[First published in Crescent International (May 2007)]
This month Muslim campaigners in Britain joined forces with Hindu, Sikh and Tamil activists to raise awareness of the case of Muhammad Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri Muslim due to be executed later this year after being convicted of masterminding the attack in December 2001 on the Indian parliament. The case has brought together disparate South Asian communities who are concerned about the rapid growth of communal secular fundamentalism in India, a phenomenon built upon anti-Pakistan, anti-Kashmiri and anti-Muslim hatred.
On the morning of December 13, 2001, five armed men drove a car fitted with an improvised explosive device through the gates of Parliament House in New Delhi. When confronted, they jumped out of the car and opened fire. In the ensuing gun-battle, eight security personnel, a gardener and the five gunmen were killed. The incident happened a day after then Prime Minister A. B. Vajpayee warned of an imminent attack on the Indian parliament. Vajpayee wasted no time in comparing the attack to 9-11 and forwarding India as a fully-fledged partner in the US-led ‘war on terror’.
On December 14 the anti-terrorism Special Cell of the Delhi Police began to round up suspects, and by the next day had announced that it had “cracked the case”. The attack, the police said, was a joint operation carried out by two Pakistan-based terrorist groups, Lashkar-e Tayyeba and Jaish-e Mohammed. Twelve people were named as being part of the conspiracy: Ghazi Baba and Maulana Masood Azhar (both JeM); Tariq Ahmed (a “Pakistani”); five deceased “Pakistani terrorists”; three Kashmiri men, Sayed Abdul Rahman Geelani, Shaukat Hussain Guru and Mohammed Afzal Guru; and Shaukat’s wife Afsan Guru. These were the only four to be arrested. All four were convicted and sentenced to death, except Afsan, who was given five years’ rigorous imprisonment.
The High Court acquitted Geelani and Afsan in February 2003 but upheld Shaukat’s and Afzal’s death sentences. In August 2005, the Supreme Court upheld the acquittals and reduced Shaukat’s sentence to ten years’ rigorous imprisonment. Afzal’s sentence, however, was not only confirmed but enhanced to three life sentences and a double death sentence. Afzal was due to be executed in late October 2006 but received a stay of execution. Human-rights activists are campaigning for a full presidential pardon for Afzal because of the innumerable procedural irregularities of his trial.
Afzal Guru is a “surrendered militant”. Having crossed the border into Azad Kashmir with thousands of other Kashmiri youths to join the Jammu-Kashmir Liberation Front in 1990, Afzal returned within three months, disillusioned by the internal politics of the resistance. After spending some years in university in Delhi and wishing to resume an ordinary life in Kashmir, he returned and formally surrendered to the Border Security Force in 1993. But life for surrendered militants in Kashmir is anything but ordinary. Expected to work as informers with the Special Task Force (STF), they are continuously harassed, detained and tortured if they refuse to cooperate. From the day he surrendered, Afzal was called to the STF camps every week (sometimes twice a week) and asked to become an informer. Every time he refused, he was subjected to brutal and depraved tortures such as being stripped naked, sodomised, having electronic shocks on his genitals and freezing water, chillies and petrol poured into his anus. Such was the regular life of a surrendered militant who refused to betray his people.
It was while being tortured at one such camp in late 2001 that Afzal met Tariq Ahmed, another surrendered militant who was undergoing similar torture. Tariq advised him to cooperate with the STF; otherwise they would never leave him in peace. Afzal heeded the advice, and from then cooperated with the STF. The chief officer of the camp, Deputy Superintendent Devinder Singh, gave him his first job – to take one man ‘Muhammad’ to Delhi and help him find a room to rent.
‘Muhammad’ was later identified as one of the gunmen killed on December 13, 2001.
Afzal was arrested on December 15, two days before Eid. He was brought to Delhi, kept in the Special Cell lock-up and tortured. His brother was also arrested in Kashmir and his family threatened by the STF. On December 20 Assistant Commissioner Rajbir Singh called a press conference at the holding cell, where a handcuffed Afzal was forced to confess to being a Pakistani agent who masterminded the Parliament attack. The “confession” was then broadcast across India, jeopardizing whatever slim prospect of a fair trial Afzal might have hoped for.
Furthermore, for the 25 days Afzal was held in police custody, he was denied any access to a lawyer and forced to sign “confessions”. Throughout his trial Afzal had no legal representation. There were for two main reasons for this: firstly, his family could not afford a lawyer; secondly, even human-rights and legal-aid lawyers were reluctant to take his case for fear of being labelled “anti-national” (i.e. unpatriotic). The lawyer who was finally appointed by the judge to represent Afzal initially asked to be removed from the case, but his request was refused. Afzal may as well have represented himself; his court-appointed lawyer failed to communicate with Afzal, take instructions, cross-examine witnesses, make closing arguments, present written submissions, attend court regularly, refer to any case law, or prepare any legal defence.
