Satyameva Jayate? On the impending execution of Afzal Guru
Someday, we will count how many minutes it took for television in India to start baying for Afzal Guru’s blood (once again) after Ajmal Kasab was buried in Yerwada Central Jail in Pune.
A man called Mohammad Afzal Guru, son of Habibullah Guru, currently resident in Ward Number 6 of Jail Number 1 in Tihar Central Prison in Delhi will hang to satisfy the bloodlust of the Indian Republic, unless the President of India decides otherwise. This text is an attempt to make us think about this decision and its ramifications carefully.
[This text updates, edits and slightly alters a text that I had written on the 'Reader-List' on 16th of October, 2006 - at a time, when, like now, the chorus of voices demanding Afzal Guru's death had reached a crescendo. That crescendo is upon us again, and not much has changed in the last six years, yet public memory is cruelly, painfully abbreviated. So, I offer this text again, in the hope that it leads to some thinking, and that some of that thinking may percolate upwards to the current inhabitant of Rashtrapati Bhavan. Perhaps, there will be a moment of hesitation before a signature is affixed to a file.]
At times like this, when hangmen are asked to practice their moves, nothing comes more in handy than the teflon coated enthusiasm for capital punishment of television crusaders. Great democracies, like the United States of America, the Islamic Republics of Iran and Pakistan, the Peoples Republic of China, the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea and enlightened states like the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are known for their zeal in retaining the death penalty as a necessary part of state ritual. The Republic of India was in eminent company, when it voted recently against the motion in the UN to do away with the death penalty.
I need not advance moral and ethical arguments against the death penalty here, because they have been so well countered by those whose souls will be salvaged by hanging. Never mind the fact that states that have done away with the death penalty have lower rates of violent crime, Never mind the fact that hanging anyone accused of terrorism is likely to produce more not less suicide-bombers and fedayeen willing to embrace martyrdom. Never mind the fact the innocence of people that condemned to die has often been established after they have been executed.
Never mind, that fourteen former judges, led by former Supreme Court Justice Sawant, including five former chief justices of High Courts have recently (as reported by Manoj Mitta in the Times of India of August 19, 2012) petitioned the President to commute death sentences in nine cases because, in their view, these nine death sentences were “contrary to the binding dictum of rarest of rare” propounded by the 1980 five judge bench veridict in Bachan Singh vs State of Punjab. Of course the petitioners state that none of the nine cases they are talking about constitute cases that involve ‘acts against the state’, but, we can glean from this extraordinary admission from people who have spent their working lives at the highest echelons of the judicial system in India that even the Supreme Court can err when it comes to making decisions about life and death. Why should we assume its infallibility when it comes to adjudicating cases where the death sentence is being considered for ‘crimes against the state’?
And yet, for our television hangmen, the death penalty is the only balm that at this moment can comfort the republic’s agonized soul. Many of those who argue that the President should not in fact assent to the petition filed by Afzal’s family are also arguing that the Afzal must hang so that the Indian democracy and the loved ones of those who died defending the Indian parliament may rest in peace. The dignity of the Indian Republic hinges on the lever that will catapult Afzal into the empty space under the gallows in Tihar jail. As the noose tightens, our polity will blossom with renewed vigour. A Shiv Sena leader has already said that the hanging of Kasab in Pune was like a ‘shraddhanjali’ (an oblation, an offering) to the departed soul of Bal Keshav Thackeray. We are returning, in interesting ways, to state forms, like those perfected by the Aztec empire, that depended on human sacrifice to renew themselves. It is not for nothing that the purusha-medha sacrifice has a place in the Vedic canon.
Perhaps Giorgio Agamben, whose rediscovery of the concept of the pariah turned sacrificial victim of the foundational violence of the state though the term – Home Sacer – has found such contemporary resonance in the light of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay , needs to turn his attention to the precincts of the maximum security ward in Tihar Prison. Mohammad Afzal Guru is as likey a candidate today as any for the status of Homo Sacer.
