Afzal Guru: One man’s execution shows up Indian self-doubt

By Khadija Patel 19 February 2013

It’s said war would end if the dead could return. In Kashmir, where conflict stalks people relentlessly, there is dwindling hope even for returning the bodies. The demand for the return of just one man’s remains is proving a political quagmire for the Indian state. By KHADIJA PATEL.

Afzal Guru, a 43-year-old Kashmiri man said to have assisted in an attack on the Indian parliament building in Delhi in 2001, was hanged by Indian authorities earlier this month. His family claims to have heard about the execution via social media.

The family, who lives in a village near the town Sopore in the Kashmiri valley, received a letter from the Indian authorities informing them of the imminent execution after the fact.

That memo was sent by the superintendent of Central Jail No-3 at the Tihar prison in New Delhi. Addressed to “Mrs Tabassum w/o Sh Afjal Guru,” it reads:

“The mercy petition of Sh Mohd Afjal Guru s/o Habibillah has been rejected by Hon’ble President of India. Hence the execution of Mohd Afjal Guru s/o Habibillah has been fixed for 09/02/2013 at 8 AM in Central Jail No-3. This is for your information and for further necessary action.”

Now, his family is struggling for the return of his body to Kashmir.

Guru’s wife, Tabassum, has asserted her rights over his body in a short letter to Indian authorities. She demands that his remains be handed over to her for “proper burial” in his home state of Jammu and Kashmir. Afzal was buried inside the Tihar jail soon after his hanging in secret beside Kashmiri separatist leader Maqbool Bhat, who was also buried in the prison complex after his hanging in 1984.

Tabassum’s struggle for her husband’s body, however, appears futile.

On Monday Indian media reported that the government was unlikely to return Guru’s body to his family. Quoting unnamed sources from the Home Ministry, they said Indian authorities feared a return of Guru’s body could spark demonstrations against the Indian military presence in Kashmir.

The situation in Kashmir is thought to be too delicate to take the risk.

The Indian government has offered Guru’s family the option of paying their respects to Guru at the Tihar prison. Guru’s family, however, remains adamant. They do not want to visit the grave. They want his remains returned to them.

In the meantime, Kashmir is inching its way back to normalcy after protests broke out against the Indian government’s execution of Guru. A seven-day curfew last week was defied by protesters. Clashes with the Indian military left at least three people dead.

The Indian writer Arundhati Roy notes in The Guardian on Monday that the tone of demonstrations that broke out after Guru’s execution has been markedly different to other uprisings in recent years.

“[A]nybody who trawls the internet will see that this time the rage of young Kashmiris is not defiant and exuberant like it was during the mass uprisings in the summers of 2008, 2009 and 2010 – even though 180 people lost their lives on those occasions. This time the anger is cold and corrosive. Unforgiving,” she says.

Ordinary Kashmiris believe there has been a miscarriage of justice, and human rights groups agree.

“[T]he trial itself was riddled with problems, which leads Amnesty International to strongly believe that he did not receive a fair trial and certainly not a trial that meets international standards,” Govind Acharya, a member of the South Asia Co-Group for Amnesty International, says. “The execution itself was carried out in secret and it’s still not clear whether Afzal Guru was given the opportunity to seek a judicial review of the decision to reject his mercy petition [to the Indian president].”

Even Guru’s prosecutor, Gopal Subramanium, has criticised the government’s failure to inform the family and let them see Guru before his execution. He said it was a “serious omission in the administration of human rights”.

Guru was first scheduled to be hanged in 2006, but his wife filed a petition for mercy to the Indian president, and his execution was postponed. For years there seemed to be no urgency in reviewing the petition. Successive Indian governments appeared to be putting off the petition indefinitely.

But on January 23, Indian president Pranab Mukherjee formally rejected the mercy petition on behalf of Guru, and soon thereafter Home Affairs minister Sushilkumar Shinde ordered his execution. None of this was done with any transparency.

Analysts believe the Indian government acted in secrecy to prevent people in Indian-held Kashmir, where there is widespread sympathy for Guru, from agitating against his impending execution. And so, too, his remains can’t be returned to his family, just in case it excites the ire of a people who feel there has been a miscarriage of justice.

Acharya explains that Indian law permits authorities to withhold an executed prisoner’s body from their family if it is feared its return may provoke unrest. “India’s ‘Model Prison Manual’ allows that the body need not be handed over in case of “public demonstration”. In those cases, a District Magistrate can make another decision and not turn the body over, Acharya says.

He, however, feels such regulations are “absurd”.

“If the state decides to execute someone, Kashmiris should be allowed to protest peacefully if they wish. It is a disturbing trend in India to use arcane remnants of the old British colonial laws to restrict free speech. These laws have been conveniently not been repealed. This is no doubt one of these issues,” he says.

The Indian Human Rights Forum says the evidence against Guru “was thin and circumstantial”. 

“It is well to remember that all the five attackers of Parliament were killed in the gunfight that very day, and Afzal Guru’s alleged involvement in the planning of the attack on Parliament is the only reason why he was sentenced to die,” the organisation said in a statement. “This is no way meets the ‘rarest of rare’ critieria for which the death sentence is allowed for in Indian law.”

Acharya says the death penalty wasn’t very widely used until recently. “Between 1975 and 1991, there were 40 people executed. Since then it was very rarely used. However, since the execution of Ajmal Kasab, one of the attackers during the 2008 Mumbai attacks, we have concerns that the government will be stepping up executions,” he says. And Guru’s case brings to light as well other such executions that may still happen.

“Of particular concern is the risk of imminent execution of Meesekar Madaiah, Gnanprakasham, Simon, and Bilavendran. They were convicted under the since expired Terrorists & Disruptives Act (TADA) for blowing up a vehicle carrying policemen on their way to arrest the famous sandalwood smuggler Veerappan,” Acharya says.

But even as concerns are raised about the precedent Guru’s execution sets for other executions in India, analysts are speculating over the motive of his execution. “I… think the fact that people are looking for motivations into this case shows exactly why here shouldn’t be any death penalty at all in India,” Acharya says.

He believes these executions show up a critical flaw in the world’s biggest democracy. India is, at its heart, deeply insecure about itself. “A confident nation has no need for state killing of this sort,” Acharya says.  DM

Read more:

Photo: Supporters of different political religious parties shout slogans during an anti-India demonstration to condemn the hanging of Kashmiri militant Mohammad Afzal Guru, in Muzffarabad, capital of Pakistan-administrated Kashmir February 11, 2013. India hanged Afzal Guru on Saturday for an attack on the country’s parliament in 2001, sparking clashes in Kashmir between hundreds of protesters and police who wielded batons and fired teargas to disperse the crowds. India’s President Pranab Mukherjee rejected a mercy petition from Guru and he was hanged at 8 a.m. (0230 GMT) in Tihar jail in the capital, New Delhi. The banner reads in Urdu, “Keep walking with these lamps as long as this night of tragedy continues”. REUTERS/Amiruddin Mughal


While we have your attention...

An increasingly rare commodity, quality independent journalism costs money - though not nearly as much as its absence.

Every article, every day, is our contribution to Defending Truth in South Africa. If you would like to join us on this mission, you could do much worse than support Daily Maverick's quest by becoming a Maverick Insider.

Click here to become a Maverick Insider and get a closer look at the Truth.

Foreign Relations

Ramaphosa leads high-powered delegation to the UN – to sell SA

By Peter Fabricius

Adolf Hitler was the first European leader to ban human zoos.