So in India, what does it really take to hang a person 'til he's dead?
The answer is eerie but true: an exclusive opinion poll by a leading current affairs journal or perhaps a couple of agitated television talk shows. But this is getting ahead in the story. Let's start from the beginning.
The Origin of the Tale
On December 13, 2001, five terrorists launched a suicide attack inside Lok Sabha – India's national parliament. Their aim was either to take hostage the entire Indian leadership or to annihilate it. But the attack was foiled by the security forces. The terrorists were killed. It was later revealed that they all were from Pakistan.
Within three days, the Delhi police claimed to have solved the conspiracy and followed it up by arresting four Kashmiris, including a woman, all of them from Delhi. One of the alleged plotters, Mr. SAR Geelani, was an Arabic language lecturer in Delhi University. He was sentenced to death but was later acquitted by the higher court. But the death sentence of another man – Mr. Mohammad Afzal – was upheld by the Supreme Court in September, 2006. He will soon be hanged to death.
After the Attack
The terrorist attack inside the parliament had serious repercussions. The Pakistan connection only made it worse. It enraged the then Indian government, led by BJP – a Hindu fundamentalist party, to an extent that it decided to transfer the army to the international border forcing Pakistan to do the same. The bulk deployment of troops triggered a serious possibility of a nuclear war in South Asia forcing worldwide panic and resulting in fleeing of westerners from both the countries.
Who is Mohammad Afzal?
His story is a mirror into the wasted lives of several Kashmiri youths. Like many of his fellow young men, Mr. Afzal was disgusted and dejected by the alleged atrocities of the Indian army and went across the border into the terrorist camps of Pakistan-held Kashmir. But after returning to India, he was disillusioned enough to surrender to the Indian armed forces in 1993. His later life allegedly turned him into some sort of a police informer, an arrangement in which he willingly or was coerced to supply information on underground dissidence in the strife-ridden Kashmir valley. At least till 2001, he remained in close contact with the Indian armed forces.
Mr. Afzal has a wife and a 5-year old son.
Let's Hang This Man
With the execution sentence delivered, the entire country is abuzz with Mr. Afzal's imminent hanging. Different groups with various agendas have started humming around him and his date with death. On one end of the spectrum is Indian public opinion which, no doubt because of a spurt in Islamic terrorism, seems to be in favor of Mr. Afzal's death. On the other end is a gathering of bleeding-heart liberals and anti-capital punishment groups, which have their own politics to play as they demand clemency for Mr. Afzal.
It must be mentioned that the general opinion, whether against or in support of the hanging, appears to agree that Mr. Afzal is indeed a terrorist, and that he was the actual mastermind behind the Parliament attack conspiracy. Meanwhile Kashmiri Muslims (native Hindus of Kashmir have long been ethnically cleansed by the Islamic terrorists), ever suspicious of anything Indian, have already started seeing Mr. Afzal as a shaeed – a martyr; a hero all set to sacrifice for a greater cause.
Mr. Muhammad Afzal has become something for everyone.
The Lynch Mentality
The Indian court which advocates death penalty only in the rarest of rare cases appeared to be in that rare state where its common sense is apparently reeling under intense emotional excitement. In its death verdict, it decreed that "…the collective conscience of the society will only be satisfied if capital punishment is awarded to the offender."
In a 271-page judgment, the court noted that "the attack was a challenge to the unity and integrity of the country and the conspirators deserve maximum punishment." The honorable court was still not done. It finally concluded that "the accused is a menace to society and his life should be extinguished."
Is This the Rarest of Rare Cases?
However this same court also admitted in its verdict that there was no evidence linking Mr. Afzal to any terrorist group. Most strangely, the court also confessed that there is only circumstantial, but no direct evidence, to link Mr. Afzal to the conspiracy.
So it happens that Mr. Afzal has been sentenced to death, under various sections of the Indian constituion, on the basis of "circumstantial evidence"!
There were other disturbing observations too: the supercop appointed as the investigative officer in the parliament attack case had a complicated reputation of killing 'terrorists' in staged encounters. He was also later caught having liaisons with drug peddlers.
Besides, there have been suggestions of torture. Mr. Afzal's controversial confession, which was arranged by this now-disgraced cop in front of television cameras, conveniently and perfectly, matched the evidence gathered by his investigative team. This indeed happens to be one of those rare circumstances when everything combines together in a most harmonious fashion.
Loopholes do not end here: During the most delicate part of his trial, no lawyer agreed to put in defense for Mr. Afzal. This no-show forced the court to grant the accused the right to cross-examine the witnesses — a questionable privilege to a person with no knowledge of the various permutations and combinations of different laws and constitutional acts.
There are other black drains: Indians still do not know the true identity of the terrorists killed in the parliament. Who were these people? Mr. L K Advani, the then home minister and now the Leader of Opposition in the parliament, had said that 'they (the dead terrorists) looked like Pakistanis'. This was certainly a weird statement considering that one can't make out a Pakistani from a group of Indians simply by their looks – both belonging to the same race.
However even if those terrorists had Pakistani origins, nobody knows about their families: whose sons they were, from where they came and did their families tried to claim their bodies. Everything is muddled and secretive and Mr. Afzal has been sentenced to die by drawing inferences from such discrepancies. Strangely, India's free media has not bothered to raise these issues.
The Misuse of Conscience
There are so many unsolved riddles in Mr. Afzal's case that even his circumstantial complicity in the crime is not certain. But since these are disturbing times of terrorism and a warning has to be delivered to future plotters, India has managed to grab its hands on a Muslim to send that signal. It helps that the accused hails from a state infamous for its disloyalty.
So Mr. Afzal, who might or might not be a terrorist, will be hanged to death. This may be against the essence of justice but still it will make most Indians happy. For now. It will comfort them with the false belief that at least something is being done to prevent the repeat of tragedies, like the recent killing of innocent commuters in Bombay trains. So what if one innocent life has to be lynched in the process?
Meanwhile conservative Hindu organisations are aggressively demanding that Mr. Afzal be hanged as soon as possible. The Indian society, it is being said, is in haste to satisfy its collective conscience. This, of course, is the same society which happily votes for tainted politicians who had clear, proven, and merely not conditional evidence against them in killing fellow countrymen of different faiths – Muslims and Sikhs – at various tragic times during the country's contemporary history.
All is Fair in National Interest
India Today, the country's top selling weekly — the Time magazine of India — carried out an exclusive survey in the October 30, 2006 issue. Believe it or not, it asked urban Indians if Mr. Afzal should be hanged or not. More than 78 percent Indians favored the hanging. The magazine ended its accompanying article on the opinion poll by concluding 'when India is terrorized, Indians want to save the life of the nation rather than the life of the terrorist'.
You see it's all for India's sake.
[For Further Reading: Arundhati Roy's Essay 'And His Life Should Become Extinct' ]