Clamouring for blood Political dogfight over the fate of Afzal Guru and Sarabjit Singh

Familiar audio-visual cross signals have resurfaced over the fate of Afzal Guru whose mercy petition, against his death sentence in the parliament attack case, has been returned to the President with the union government’s recommendation that it be rejected. Ironically, the government’s announcement about rejection of Guru’s mercy plea coincided with foreign minister SM Krishna’s fervent appeal to the Government of Pakistan to pardon Sarabjit Singh who is an Indian national placed in almost identical circumstances across the border as Guru on this side. Singh has been sentenced to death for his involvement in a bomb attack in 1990. His mercy petition is pending with the Pakistan government.

Krishna stated in the parliament that Pakistan had been requested to ‘take a humanitarian view’ and set free Sarabjit Singh. Put together, the attitude of the union government in dealing with two nearly identical cases is grossly inconsistent, to say the least.

It is well known and well documented that the trial of Afzal Guru in India and that of Sarabjit Singh across the border suffered from serious lacunae, procedurally as well as factually. Influential sections of informed public opinion on both sides have gone on record to pinpoint errors and blind spots in the trial procedures. According to this version, both the accused suffered unfair trial and, for that alleged reason, extreme penalty inflicted upon them was questionable. But that is only so far as the moral and technical part of the story goes.

Voices demanding proper justice for the two condemned prisoners have got drowned in the din of competing political, ideological and nationalistic jingoism. While Pakistan government’s response to India’s plea for saving Sarabjit Singh’s life is not yet known, clamour for immediate hanging of Afzal Guru is becoming louder. There also seems to be substance in the argument that the timing of the UPA government’s rejection of Guru’s mercy petition, after having sat over it for years, was dictated by the need to ward off the pressure of gathering political storms over corruption and other issues.

Dileep Padgaonkar, head of the Kashmir interlocutors’ team, is right in pointing out that hanging of Afzal Guru at this time was bound to have an adverse impact on the ground situation in the Valley where people are not convinced that Guru was given a fair trial and where proven cases of death and destruction are being winked at by the government as well as the judiciary. Even now, incidents of fake encounter and custodial killing with impunity continue to occur at regular intervals. Perceived selective dispensation of justice is a potent political issue and willy nilly it gets coupled with the issue of Guru’s fate. Padgaonkar is also right when he points out that the normalcy prevailing in Jammu and Kashmir today is too delicate to endure potential consequences of Guru’s hanging.

The reality is that the principal parties arrayed on the two sides of this issue on the national stage are both equally guilty of practising double standards. The UPA government’s action in rejecting Guru’s plea for mercy and, at the same time, urging Pakistan government to ‘take humanitarian view’ of Sarabjit Singh’s case smacks of gross hypocrisy. Not so long ago, the BJP had pleaded against the death sentence awarded to the accused involved in bomb blast at the Youth Congress headquarters in New Delhi in which nine persons were killed and the then YC chief MS Bitta was seriously injured. Today the very same BJP is baying for Guru’s blood.

The government has made its position still more ridiculous. Till now it was justifying delayed processing of Guru’s mercy petition on procedural grounds, saying that over two dozens of similar petitions filed earlier were in the pipeline. But suddenly as the political storm struck Raisina Hill in New Delhi, Guru’s rejected plea landed at the President’s table, obviously out of turn and without explanation of why so.