13 December, 2001. Five unidentified people stormed the Parliament compound in a white Ambassador. When challenged by the security forces, they opened fire. Eventually, all five of them were killed. Also killed in the process were nine security personnel and a gardener.
The Supreme Court has given its verdict and handed over the death penalty to one Afzal Guru and a 10 year sentence to one Shaukat Guru. Afzal’s family has now appealed to the President of India for clemency.
This collection of essays attempts to show how Afzal went unrepresented almost throughout his trial, how the case was made up against him through false evidences, forced confessions and judicial incompetence. Further, there is a hint that there was an ulterior motive behind incarcerating Afzal and that he is just a pawn in the larger game. A game played by the right wing parties to whip up enough passion to go to war with Pakistan (with an eye on the elections). You almost get the feeling that writers are suggesting that the Indian Government stage-managed the whole incident for a few brownie points.
Some notes below:
- Most of the essays look at the legal aspects of the case. The idea is to sift through evidence available and question it. Except for , maybe, Praful Bidwai, most of the writers stay away from arguing on the moral implications of a death sentence. This is a good thing since that kind of argument is not really the story behind this book. The common statement across the essays is that Afzal was not given a fair trial, the lawyers representing him at various stages were incompetent (and often hostile to his case) and that he has been wrongly framed by the police and the politicians. The politicians, especially the right wingers, have made hay with this case.
- The case made is compelling. However, by the time you are done reading, you get a feeling that you have been brainwashed. The book would have made a lot more sense if we had representation from the prosecution, the police etc answering the questions raised by our essayists. Instead, the book (I do not, for a moment, doubt its noble intentions) ends up as a pamphlet for the “save-Afzal” campaign.
- There are inherent contradictions. For example, the essayists are not able to decide why there is a need for clemency in this case. From Ms. Roy’s introduction to the book: “Among the people who have appealed against Mohammad Afzal’s death sentence are those who are opposed to capital punishment in principle. ..”. Later, Ms Nandita Haksar writes “All those who are protesting against the death sentence for Afzal are doing so because they know that he has not been given an opportunity to defend himself. Even the so-called Kashmiri seperatist leaders are not saying that Afzal should not be hanged merely because he is a Kashmiri. They are saying that he should not be hanged because he was never given a fair trial.”
- Ms. Haksar has the knack for making outright statements without explaining (maybe because it is too much work to justify her statements). Consider this : “There was a small group of citizens…who were deeply concerned over the fact that the new anti-terrorist law made it virtually impossible for any accused to prove his innocence. And they believed Geelani when he said he was innocent”. We are not told what the reasoning for this belief is.
- Shuddhabrata Sengupta takes a dig at the then Home Minister, LK Advani, who told the media that the attackers “looked like Pakistanis”. Consider this piece “…it is important to pause and consider how exactly we know that someone looks like a terrorist.”
- Consider this section from Ms. Roy herself “On the whole, most Kashmiris see Mohammad Afzal as a sort of prisoner-of-war being tried in the courts of an occupying power (which India undoubtedly is in Kashmir).” Astounding ! A quick googling tells me that around 350,000 Kashmiri Pandits were forced to migrate out of the state of Jammu & Kashmir. I wonder if it does affect the identity of any state when you move such a large chunk of people out. Would these Kashmiri Pandits (had they been allowed to stay at home) also called India “an occupying power”. I am not trying to get jingoistic here, but you cannot make such statements without looking at the issue from all angles.
- Nirmalangshu Mukherji (who has himself written a book on this case) presents the bare facts of the case and attempts to show how the whole case was built on flimsy evidence (if we can call it that !) For example, SAR Geelani (who was later acquitted by the SC) was arrested on 15 Dec, 2001 apparently on the basis of records of phone calls made to and from his cell to various people, some of them in Pakistan. However, the court records show that the call details provided by Airtel, Geelani’s provider, were dated 17 Dec, 2001. “How could the police arrest Geelani two days before it got the phone records that ‘led’ them to him” argues the writer !
- Praful Bidwai aims a dig at the fact that India still has the death penalty while other civilized countries have long abolished it : “..this represents a definite erosion of liberal values, at a time when the abolition of the death penalty has emerged the world over as a precondition for a country being considered civilized”. Countries such as China, Japan and the US still retain the death penalty. I thought we counted them as “civilized”, no ? Wasnt the death penalty handed over to Saddam Hussein under the auspices of that “most civilized state”, the US ?
- Mr. Bidwai further digs in trenches : “Deprived of the spirit of Nehru or Gandhi, there is a bloody mindedness in India today as never before”. Wasn’t Nathuram Godse handed the death penalty for killing Gandhi (with Nehru as our PM then) ?
- Mr Mukherji, in another essay argues that the lapses of the investigating authorities were not investigated/questioned by the courts. “.. the microscopic nature of a trial in court, however, means that it is only the accused whose conduct will be interrogated and judged”. There were plenty lapses and some deliberate planting and twisting of evidence (the forced confessions for one) that point a finger of suspicion towards the investigating teams themselves. At no point did the court ask these lapses to be investigated into. There is an urgent need to look into how the entire investigation was completed and arrests made in a matter of a few weeks.
To end, this is a good book addressing an issue which is urgent and critical. Not just from the perspective of this particular trial, but from the much larger perspective of the miscarriage of justice in our courts. The book tries to bring out the brutality of the STF (State Task Force) in J&K and how they extort money from surrendered militants.
The attraction for investing time with this book was Ms. Arundhati Roy’s writing; it stings and gives the whole issue a voice which is somehow missing from the other essays.
“To hang Mohammad Afzal without knowing what happened is a misdeed that will not easily be forgotten. Or forgiven. Nor should it be
Notwithstanding the 10% growth rate. ”
Note: This is not a review of this book. I am not qualified enough to review this book.