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Politics of death sentences in India

Saturday October 01, 2011 02:16:07 PM, Amulya Ganguli, IANS

Prima facie, it is not easy to refute Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah's argument that if the Tamil Nadu and Punjab legislatures can ask for the pardon of Rajiv Gandhi's killers and Khalistani terrorist Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar, why should those Kashmiris be pilloried who want a similar reprieve for Afzal Guru, the terrorist involved in the attack on the Indian parliament in 2001.

Unfortunately, there are reasons why secessionism in Kashmir arouses greater passions than separatist movements elsewhere. One is its duration. The prolonged spell is also coupled with a sense of betrayal because Kashmir was once the first choice of everyone in the rest of the country as a holiday destination. After 1989, it fell off the tourist itineraries.

But it isn't only the two-decade-long militancy which distinguishes Kashmir from the other areas of unrest, as in the northeast, for instance. What also complicates matters are some of the flawed interpretations of the centuries-old interactions of Hindu and Muslim civilisations in the subcontinent, which finally led to the country's partition.

Although Kashmir has remained with India and has its own syncretic tradition, there are political elements in India who want to exploit its Muslim background. But more of that later. For the present, it will be worthwhile looking at another reason why Kashmir is different. It is Pakistan's involvement in a "proxy war" in the valley, which has underlined the brutal reality of the jehadi objective of bleeding India with a thousand cuts.

But even more relevant is the political expediency of the Hindu right, which was hinted at by Omar Abdullah when he asked whether the fact that Afzal Guru was a Muslim made the clemency moves in the Kashmir assembly unacceptable.

Few will deny the basis of the accusation. It is no secret that the political weltanschauung of the saffron brotherhood comprising the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and others is based on an anti-minority outlook.

The question of Afzal Guru's death sentence has become mixed up, therefore, with the communal mindset of the Hindu right. This isn't the case with either Rajiv Gandhi's killers or the Khalistani terrorist since neither Sinhala Tamil nor Sikh separatism has the long background of Hindu-Muslim relations in the subcontinent which are projected in a negative light by the saffron brigade.

While the BJP's political compulsions make it insist on even advancing the date for carrying out Afzal Guru's death sentence, with its voluble president, Nitin Gadkari, asking whether the Muslim terrorist is not being hanged because he is the Congress' "son-in-law", a comment typical of the coarse jibes which the party uses to mobilise its core group of supporters, the BJP cannot but be embarrassed by the demands within the ruling alliance in Punjab (which includes it) to spare the Sikh extremist.

Tamil Nadu, of course, is too far away from the BJP's main bases of support in mofussil north India for the party to be too worried about the demands of the Tamil apologists for Rajiv Gandhi's killers. However, the implications of this move also have a disturbing aspect, though on a more muted scale than in Kashmir.

For one, Tamil Nadu had a history of separatist movements till 1962 although this is now largely forgotten. For another, there was considerable support in the state for the secessionist movement of Tamils in Sri Lanka. The state was against the government of India's policies, which was why Rajiv Gandhi was killed by a Tamil suicide bomber.

It will not be beside the point to recall that the DMK, which is part of the ruling alliance at the centre, was implicated in the assassination, which was why the Congress parted company with it in 1997. The DMK leaders had also pointedly stayed away from the Chennai port when the Indian peacekeeping force returned from Sri Lanka.

Similarly, in Punjab, there are still tiny pro-Khalistani outfits, which extol their secessionist hero, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. Despite their insignificance, a predominantly Sikh party like the Shiromani Akali Dal would not like to go out of its way to displease them.

What these trends indicate is the role, not always salutary, which politics plays in relation to death sentences. These are not seen as just retribution for a crime, but either as an expression of revenge or a matter for compassion. And, as may be expected, these sentiments have a political purpose intended to appeal to a section of supporters, either Hindu or Tamil or Sikh.

Given this unfortunate tendency in India, it may be time to consider abolishing death sentences altogether as has been done in a majority of countries.


Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at









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