a hero by now to the mob howling for the youth’s blood. In subsequent public discussions, erstwhile opponents of capital punishment were at pains to explain they only wanted Kasab’s agony to be prolonged indefinitely in jail, one of them saying no one should be allowed to visit him, either, for the rest of his life. Opposition to death sentence could be devoid of all compassion, too.
The ambiance, obviously, did not allow a recapitulation of the questions raised from the other side. But these still remain to be answered. These include procedural ones. Even on December 5, 2009, veteran civil liberties activist K. G. Kannabiran raised some of them.
Kasab asked for copies of the charges in Urdu, a language he knew, instead of Marathi, which he did not. Urdu is one of India’s languages, too, but the request was turned down. Kasab wanted his age to be determined by medical examination, so that he could be tried as a minor, and the plea was rejected.
Even more serious were the moves to deny him a defense counsel, to whom he was entitled. The lawyer, who first came forward to defend him, opted out after intimidation through offensive telephone calls and other means. Another counsel, who showed interest in defending Kasab, was removed last December after an altercation with the judge, and the court replaced him with yet another. Two months later, armed men shot dead the defense counsel of the two other co-accused. Never did a dull moment disappoint those who were following avidly the course of the case despite its apparently foregone conclusion.
In Afzal’s case, the BJP and its band have been demanding his hanging at decibel levels depending on the political situation. The Kasab verdict has come to them as a wonderful opportunity to club the two cases together and present themselves as the truest of anti-terrorist warriors. Logic and the law of the land count for little in the process, as they denounce consideration of the constitutionally allowed mercy petition as a devious ploy to protect an enemy of the nation.
Civil liberty activists have explained why Afzal’s case deserves sympathetic consideration. One of them, Supreme Court lawyer Nandita Haksar, does not rest her case only on the ground that he was denied proper legal defense and thus “a fair trial.” She lists three other reasons.
First, the Supreme Court acquitted Afzal of the charge of belonging to any terrorist organization. Secondly, Afzal was not directly involved in the killing of anyone. Thirdly, the court rejected his “confession” because it was found to be extracted by torture.
She quotes the court as stating: “The incident, which resulted in heavy casualties, had shaken the entire nation and the collective conscience of the society will only be satisfied if the capital punishment is awarded to the offender.” She also cites a resolution passed on September 24, 2005, by “leaders of the movement for Kashmir’s self-determination,” asking: “We the people of Kashmir ask: why the collective conscience of Indians is not shaken by the fact that a Kashmiri has been sentenced to death without a fair trial, without a chance to represent himself …”
Driven to despair by the long delay in the decision on the mercy petition, Afzal has begged to be put to death immediately. But, as prominent columnist Prem Shankar Jha has put it in a recent article, “the law has been as impervious to his pleas for death as it has so far been to others’ pleas to spare his life.”
Jha puts an unerring finger on the political crux of the matter. From the day Afzal as sentenced to death, he wrote, “the BJP has filled the air with taunts, diatribes, and accusations of cowardice and lack of patriotism, aimed at steamrolling [Prime Minister] Manmohan Singh’s government into hanging him regardless of the cost.” And he warns against the cost that the country cannot afford.
He pointed out: “The BJP … believes that the death sentence [for Afzal] has created a win-win situation for it no matter what the government decides. A grant of clemency [to him] will allow it to stoke [majority] Hindu chauvinism to improve its chances of coming back to power. But if the [government] hangs [him], it may set off a chain reaction of violence in Kashmir and other parts of India that could destroy the secular center of the country and force voters to choose between the extremes of ‘pseudo-secularism’ and muscular Hindu chauvinism.”
Mercy for Afzal will also “make it easier for the [Prime Minister Yousaf Raza] Gilani government in Islamabad to resume the dialogue with India …. Hanging him will make that nearly impossible.”
At stake in the cases are not the lives of just two persons, but the chance of peace for the millions in India and South Asia.