Mohammed Afzal Guru, convicted for the attack on India’s Parliament in December 2001, was hanged on Saturday morning in Delhi’s Tihar Jail. The most important reaction to this news should be introspection; about how to move forward in troubled Kashmir, which was forced into curfew in anticipation of protests, and about whether justice was fully and completely done, in such a way that India can be as proud of its justice system as it was after the execution of Ajmal Kasab. Whether or not the death penalty is necessary or can coexist with a liberal civilised state is a different point, and an argument that must continue independent of any specific execution. The focus should be on the particular, and very peculiar, circumstances of this execution.
It is worth remembering the context: the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) had long delayed Afzal Guru’s execution, although he was first sentenced to death in 2002, a decision upheld by the Supreme Court in 2005 and again in 2007. The mercy petition with the office of the President of India was moved by his family in 2006, and was finally rejected, nearly six years later, last week. Questions, however, have arisen on whether the government informed his family properly, or it merely sent a registered letter to his last known address with this information. The political context is also important: the UPA has been hit hard for laxity on internal security by the Bharatiya Janata Party, which appears to be coalescing around a hard security agenda. The secret executions of Ajmal Kasab and now of Afzal Guru are likely to be seen partly as political manoeuvring, which is an unfortunate development that the government should have avoided by choosing its timing more sensitively.
It is beyond question that the letter of the law was followed in Afzal Guru’s case, with the sentence being appealed all the way to the Supreme Court and surviving even a review petition. But, as has been detailed extensively, the spirit of the law was not followed in full. The trial process was full of holes; he did not have a lawyer of his choice, and the one he did essentially presented no defence. The Supreme Court, while recognising this and setting free two accused co-conspirators, invoked the “collective conscience” of India in order to say Afzal Guru must be executed, a phrase that many in Kashmir and elsewhere might well imagine would have required, instead, that the sentence be commuted. President Pranab Mukherjee’s decision to reject the mercy petition could be defended on the ground that he essentially had no option but to confirm what the Supreme Court and the home ministry had said; but that point of view does not answer the larger question of why there was such a long delay in taking action after the Supreme Court rejected Afzal Guru’s mercy petition in 2007 and what prompted the quick decision on executing him now. Whatever the reasons, political or otherwise, to hang Afzal Guru now, the government should ask itself whether it was worth this high cost.