As someone who has always had ethical problems with the death penalty, I may be forgiven for not 'celebrating' the execution of Afzal Guru for his involvement in the attack on Parliament in December 2001. At the same time, it is undeniable that Afzal received a full and fair trial, and there was nothing knee-jerk in last Saturday morning's executive decision to carry out the sentence. Indeed, those who maintained that there was absolutely no need to wait for such a long time before carrying out the sentence after the Supreme Court upheld it in 2005, have a strong case. By dithering over the decision for more than seven years, as the file meandered from the table of one babu to another, the Government can quite rightly be accused of wilfully politicising the issue.
Actually, there are reasonable grounds for the belief that the UPA Government lacked the moral resolve to implement the judicial verdict speedily. True, there may have been some individuals who had moral qualms. But those were very few in number. The real hesitation stemmed from the belief that somehow the death sentence on Afzal would be viewed as an example of minority targeting in some parts of the country. Certainly, there are separatists in Jammu and Kashmir who will use the execution of Afzal to provoke anti-India feelings. The Government will have to use both tact and effective policing to cope with the problem.
That there will be a small political fallout from Saturday morning's execution in Tihar Jail is undeniable. Since both Ajmal Kasab, the only one of the 26/11 butchers who was brought before a court of law, and Ajmal Kasab, who conspired in the attack on Parliament, happened to be Muslims, there will be those who will see in the two death sentences evidence of an anti-Muslim bias of the Indian political and judicial establishments. Such puerile but potentially inflamatory logic will even have a few takers among those who believe that India is an appropriate place to wage a holy war. These fanatics won't be the ones to appear on TV chat shows but they will be the ones who will craftily disseminate their poisonous message inside the ghettos and among those Muslims who feel that life has short-changed them.
For the political class as whole, the emergence of a motivated fifth-column is a challenge. The technology of terrorism is such that it takes only a handful of individuals to create fear and devastation. Certainly this was the case with the Indian Mujahedeen which was responsible for many terrorist outrages a few years ago. However, as events in the aftermath of 26/11 showed, a purposeful counter-terrorism outfit, guided by strong political direction, is in a position to keep the situation well under control. As Home Minister of India, Shivraj Patil was an unmitigated disaster. His successor, P.Chidambaram, on the other hand, addressed his responsibilities with single-minded commitment and played a major role in curbing the terrorist threat.
The question that is uppermost in the minds of most Indians today is: can Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde live up the exacting standards set by Chidambaram? The initial assessments of him have not been rosy. Apart from his penchant for casual utterances, he appears to have, of late, been preoccupied with scoring political points against the BJP on the 'Hindu terrorism" question. After the execution of Afzal this issue is almost certain to be further highlighted, if only to demonstrate that there was no pre-mediated targeting of minorities.
I am not one of those who believe that 'Hindu terror" is an oxymoron. There were tiny groups of fanatics in the mid-2000s that believed that the only way to fight jehadi terror was through retribution. Some of these loonies have been caught and some of them are reportedly still at large. Breaking up these so-called Hindu terror modules is an important task before the police forces of the states and the Central investigating bodies. However, if the Centre decides that 'Hindu terror' is a delicious handle to score political points against the RSS and BJP, the outcome will not be a happy one.
On many occasions, politicians have maintained that terrorism knows no religion. Academic studies of the phenomenon may not confirm this over-simplistic thesis. Religion has played a role in motivating individuals to undertake direct action against those they perceive as their enemies. However, as a philosophy governing policy, the principle of terrorism as a phenomenon separate from religious beliefs is unexceptionable. The job of the state is to guard against violent threats to fellow citizens, irrespective of whether the potential mischief-makers are inspired by theology, politics or dementia. In the eyes of the law, an offence is an offence regardless of what has prompted it.
Most Indians believed Afzal deserved the death penalty because he was involved in a heinous conspiracy to attack the most important symbol of Indian democracy. His faith was irrelevant in determining whether he should be given clemency or made to pay for his crime. If politicians cutting across party lines stick to this line of reasoning, any adverse fallout resulting from his hanging will be short-lived. If, on the other hand, nervous politicians, fearful of any adverse impact on community support, decide that this is the time to swing to the other extreme and target some other group, it will open the floodgates of sectarian bitterness.
To a minusculity, Afzal will be a martyr, just as the assassins of Indira Gandhi were martyrs and Nathuram Godse an oracle. In a country as large and diverse as India, there will always be a fringe. The important thing is to be focussed on the fact that an overwhelming majority of India believes that terrorists must pay a heavy price for their actions.
Sunday Pioneer, February 10, 2013