Those who talk about the necessity of slaking a primordial blood-lust through a ritualized execution are somehow enabled by the media to surround themselves with the halo of sobriety, reasonableness and restraint, while those who have doubts, either about the death penalty in general, or about the execution of Afzal Guru in particular, are somehow tagged as extremists. It seems remarkable to me to think that the state’s decision to kill a man in cold blood should be prefaced in terms of reason, caution, consideration and restraint, and that the mere consideration of reasons to save that life should be qualified by terms that suggest that even the entertainment of such a thought could be unreasonable, excessive, rash and impudent.
I have remarked on the sagacity of the Supreme Court of India on other occasions, especially when the lord justices have passed innovative verdicts that suggest that illegal squatters on urban land in a city like should think more carefully about inclement weather, but I am once again amazed at the wisdom and sophistication that some lord justices of the Supreme Court, have displayed in suggesting that even the banal human quality of compassion, or the ordinary, commonplace tendency to doubt that justice has been done when an accused person has gone unheard, or apprehensions about the unleashing of a new spiral of violence, can on occasion be wild, unreasonable, excessive and ever so intemperate. It is evident from the tenor of their pronouncements that cheap sentiments like sympathy, or ordinary doubts about the due processes of trial, or worries about more loss of life, when seen through the exalted filter of national security, are but irritating excesses that need to be held in check.
Incidentally, Dara Singh, accused of burning alive Graham Staines and his two children in Orissa, has had his death sentence commuted to life imprisonment by the Supreme Court (a measure I support, not because I think Dara Singh did something wonderful, but because I am opposed to the death penalty as a matter of principle).
The reason for judicial moderation in the Dara Singh case had to do with the fact that Dara Singh was swayed by his ‘religious convictions and passion’ and therefore his act cannot be considered to be worthy of the ‘rarest of the rare’ criterion – of cold-blooded premeditation and heinous violence, which causes our honorable lord justices to otherwise call for hanging.
Similarly, Kishori Lal, also known as ‘The Butcher of Trilokpuri‘, who had killed several people during the Anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984, recently had his death sentence (again, rightly, in my opinion, because monsters like Kishori Lal need an entire lifetime in prison to reflect on what they have done) read down to life imprisonment by a bench of the honorable Supreme Court.
All of this was actually pointed out yesterday evening by Navkiran Singh, a human rights lawyer based in Chandigarh in the so called debate conducted on (where else) Times Now. Singh pointed out that the fates of Dara Singh and Kishori Lal two men who had actually personally committed gross violence, leading in each case to the death of more than one individual, was deemed as being different from that of Afzal Guru, who, I must remind our readers, never actually killed a single human being. The chorus of voices, orchestrated by Arnab Goswami, with Harish Salve as the principal tenor, repeatedly insisted that all those asking for a second look at the death sentence were motivated by ‘political considerations’ and ‘vote banks’. (the video of this discussion has not yet been made available on the Times Now website, though other debates on the same theme, on the same evening, have appeared). Navkiran Singh, who was barely allowed to speak, nevertheless made a very significant point. Namely, how can we say that the demand for execution is also not ‘politically motivated’. With the BJP, courtesy Narendra Modi already making this an election issue, it would be equally compelling to argue that the demand to execute Afzal Guru is also motivated by considerations that have to do with ‘vote banks’, perhaps much larger ‘vote banks’.
The ‘truth’ in Afzal Guru’s case takes many forms. The truths more palatable to the vote bankers whose assets require death point in another. And the facts of what Guru said in court about what happened leading up to 13 December point in another direction. That drection finds almost no purchase in in the ‘truth’ that reigns in any of the discussion around Afzal Guru’s case. That truth alone must triumph that the Supreme Court, the Ministry of Home Affairs, Times Now and other television channels, editorial commentators and the Intelligence Bureau deem acceptable for the health of the Republic.
