Unlike political commentators and analysts, who hyperventilate on pressing issues of the day without having to take an iota of responsibility for their over-the-top commentaries, Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah puts himself – and his job – on the line every single day. Even though chief ministership of the troubled border State is decidedly a crown of thorns, Omar has managed in recent years to turn things around on the ground with political sagacity, which fuses empathy for the plight of ordinary Kashmiris with the onerous responsibilities that are placed on his office to maintain law and order – and retain J&K on the ‘mind-map’ of India, so to speak. That’s no easy task in a State where the Pakistani-sponsored terrorist campaign of the past two decades and more and the ineffectual response of the Indian state to the jihadi challenge has vastly abridged the space for reasoned debate.
So, when Omar speaks with candour on the execution of Afzal Guru, and channels the perception that it represents a resort to “selective adoption” of the death penalty in India – insofar as the assassins of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and former Punjab Chief Minister Beant Singh have been on death row for longer, and have the active backing of mainstream political parties clamouring for their clemency – it is difficult to dismiss him lightly.
The right to appeal for clemency is, of course, embedded in the due process of law and administrative redress. Yet, if mainstream parties really adopted a zero-tolerance approach to terrorism, they ought not to – as they have – make political capital out of demands for the hanging of one convicted terrorist or conspirator, while simultaneously pleading for clemency for another.
A principled opposition to the death penalty in its entirety is another matter; but it is not that sentiment that underlies the political posturing across the spectrum in the context of the execution in November of Ajmal Kasab, the lone surviving terrorist from the 26/11 attack on Mumbai, the hanging of Afzal Guru on Saturday – and the polemics over other death row inmates.
So long as the Supreme Court has, after due application of mind (and applying the filter of the ‘rarest of rare cases’) convicted terrorists and conspirators to death, selective exercise of the state’s right to execute in such rare instances validates perceptions of the sort that Omar articulates: that the state (and political parties) are playing politics with human lives – which is perverse even if those ‘humans’ have perpetrated inhuman deeds.
Yet, when Omar goes on to say that Afzal Guru will likely influence and inspire a generation of young Kashmiris, he perhaps overstates the case and unwittingly feeds the “myth-making industry” that has come up around Afzal Guru.
Afzal Guru’s cut-short life is testimony to the utter and colossal waste of being brainwashed by mindless Pakistani-sponsored jihadism in the guise of advancing Kashmiri “azaadi” dreams. Like many others indoctrinated on false ideologies, who crossed the border into Pakistan-occupied Kashmir in the belief that they were revolutionaries in the “azaadi cause”, Afzal Guru became disenchanted by what he saw. As he himself acknowledged (in this interview), his travel to PoK convinced him that terrorism in Kashmir was nothing but a money-spawning business, motivated not by any higher yearning for “freedom” or any sense of logic.
But unlike many others, Afzal Guru had a second shot at life. After surrendering to the Jammu and Kashmir police, he relocated to Delhi, took up a mainstream career - and could arguably have redeemed himself and made something of his life if he hadn’t slipped back into the orbit of Pakistani-sponsored terrorists and willingly aided them in the attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001.
It is that message that ought to be amplified in Kashmir, including among the young, and Omar Abdullah is best placed to convey it. But when he speaks of Afzal Guru as someone who will likely inspire a generation of young Kashmiris, he yields too easily to the myth-making industry around Afzal Guru that plays around with “truth”.
In a polemical essay in The Hindu on Sunday (here), Arundhati Roy, the head priestess of that myth-making industry, peddles mistruths and hand-picks half-truths to portray Afzal Guru as “a victim of torture, blackmail, extortion.” With characteristic hyperbole, she dismisses the entire body of evidence against Afzal Guru (which the Supreme Court had considered and, after due application of mind, pronounced verdict on) as a “pile up of lies and fabricated evidence.”
It would have been immensely gratifying to rip Arundhati Roy’s argument to shreds, but I’ve been spared that exertion (and denied the pleasure!) because Praveen Swami has, in his response today (here), done a masterly job of it. Roy has, as Swami points out, built her case around “what can, at best, be described as parts of the evidence, cherry-picked for polemical effect.” Additionally, she is guilty of ” censoring… facts that sit ill with her account” – that during the trial phase, the judicial system was blind to Afzal Guru’s legal rights.
Arundhati Roy also peddles the myth that the Indian government recalled its Ambassador from Pakistan and mobilised half a million soldiers to the Pakistan border “based only on Afzal’s confession.” In fact, as Swami points out, there is a fairly persuasive body of evidence to establish just who carried out the attack on the Indian parliament – and why. The fact that it was the Jaish-e-Muhammmad that, operating under Pakistan’s ISI, that carried out the attack was well-known even then – and validated by the testimony of, among others, a former ISI chief.
Swami concludes that “the ground beneath Ms Roy’s seismic claims… is shaky – to say the least.”
But then, when you’re in the business of myth-making, as Arundhati Roy is in the Afzal Guru case, you don’t have to constrain yourself with mundane facts…