The convergence of three events on the same day has brought the fate of Mohammad Afzal Guru squarely back to the centre of the political radar screen. On Wednesday parliamentarians paid homage to the security personnel who lost their lives while defending parliament house against the terrorist attack of 13 December, 2001.
Even as they were doing so, the relatives of several of the men slain on that day returned the gallantry medals that the deceased had been awarded, stating that they would only take them back when the death sentence on Guru had been carried out. And also on the same day, Guru himself made his last, forlorn, bid to save his life by filing a curative petition that would get his case reviewed by a larger panel of four, instead of two, supreme court judges.
The convergence is unfortunate because it once again confuses two issues that desperately need to be kept separate. These are the question of his guilt or innocence and the nature of his punishment.
The curative petition addresses the former, and seeks a reversal of the sessions court's judgment on the grounds that it did not follow the procedure laid down by the Delhi legal aid rules and therefore deprived Guru of the right to a fair trial. That is a plea that has been heard before, so the outcome may be no different even if a new, enlarged bench hears the arguments. But all it will establish is that Guru is guilty and needs to face punishment.
The second issue is the punishment that Guru should be awarded for his crime, now that he has been found guilty. The president's powers of clemency - to reduce the death sentence to one of life imprisonment - concern solely this issue. He therefore has a solemn duty to prevent the almost hysterical furore that has developed in the country over the first issue from colouring his decision on the second. If a rumour circulating in Delhi is to be believed, the home ministry has made that task infinitely more difficult by deciding to oppose the grant of clemency to Guru.
Even if this is true, and even if Dr Manmohan Singh chooses to forward the recommendation to the President, this will not diminish his responsibility for the final decision. For the president's powers of clemency are uniquely his own. This is the one area in which his decision is final and cannot be overruled by Parliament or cabinet. . Thus he, and he alone, must bear responsibility for the consequences of his decision.
Let me spell out, as simply as I can, what these are likely to be should he refuse to grant clemency. In Kashmir Guru's hanging will have exactly the same effect as the hanging of Maqbool Butt had in February 1984. Till then the Kashmiri separatist movement had been by and large peaceful and marginal. Not only did Butt's hanging draw hundreds of young men like Yassin Malik and Mushtaq Latram into the separatist movement, but for the first time they began to cross the border with the specific purpose of getting trained in the use of arms. The fruits of that monumental blunder are still poisoning us.
The repercussions of hanging Guru will almost certainly be a hundred times more serious. The militant leaders of the 1989 insurgency are now in their late thirties and early forties. They are tired men who have learned the hard way that the gun holds no answers. But for precisely this reason they are no longer icons to the new generation of disaffected, educated youth in the valley.
The resemblance between this and the previous generation ends there. These young men have known no peace and have never seen the benign face of India. On the contrary they have been hardened into unrelenting hatred by 18 years of conflict and incessant militant and Pakistani propaganda.
They have also been influenced by two decades of creeping Wahabi-ism, and are boiling with rage at the world-wide targeting of Muslims that is a by-product of the West's war on terror and they regard India as the West's ally in this war. Today they are rebels without a leader, in search of a cause. Guru's hanging will almost certainly send a substantial number of them into the arms of the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, and the Jaish-e-Muhammad.
A second Kashmiri insurrection under the Lashkar's and Jaish's auspices will make it impossible for Islamabad to take action against their leaders in Pakistan. This will put an end to the Indo-Pak dialogue on Kashmir, and the prospects of peace between the two countries. That will leave the hawks fully in charge in Islamabad.
One consequence will be a renewed bid by the military to ride on the Taliban's coat tails in Afghanistan despite the dangers that such a policy would entail. Another will be a free hand to the Jihadis and the ISI to destabilise India. The resulting increase in the instability of the region, and in terrorist attacks on Indian targets, will make foreign investors shy away from India. Portfolio investment will go first. This will cause an outflow of capital that will bring the stock market crashing down, force domestic interest rates up, crush the industrial boom, and provoke a foreign exchange crisis.
Do we really need any of this? Can we even contemplate taking such a huge risk with India's future? We might have had no option if the death penalty had been mandatory for Guru's crimes. But India no longer has a mandatory death sentence, only a discretionary one. Should anyone whom the nation has made the guardian of its future, be he home minister, prime minister or president, exercise his discretionary power to bring such untold harm down on India's head?
* The author, a noted analyst and commentator, is a former editor of the Hindustan Times, The Economic Times and The Financial Express, and a former information adviser to the prime minister of India. He is the author of several books including, The Perilous Road to the Market: The Political Economy of Reform in Russia, India and China, and Kashmir 1947: The Origins of a Dispute, and a regular columnist with several leading publications.
(The author's articles can be read at www.premshankarjha.com)
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articles by Prem Shankar Jha