India’s shame – Mohammad Afzal hanging – Is the country trying to bury embarrassing questions about its war on terror Arundathi Roy


India’s shame

Mohammad Afzal is due to hang for his part in the 2001 attack on India’s parliament building. But was he only a bit player? And is the country trying to bury embarrassing questions about its war on terror? By Arundhati Roy

Friday December 15, 2006
The Guardian

Five years ago this week, on December 13 2001, the Indian parliament was in its winter session. The government was under attack for yet another corruption scandal. At 11.30 in the morning, five armed men in a white Ambassador car fitted out with an improvised explosive device drove through the gates of Parliament House. When they were challenged, they jumped out of the car and opened fire. In the gun battle that followed, all the attackers were killed. Eight security personnel and a gardener were killed too.

The dead terrorists, the police said, had enough explosives to blow up the parliament building, and enough ammunition to take on a whole battalion of soldiers. Unlike most terrorists, these five left behind a thick trail of evidence – weapons, mobile phones, phone numbers, ID cards, photographs, packets of dried fruit and even a love letter.

Mohammed Afzal
Mohammed Afzal. Photograph: Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images

Not surprisingly, prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee seized the opportunity to compare the assault to the September 11 attacks in the US only three months previously.

On December 14 2001, the day after the attack on parliament, the Special Cell (anti-terrorist squad) of the Delhi police claimed it had tracked down several people suspected of being involved in the conspiracy. The next day, it 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-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad. Three Kashmiri men, Syed Abdul Rahman Geelani, Shaukat Hussain Guru and Mohammad Afzal, and Shaukat’s wife, Afsan Guru, were arrested.

In the tense days that followed, parliament was adjourned. The Indian government declared that Pakistan – America’s closest ally in the “war on terror” – was a terrorist state. On December 21, India recalled its high commissioner from Pakistan, suspended air, rail and bus communications and banned air traffic with Pakistan. It put into motion a massive mobilisation of its war machinery, and moved more than half a million troops to the Pakistan border. Foreign embassies evacuated their staff and citizens, and tourists travelling to India were issued cautionary travel advisories. The world watched with bated breath as the subcontinent was taken to the brink of nuclear war. All this cost India an estimated pounds 1.1bn of public money. About 800 soldiers died in the panicky process of mobilisation alone.

The police charge sheet was filed in a special fast-track trial court designated for cases under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Some three years later, the trial court sentenced Geelani, Shaukat and Afzal to death. Afsan Guru was sentenced to five years of “rigorous imprisonment”. On appeal, the high court subsequently acquitted Geelani and Afsan, but upheld Shaukat’s and Afzal’s death sentence. Eventually, the supreme court upheld the acquittals and reduced Shaukat’s punishment to 10 years of rigorous imprisonment. However, it not just confirmed, but enhanced Mohammad Afzal’s sentence. He was given three life sentences and a double death sentence.

In its judgment on August 5 2005, the supreme court admitted that the evidence against Afzal was only circumstantial, and that there was no evidence that he belonged to any terrorist group or organisation. But it went on to endorse what can only be described as lynch law. “The incident, which resulted in heavy casualties, had shaken the entire nation,” it said, “and the collective conscience of the society will only be satisfied if capital punishment is awarded to the offender.”

Spelling out the reasons for giving Afzal the death penalty, the judgment went on: “The appellant, who is a surrendered militant and who was bent upon repeating the acts of treason against the nation, is a menace to the society and his life should become extinct.” This implies a dangerous ignorance of what it means to be a “surrendered militant” in Kashmir today.

So, should Afzal’s life be extinguished? His story is fascinating because it is inextricably entwined with the story of the Kashmir Valley. It is a story that stretches far beyond the confines of courtrooms and the limited imagination of people who live in the secure heart of a self-declared “superpower”. Afzal’s story has its origins in a war zone whose laws are beyond the pale of the fine arguments and delicate sensibilities of normal jurisprudence.