In view of this, we might as well propose an amendment to the constitution such that the national motto (‘Satyameva Jayate’ – ‘The Truth Alone Triumphs’) be expanded to read – ‘Sravoccha Nyayalaya-cha-Guptachara Vibhaga-cha-Vichar Madhyama-cha-Griha Mantralayasya Satyameva Jayate”. Such a move would yield a national motto or slogan that would render a resonant and precise statement about the present status of the concept known as the truth in the Indian Republic. To have all manner of truths, especially crassly inconvenient and common ones emerge triumphant, such as the fact that the Indian state is a brutal colonial power that holds Kashmir and parts of the North East by military force and with the aid of “shoot at whim” laws such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act will simply not do. We need refined and processed truths – such as those that condemn Mohammad Afzal Guru to hang.
Still, It is possible that Pranab Mukherji, (the man, not necessaily, the President) may have some residual human qualities that may make him look askance at the fact that Mohammad Afzal Guru is sentenced to be hanged on the basis of statements that actually clearly implicate agencies of the Indian Government such as the Special Task Force (STF) that operate in the territory of Jammu and Kashmir occupied by India in the affair of the attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001. That is why the television pundits must rush to protect Pranab Mukherji the President from being swayed by Pranab Mukherji the human being. No untoward considerations, such as the possibility of the outbreak of rage in the wake of a blatantly unfair execution, or the simple injustice of a man being killed for being trapped, possibly by agents of the state and others in circumstances that were totally beyond his control, must be allowed to stay the president’s or the hangman’s hand. APJ Kalam a former president, had listened to Afzal’s son and wife. Pratibha Patil, a former president, sat on the file. The Indian state has given the matter its time, and that shows how magnanimous the Indian state can be, and now, the incumbent president must say no. Afzal Guru must die.
As I have already said, we do need a reminder (and that is why I have no hesitation in being monotonously repetitive about this) of the fact that Afzal’s alleged involvement in the planning of this attack is the only reason why he is being sentenced to die. Unlike, other instances of the award of capital punishment, the so called ‘rarest of the rare’ (as if the matter of weighing human life and death were somehow like ordering steak at a bespoke restaurant), the accused are likely to be people who have actually killed other people in particularly heinous ways, Afzal is accused only of being an an actor in a conspiracy, a cog in the wheel of terror. His was not a hand that held a gun on that day. He fired no shots, killed no one. He was caught because his phone number was in the phone directory in one of the mobile phones found on the person of the dead terrorists. In a letter written to his Supreme Court defence lawyer, Afzal points out that his mobile phone has numbers of STF personnel, and the same logic by which he is implicated in the conspiracy of December 13 should logically lead to an investigation of the STF personnel’s role in the event.
If that is so, then it would be natural for us to expect that all leads as to who else may be implicated in this conspiracy would have to be exhausted before any one of the conspirators or actors (in this case Afzal) is given the ultimate punishment. We know that Afzal Guru did not have adequate legal representation in the course of his trial, but we also know that he made statements that the court took note of, in the sense that they are on the court record, which include statements that implicate officers of the Special Task Force in Jammu and Kashmir. These are public documents, and they have been meticulously collated in NIrmalangshu Mukherjee’s courageous and disturbing book on the December 13 case – (December 13: Terror over Democracy. Published by Bibliophile South Asia, New Delhi. 2005). This book is available at any good bookship in Delhi, and I am amazed that the media has not in fact made more of this story than it has.
[For more details of why Mohammad Afzal should not die, also see Nirmalangshu Mukherjee's excellent summary of the main arguments outlined in his book in – 'Should Mohammad Afzal die?', The Economic and Political Weekly, September 17, 2005.
