Former apex court judge’s mercy plea for Rajiv Gandhi killers exposes vindictiveness against Afzal Guru

Pangs of troubled ‘collective conscience’

Right or wrong, now that Afzal Guru’s fate has become an irreversible fact the ‘collective conscience’ of the Indian nation is waking up to pangs of uneasiness over inconvenient truth which was arrogantly bypassed in his case but is beginning to pinch in relation to comparable cases of the alleged killers of Rajiv Gandhi and Beant Singh.

Almost two decades after the event, Supreme Court Judge KT Thomas who headed the bench that confirmed the death penalty for Rajiv Gandhi’s (Tamil) killers is troubled by his retrospective ‘moral conscience’. He now says that it would be ‘unjustified’ to carry out the sentence on two main counts: One that the trial of the accused suffered from serious lacunae and two that the convicts had already suffered more than twenty years of agony behind bars.
In the other case, Akali Dal, presently in power in Punjab in coalition with the BJP, has stepped up campaign to save the life of Balwant Singh Rajoana, awarded capital punishment for the assassination of former chief minister Beant Singh, even as Rajoana has once again told his family that he would want to be hanged at the earliest. He does not disown the act for which he had been sentenced.

Both the above cases historically predate that of Afzal Guru and yet it was he who was despatched to the gallows in haste ‘to satisfy the collective conscience of the Indian nation’. This indecent act and the high handed manner of its handling smacked of utter arrogance and heartlessness at the top. If still there were any doubts on that score those were dispelled by the inhuman attitude of the authorities in New Delhi in dealing with the religious and humanitarian aspects of Guru’s hanging. Arrogance of authority was tinged with calculated sectarian bias. Collective demand of Kashmiris, backed by numerous humanitarian and social organisations across the country, that Guru’s body be returned to his family for a decent burial in his homeland, is being tossed around like a political football. It amounts to adding insult to the injury.

Public statement of Justice Thomas favouring the killers of Rajiv Gandhi has several dimensions many of which relate directly to Afzal Guru’s case and lead to the obvious conclusion that Guru had been made a scapegoat at each and every stage of his trial, conviction, sentencing and finally his arbitrary execution on February 9. Apart from pointing out certain procedural infirmities in the trial and conviction of Rajiv Gandhi’s killers, Justice Thomas has opposed their execution on the ground that they had already suffered agony and torture for over 20 years in the death row. The former judge’s statement has evoked nation-wide interest and elicited favourable opinion from several quarters.

In the case of Rajoana, the Akali Dal had the Punjab assembly pass a resolution seeking annulment of his death sentence. Fresh appeals have also been addressed to President Pranab Mukherjee. Although Rajoana himself has been consistingly pressing for his immediate execution that has not prevented the Akali Dal from pursuing their campaign to save his life. 

By comparison, Afzal Guru looks to have been not only condemned unheard but also eliminated against norms of decent behaviour expected of the world’s largest democracy. The argument that Guru had been made a scapegoat to ‘satisfy the collective conscience of the nation’ was crafted to camouflage the ugly truth that his fate had been determined by the incidental fact of his being a Kashmiri and a Muslim. The manner in which the aftermath of this case is being handled makes it all the more difficult to erase the above impression.

This is, in fact, the general impression running deep across the political and social spectrum in the Valley. Mercifully, unlike in the past, there is calm on the surface but it would be a great folly to mistake this fragile equilibrium for anything more than that.

Afzal Guru has, meanwhile, acquired a larger-than-life public image in the popular psyche. His fate has rekindled a host of bitter memories and reinforced collective sense of hurt and humiliation. Its potential implications are hard to visualise but one thing is certain: New Delhi cannot afford not to respond—sooner than later—for, the ground situation is gravely fraught.