For all these reasons it is critical that we consider carefully the strange, sad and utterly sinister story of the December 13 attack. It tells us a great deal about the way the world’s largest “democracy” really works. It connects the biggest things to the smallest. It traces the pathways that connect what happens in the shadowy grottoes of our police stations to what goes on in the snowy streets of Paradise Valley, and from there to the malign furies that bring nations to the brink of nuclear war. It raises specific questions that deserve specific, and not ideological or rhetorical, answers. What hangs in the balance is far more than the fate of one man.

For the most part, the December 13 attack was an astonishingly incompetent “terrorist” strike. But consummate competence appeared to be the hallmark of everything that followed: the gathering of evidence, the speed of the investigation by the Special Cell, the arrest and charging of the accused and the three-and-a-half-year-long judicial process that began with the fast-track trial court.

The operative phrase in all of this is “appeared to be”. If you follow the story carefully, you will encounter two sets of masks. First, the mask of consummate competence (accused arrested, “case cracked” in two days flat), and then, when things began to come undone, the benign mask of shambling incompetence (shoddy evidence, procedural flaws, material contradictions). But underneath all of this – as several lawyers, academics and journalists who have studied the case in detail have shown – is something more sinister, more worrying. Over the past few years the worries have grown into a mountain of misgivings, impossible to ignore.

The doubts set in as early as the day after the parliament attack, when the police arrested Geelani, a young lecturer at Delhi University. His outraged colleagues and friends, certain that he had been framed, contacted the well-known lawyer Nandita Haksar and asked her to take on his case. This marked the beginning of a campaign for the fair trial of Geelani. It flew in the face of mass hysteria and corrosive propaganda that was enthusiastically disseminated by the mass media. But despite this, the campaign was successful, and Geelani was eventually acquitted, along with Afsan Guru.

Geelani’s acquittal blew a gaping hole in the prosecution’s version of the parliament attack. The linchpin of its conspiracy theory suddenly tuned out to be innocent. But in some odd way, in the public mind, the acquittal of two of the accused only confirmed the guilt of the other two. There was bloodlust that had to be satiated. When the government announced that Afzal, Accused No 1 in the case, would be hanged on October 20 2006, it seemed that most people welcomed the news not just with approval, but with morbid excitement. But then, once again, the questions resurfaced.

To see through the prosecution’s case against Geelani was relatively easy. He was plucked out of thin air and transplanted into the centre of the “conspiracy” as its kingpin. Afzal was different. He had been extruded through the sewage system of the hell that Kashmir has become. He surfaced through a manhole, covered in shit (and when he emerged, policemen in the Special Cell pissed on him. Literally.) The first thing they made him do was a “media confession” in which he implicated himself completely in the attack. The speed with which this happened made many of us believe that he was indeed guilty as charged. It was only much later that the circumstances under which this “confession” was made were revealed, and even the supreme court was to set it aside, saying that the police had violated legal safeguards.

From the very beginning there was nothing pristine or simple about Afzal’s case. His story gives us a glimpse into what life is really like in the Kashmir Valley. It is only in the Noddy Book version we read about in our newspapers that security forces battle militants and innocent Kashmiris are caught in the crossfire. In the adult version, Kashmir is a valley awash with militants, renegades, security forces, double-crossers, informers, spooks, blackmailers, blackmailees, extortionists, spies, both Indian and Pakistani intelligence agencies, human rights activists, NGOs and unimaginable amounts of unaccounted-for money and weapons. There are not always clear lines that demarcate the boundaries between all these things and people; it is not easy to tell who is working for whom.

Truth, in Kashmir, is probably more dangerous than anything else. The deeper you dig, the worse it gets. At the bottom of the pit are the Special Operations Group and Special Task Force (STF), the most ruthless, indisciplined and dreaded elements of the Indian security apparatus in Kashmir, which play a central role in the Afzal story. Unlike the more formal forces, they operate in a twilight zone where policemen, surrendered militants, renegades and common criminals do business. They prey upon the local population, particularly in rural Kashmir. Their primary victims are the thousands of young Kashmiri men who rose up in revolt in the anarchic uprising of the early 1990s and have since surrendered and are trying to live normal lives.

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