Also see - 'Framing Geelani, Hanging Afzal : Patriotism in the Time of Terror' by Nandita Haksar, Promilla & Co. Publishers, New Delhi,2007 and 'The Afzal Petition : A Quest for Justice, Promilla & Co. Publishers, New Delhi,2007. For a general background on the 13 December Case - see - '13 December : A Reader' Edited by Arundhati Roy, Penguin Books India, New Delhi 2006 ]
Perhaps, once again, phone calls from the Intelligence Bureau and the Home Ministry to editorial offices of newspapers and television channels have done their job. That is the charitable explanation, that the majority of the media has acted out of fear. The uncharitable explanation is that the media is silent about Afzal’s relationship with the STF for the same reason as to why it was once so vocal in loudmouthing SAR Geelani’s presumed culpability in the same case. The mainstream media, to a very large extent is not an organ that takes orders from the intelligence apparatus. It is in fact a part of the intelligence apparatus. The 13 December Case will go down in the history of Modern India as an instance that revealed the extent of embedding of the intelligence apparatus of the Indian state within the so called ‘free’ media in India.
In this delicate game of silence and overstatement, the courts have based their indictment of Afzal partly on the statements made by him and partly on confessions extracted under brutal physical and mental torture in police custody, and the majority of the reporting in the media has conveniently overlooked that fact that the names that have been named by Afzal in these very statements point in the direction of the Indian Government’s security, intelligence and counter-insurgency apparatus in Jammu and Kashmir. The ‘needle of suspicion’ to use another favourite Supreme Court phrase, is pointing all over the place, but no one seems to be looking. There is a pattern here that we need to recognize – when things are obvious, look away, and when truths need to be manufactured, use every tool in the book to manufacture them.
We need only to remember that barring Shams Tahir Khan (who was at that time with Aaj Tak Channel), no other journalist present during Afzal’s infamous press conference stage managed by Rajbir Singh, the sometime decorated special cell police officer, encounter expert and part time extortionist (who died in a brawl sparked by his inordinate interest in the darker side of the real estate business) had the gumption to report that Afzal Guru had in fact stated that SAR Geelani was in no way involved with the events of December 13. All other journalists and the news channels that they represented, who had been present at that ‘encounter’ with the truth according to the Delhi Police’s Special Cell, had fallen in line with Rajbir Singh’s ‘request’ to edit out that part of Afzal’s testimony. The only English language national level newspapers or publications that more or less consistently maintained an independent tone were the Hindu and to some extent, Frontline. The only news website that toed a slightly different line was rediff.com, and the only detailed un-biased reports that were published, could actually be found in regional newspapers and publications, mainly in Kashmir, and one, in Kerala.
What this suggests is that the intensity in the court’s and the broad sweep of the national mainstream (especially television) media’s desire to execute Afzal Guru and to focus on him alone, to the exception of those individuals named by him actually constitutes a move to consign aspects of the truth of what lay behind the events of December 13, and the possible part played in them by the ‘deep state’ in India, into a kind of oblivion – a black hole of judicially mandated and media packaged silence from which nothing can be recovered for posterity.
With Afzal Guru’s death, the possibility of concrete evidence for alternative explanations behind the events of that day will die. We will never know, who or what entity actually masterminded the shootout in the Parliament that almost provoked a nuclear war and ensured the legislation of the infamous and now repealed Prevention of Terrorism Act by the then BJP led NDA ruling alliance. If the sentence is carried out, we will never know how much the shadowy senior echelons of the intelligence community in India, or the then home minister and deputy prime minister L.K. Advani, or the then defence minister George Fernandes, or the then prime minister A.B. Vajpayee knew about the fact that a medical and surgical equipment salesman and surrendered JKLF militant called Mohammad Afzal Guru was already being ‘cultivated’ through torture, threats and extortion by STF personnel and serving military and para-military officers for several years prior to 2001. We will never know as to whether or not this ‘cultivation’ led up to the processes that included his being instructed (according to Afzal by these same agencies) to take a man called Mohammad to Delhi, who eventually turned up as the body of a slain terrorist outside the Indian Parliament in Delhi on the 13th of December.It could well be that Afzal is making all this up. And his statements in the court are on record. But it is actually crucial to know whether or not this is the case because on that hinges an enormous deal. will If Afzal dies, the deep state in India will just get a few fathoms deeper, and it is possible that many uncomfortable secrets will die in its depths.
