Why Afzal Guru’s execution is a clever politico-strategic move

The UPA government’s execution of Parliament House attack convict Afzal Guru on 9 February morning – as sudden and secretive as the 21 November 2012 execution of LeT terrorist and 26/11 attacks convict Mohammed Ajmal Amir Kasab – is a clever politico-strategic move.

With one stroke, the government has effectively silenced the BJP’s shouting brigade that did not let go of a single chance to lambast the UPA for not executing Guru for the past seven-and-a-half years ever since the Supreme Court confirmed his death sentence on 4 August 2005. The timing of the execution is significant as it comes days after the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, stormed the national capital with his politically-loaded lecture at Shri Ram College of Commerce on 6 February. With his SRCC lecture Modi had clearly conveyed his readiness to play a national role, a red rag for the jittery Congress.

Also, this is the first time in the history of independent India when two back-to-back executions of terrorists have taken place. The political symbolism being conveyed by the Congress-led UPA government through these executions is that it has a zero tolerance on the issue of terrorism that impinges on national security.

But ironically, despite the two executions, the ball is still in the Congress court as the latest execution raises the inevitable question: when will Rajiv Gandhi’s assassins be hanged? In August 2011, the then President Pratibha Patil had rejected the mercy pleas of the three killers – Murugan alias Sriharan, Santhan and Perarivalan. The trio has been on death row since May 1999 when the Supreme Court had sentenced them as well as Murugan’s wife Nalini to death. Nalini’s death sentence had been commuted to life imprisonment by the apex court in 2000.

Tihar jail where Afzal Guru was hanged and later buried. PTI

Tihar jail where Afzal Guru was hanged and later buried. PTI

Now let’s get back to the original point: why Afzal Guru’s hanging is a shrewd politico-strategic move. The political aspect has just been enumerated. From the security perspective, the weather has been a major decisive factor. Mountain passes in Kashmir will remain closed at least till April. So that means that Pakistan would have little opportunity in infiltrating a fresh batch of terrorists into Jammu and Kashmir for reprisal attacks.

Importantly, the Centre had obtained detailed reports from intelligence agencies about the ground situation in Jammu and Kashmir. These reports emboldened the Centre to take decisive action as the intelligence agencies gave their thumbs-up that no large-scale uprising was feared at this point of time.

The budget-level secrecy enveloping the Afzal Guru hanging, like in the case of Kasab’s execution, is a cause of cheer for the Congress-led coalition government which has demonstrated that it can carry out such operations without the left hand getting to know what the right hand is doing. This is far cry from the track record of another Congress-led coalition government almost two decades ago, when the then Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao had to abandon plans to carry out fresh nuclear tests as the Indians could not keep the secret then and American intelligence agencies blew the lid off the Indian plan.

Thus what Narasimha Rao could not do in 1995-96 due to immense US pressure was done by the Atal Behari Vajpayee government in May 1998. The complete secrecy maintained by the government in the executions of Kasab and Guru is a healthy sign for the Indian security apparatus.

Another important point pertains to the post-execution modus operandi observed by the government in the Kasab and Guru cases. In both cases the convicted terrorist’s dead body has been buried at an undisclosed location within the jail campus – Pune’s Yerwada Jail in the case of Kasab and Delhi’s Tihar Jail in the case of Guru. The unwritten security tradition had been first implemented in the case of JKLF terrorist Maqbool Bhat who was hanged in Delhi’s Tihar Jail on 11 February 1984 by the Indira Gandhi government and buried within the jail compound.

There were widespread protests in Kashmir valley then and a clamour for handing over Bhat’s mortal remains to his relatives. But the government stood its ground and rejected such demands to prevent the Kashmiri separatists to lionise him and erect his ‘mazaar’. Similarly, the killers of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi – Satwant Singh and Kehar Singh – were hanged to death in Tihar Jail on 6 January 1989 and their bodies buried within the jail compound.

The Americans went several steps ahead in May 2011 and buried the dead body of Osama bin Laden, the world’s most wanted man, in the sea bed. But essentially what the Americans did was a replica of the Indian policy first practiced by the Indians more than 27 years ago in the case of Maqbool Bhat.

Now that Afzal Guru has been executed and buried, the biggest task for the Indian security establishment is to ensure that the event does not give a handle to the Kashmiri separatists and their Pakistani benefactors to take advantage of the situation. The separatists and their masters would very much like to convert Guru’s hanging into a triggering point for the Kashmiri version of an Arab Spring. But the possibility quotient of such a scenario is as equivalent to the possibility quotient of snowflakes surviving in an oven.

(The writer is a New Delhi-based journalist-author and a strategic affairs analyst who can be reached at bhootnath004@yahoo.com)