October 21, 2006Public PolicySecurity

Death sentence dilemma

A nation that succumbs to threats of violence is worse than one that executes murderers

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

Opponents of Mohammad Afzal Guru’s death sentence fall into three categories. First, there are those who are opposed to the death sentence in principle. Regardless of the merits of the argument for or against the death penalty though, leaving a perception that the rules were changed to save Afzal risks dividing the nation in more than one sense. This case must be seen from the point of what the law is (or indeed, what it was when the crime was committed), rather than what it should probably be.

Second, there are those who believe that there is a reasonable chance of him being partially or wholly innocent of the crime he’s been convicted of. Afzal’s family and lawyers perhaps sincerely believe that he is innocent, or that the punishments is excessive in the light of his possible role in the conspiracy. But the issue of guilt has been decided by the Supreme Court—the most qualified body to decide such matters—and regardless of questions about its fallibility, that should be good enough for everybody. Because that’s what everybody gets. The argument that he is less guilty’ as he was not one of the attackers is absurd. Bin Laden’s guilt, then, should be outweighed by Mohammed Atta’s.

And third, there are those who implicitly acknowledge that it is his very culpability that calls for sparing him the noose. Some argue that hanging him will never allow us to uncover the whole story. This in a country where confessions made in police custody are routinely retracted in court. It is the thin end of the wedge, for the professional liberals and the lofty-softy sorts can be counted on to rail against violation of the rights of prisoners and suspects by their interrogators.

The third category is by far the largest one, for it includes both genuine pragmatists and all the political opportunists that the Indian government has foolishly engaged in its attempts to resolve the troubles in Jammu & Kashmir. Kashmiri politicians have found it to their advantage to incite and project the Kashmiri people as being supportive of terrorists. Ordinary Indians are generally outraged by this, and may even have hardened their stands because of it. But the Indian government should hardly be surprised by this. Remember what the Hurriyat was saying after last year’s earthquake.

In the event, the Indian government finds itself left with two bad options. One the one hand, acceding to Afzal’s plea for clemency will be a grand confirmation of its generally soft attitude towards terrorism and national security. On the other, rejecting it will worsen its problems with its chosen interlocutors in Kashmir even if it does not do the irreparable damage that is being projected. It is indeed a bad situation. It has itself to blame. Engaging the Hurriyat in itself was not a mistake. Indulging it and failing to punish its transgressions and acts of bad faith certainly was.

There is no case for clemency. (It might be politically astute to take a couple of years to review the petition, as suggested here.) Afzal himself remains unrepentent. The consitution does not require him to personally repent for the president to grant him clemency. But the president has to consider the bigger picture. Professional liberals, lofty-softies and the human-rights types have done their usual routine. Like the last time when they came out on the streets to defend a child-rapist-murderer. But it is the politicians who have so characterised the Afzal case that clemency for him implies that the Indian state has yielded to extremists. At a time when it is under sustained attack from terrorists and extremists, India cannot afford to send any signal that can be interpreted as weakness.

If the Kashmir valley goes into flames’ causing the peace process’ with Pakistan to unravel then it is an early indicator of what lies ahead if the current course is followed. Far from causing the Hurriyat to be more moderate’, it has driven the likes of Farooq Abdullah into reckless populism and Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad into connivance. And why, a Pakistan that protests references to its domestic affairs’ in conversations between the Defence Minister and the service chiefs, has the audacity to comment on Afzal’s clemency.

New Delhi must put the political opportunists and the Hurriyat on notice they will be held responsible for any flames’ that may erupt in Kashmir, and future negotiations will be contingent on their co-operation in keeping the peace. There is no other way. Should India blink, only the naive will believe that an emboldened Hurriyat will be any more inclined towards compromise.

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