When I wrote the earlier version of this essay in October 2006, I was sitting in far away London, looking at pictures of Andamanese skulls, composite photographs of prisoners in British prisons and fingerprint impressions of convicts taken in un-named colonial prisons in nineteenth century India. Sometimes I did this in two rooms scattered in the campus of the University College of London that houses the remains of what was once founded as the National Eugenics Laboratory by Francis Galton. Galton championed the idea that all social problems could be solved by lessons learnt through indexing, recording and measuring bodies and minds. The truths he sought to legislate, about innate criminality and intrinsic genius, about racial characteristics and inherited traits were to be made concrete by measuring heads and deducing patterns from accumulated fingerprint impressions. In a series of haunting photographs, Galton produces what he calls ‘photo-composites’ – anthropometric images obtained by layering portraits on to each other such that the features blend in to create a composite face. A face that takes something from all the faces that go into it. So you have the average criminal, the average lunatic, the average East End Jew, the average of eight Andamanese crania. When I think of the events that unfolded on December 13, 2001, I cannot but help think of Galton’s photo-composites, and his attempts at deducing the extent of criminality in a given population by producing an average image based on the statistical relationships of the distance of their noses from their chins.
Remember how Mr. Advani, the then home minister said on December 13, 2001, that the slain ‘terrorists’ – ‘looked like Pakistanis’ (incidentally, so does Mr. Advani, especially as he comes from a part of the world which is now in Pakistan). Perhaps he had an image of the ‘average’ Pakistani stored in the database in his cranium, with which he could compare the features of the dead men and come to this remarkable conclusion. Afzal’s indictment too, is an instance of the photo-compositing method of jurisprudence. He is a Kashmiri Muslim man of a certain age, he once was a JKLF activist, he moved often between Srinagar and Delhi for reasons to do with his business. It goes like this – you take any Kashmiri Muslim man of a certain age, and they should look and sound adequately Kashmiri, you identify the fact that they may sympathise or may once have sympathised with the movement to rid Kashmir from brutal military occupation (which is not hard to do, because most human beings would want an end to the particular oppressions that beset them), you zero in on the fact that he moved between Delhi and Srinagar with some frequency and you mix these facts together to produce the face of a terrorist. There are thousands of such faces, and what matters is not individual culpability in a given act, or even whether a person was coerced or bludgeoned or cajoled into participating in a chain of events, but that he should ‘look’ the part. His face should be an echo of the ‘composite’ of the visage of the terrorist that we have learnt to see in our heads.
So much so that when the judges see Afzal, they also see Maqbool Butt, the Kashmiri man whose hanging on February 11, 1984, precipitated by a crime (the assassination of the Indian diplomat Ravindra Mhatre in Birmingham) that he did not commit, was one of the sparks that stoked the ongoing Kashmir uprising. Maqbool Batt, who spent long years in Indian and Pakistani prisons, was like Afzal. dogged by the persistent shadow of his entanglement within Indian (and Pakistani) intelligence maneouvres. He had been sentenced to death many years previously for the alleged murder of an Indian military officer during the prehistory of the insurgency in Kashmir in the 1960s, when Butt had first started a rag tag band of partisans called the National Liberation Front. Subsequently, he may well have come under the shadow once again of Indian intelligence outfits, who used him, it is alleged, to mastermind the hijack of the Indian Airlines plane Ganga in 1971 – ( a remarkably non-violent hijack in which no passengers or crew were harmed, but an ageing plane that had been out of commission and was surprisingly brought back into use days before the hijack was conveniently blown up while stationary in a Pakistani air field).