There is no direct evidence against Afzal, and there are many questions surrounding the circumstantial “evidence” against him. Yet it seemed as if the entire justice system was baying for his blood. Even the reasoning of the Supreme Court in confirming the death sentence seems to be based on a desire for vengeance and scapegoating, rather than any principles of legal jurisprudence. The judgment read that “the incident, which resulted in heavy casualties, had shaken the entire nation and the collective conscience of the society will only by satisfied if capital punishment is awarded to the offender.” This came despite the Supreme Court throwing out the “confession” as unreliable, deciding that senior officers of the Special Cell had lied under oath and fabricated evidence, and finding no evidence that Afzal belonged to any group or organisation.
Afzal continues to be held in the notorious Tihar jail in Delhi, home to thousands of Kashmiri Muslims, many of whose files have simply got lost. His case is typical of the prejudice and harassment Kashmiri Muslims face daily in India. To be a Kashmiri Muslim in India means to be refused accommodation, to be declined employment, to be shunned and treated with never-ending hostility and suspicion. Every January 26 (Republic Day) and August 15 (Independence Day), Kashmiri Muslims are randomly rounded up, beaten and jailed and released several months or even years later, without even a charge-sheet being filed against them. Many prisoners complain that the most hurtful aspect of their detention is the anti-Muslim and anti-Kashmiri verbal abuse that is hurled at them, often coupled with physical humiliation. Afzal and other prisoners reported that during Ramadan officers urinated into their mouths and mocked them that they could open their roza (fast) with the urine. The impunity with which these officers behave can be judged by the fact that despite DSP Devinder Singh openly boasting on television on 27 November last year that he did indeed torture Afzal in exactly the manner Afzal described, he has still not been reprimanded or censured in any way.
A recent report by a government-appointed committee has disclosed that Muslims face systematic exclusion and serious discrimination at many levels, and officially constitute India’s new underclass. The Sachar Committee’s report has found that Muslims are worse off than the rest of the population (including Dalits) in respect of access to public services, literacy, education, income, social mobility and jobs, and are seriously under-represented in schools, universities, government jobs and parliament. The only place Muslims are over-represented is in India’s prisons.
The media have played a role in creating such prejudice and discrimination, with incessant poison being produced by Bollywood each year in movies such as LoC, Mission Kashmir and Border, which have only served to add to the mass hysteria. Such anti-Muslim prejudice increased dramatically after the rise to power of the right-wing fascist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 1998 with the ideology of Hindutva. This culminated in the genocide of 2002 in which the ruling party in Gujarat planned and carried out a massacre of over 3,000 Muslims with the active support and connivance of the government and the law.
However, the even worse threat to Muslims and other minorities in India today comes not directly from the BJP but from other parties using the ‘Islamophobia card’ to win votes back from the BJP. As Mani Shankar Aiya pointed out before the last election, the “real danger lies in the rest of us seeking to thwart the rise in electoral support to the BJP by becoming a pale imitation of the original.” This point is further elaborated upon by Professor Bipan Chandra, a famous Indian historian , who has written that “concessions do not lead to the recession of communalism; they lead to the popularization and spread of communal ideology; they make communalism more acceptable.”
An example of this spread of communalism to the traditionally secular parties led by Congress can be seen in their support of Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat, after he was refused a visa to the US in 2005 because of his role in the genocide of 2002. Professor Kamal Mitra Chenoy explained at the time that the real reason for such unparalleled support to Modi was “an effort to deny the Sangh brigade major political mileage after the US action”.
Feelings of patriotism have risen to such feverish levels that to question government policy towards Kashmir or official versions of events is to be branded “anti-national”. Muslims in India are so paralysed with fear of their loyalties being questioned that very few have dared to defend Afzal or his fellow defendants, despite the campaign being taken up by members of other communities. One can understand such apprehension when one considers that lawyers inside the court began chanting “death to the lawyers who defended the terrorists” on the day S. A. R. Geelani was sentenced to death.
Afzal Guru’s life continues to hang in the balance. Hanging an innocent man may or may not satisfy the collective insanity of Indian society. What is certain, though, is that the many questions surrounding what actually happened on December 13, 2001 will carry on not being answered. An independent inquiry into the parliament attack is a necessity if India truly wishes to see an end to communal tensions. For the Muslims of Kashmir, they will have yet another martyr and their struggle will continue. As Afzal wrote in one letter, “I do not belong to any organisation. I belong to feelings and ideas (felt globally) by those who are being humiliated, tortured and silenced unwilling.”