The shadowy truths of the RAW’s involvement (through the Border Security Force) in the hijacking of the Indian Airlines Fokker Friendship plane Ganga, in 1971 (one of the precipitating factors of the 1971 war) with which Butt had something to do, is one of those episodes in the history of modern India which has never quite seen the light of day. And Butt too, like Afzal, may have eventually been a pawn in a game far more complex then he could have comprehended at the time. It is possible that Butt too, like Afzal was acting at least part of the time under orders that emanated from quarters deep within the Indian deep state. Eventually, Butt, the so-called ‘secular’ idealist of Kashmiri national liberation, the sometime double agent, the victim of Indian as well as Pakistani justice, returned to India, was arrested and put away to be forgotten in Tihar prison, and in the wake of Mhatre’s kidnap and murder, made to walk to the gallows. While alive, he had been an obscure, little known agitator, in death he became ‘Shaheed-e-Kashmir’. He proved to be far more dangerous in his death to the Indian state then he was when he had been alive, so much so that the Indian army routinely swoops down on his village on the 11th of February each year to prevent his family from holding a private memorial function in his honour. His brother too was killed in an encounter, his family prevented from coming to Delhi on the day of his execution, and all pictures or portaits of him have been taken away from the private homes of his immediate family. The cynical shortsightedness and the awkward combination of memory and forgetfulness that characterizes Indian state policy in Kashmir may once again produce its disastrous consequences.
Francis Galton’s racially motivated pseudo-science died a quiet death, and persists mainly as an object lesson in the dangers of the attempt to harvest truths about the human condition on the basis of numbers alone. But it is making a quiet back door entry through the new sciences of biometrics that are at the core of the information technology of the war against terrorism – which itself is the key operation of the setting up of a new kind of state machinery predicated on the hyper-intensive surveillance of those it rules. This includes the impossible holy grail of machine assisted facial recognition as a preventive forensic measure designed to identify and neutralize potential terrorists. This would mean the dream of giving a scientific edge to say the possibility of hanging Mohammad Afzal Guru were it to in some Phillip.K.Dick (remember ‘Minority Report’) sort of way, to take place, before, not after he was convicted for conspiracy in the matter of the 13th of December.
In some crude ways this pre-cognitive neutralization of the terrorist to be is already a refined science in Indian statecraft. It includes the provisions of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act which enable armed forces personnel to shoot to kill on the basis of suspicion. it is the theory of the practice known as the ‘encounter’.
The pre-cognitive faculties of the state know that ‘people like that’ are potential subversives, and that is why the details of whether or not someone like Guru actually was involved in killing people is no consequence, because according to this pre-cognitive mode of justice, even if he wasn’t, he may as well have been. That is why the judicial death sentence given to Afzal Guru has a seamless contiguity with the state that believes in the theory and practice of the exta-judicial encounter.
It is said took the massacres of Algerians in Paris in 1961 for a generation of French Intellectuals to begin to understand the actual nature of the French colonialism in Algeria. How many Kashmiris will need to die in Delhi’s streets and in Tihar (since the number of the dead in Kashmir does not seem to have much of an effect) for the Indian intelligentsia to wake up to the fact that the Indian state is a colonial state and that it acts like any occupying power would, in Kashmir and significant parts of the North East, not very differently, say from the way the State of Israel is acting today in Gaza?
In Afzal Guru’s written statement to his lawyer Sushil Kumar he (Guru) points out how Indian security officers routinely extorted money from him because he was a ‘surrendered militant’ who had not become a special police officer (SPO). In this sordid tale of greed, where different police officers demand varying sums of money after torturing Afzal, lies one of the secrets of Indian colonialism in Kashmir. Our militaries are in Kashmir, Indian soldiers and countless Kashmiris are dying in Kashmir, also because there is money to be made in this business. ‘Terrorists’ are just as necessary a part of this equation. Because ‘terrorists’ become ‘surrendered terrorists’, and ‘surrendered terrorists’ are excellent sources of cash, because if they do not pay up, they can be made to become ‘terrorists’ again. Here is the time honoured police and gangster tradition of the ‘hafta’ and ‘vasuli’ ratcheted up through the brute force of a military occupation. This in fact is one of the sad truths of the Indian state’s presence in Kashmir, and for the sake of the triumph of this truth, Mohammad Afzal Guru is sentenced to die.
I can only hope that Pranab Mukherji looks carefully at the motto inscribed on his website, his stationery, his cutlery and his towels before he goes to sleep each night in the next few days as he weighs the decision about whether to assent to the clemency petition filed by Afzal Guru’s family.