Why this politics and parochialism over terror cases?

Why this politics and parochialism over terror cases?

Last year on February 9, Afzal Guru, convicted for his role in the 2001 Parliament attack case, was secretly hanged in Tihar jail within six days of president Pranab Mukherjee rejecting his mercy petition. 

Less than a year later, on January 21, a Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice P Sathasivam cited delay in deciding mercy petitions by the president to commute death sentence of 15 convicts to life imprisonment with a provision for early release according to procedures. 

Again on February 18 its verdict allowed commuting of sentence to life of three terrorists on death row in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. Within 24 hours of this verdict, the Tamil Nadu government of J Jayalalitha announced she would release from prison all the convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. But the Supreme Court intervened to issue a stay on the decision.

In this season of political accusations, one can only imagine the flak the Congress would have faced had the President accepted Afzal Guru’s mercy petition and decided to convert his death sentence to life imprisonment. The BJP no doubt would have been the first to charge the ruling dispensation with being soft on terror, playing vote-bank politics and appeasing jihadi fundamentalism.

For years it had demanded the early hanging of Afzal Guru vociferously and aggressively, never mind the fact that there were death row convicts pre-dating the conviction of Guru. Those who protested against the hanging were immediately described as anti-national.But now when parties are desperately looking for electoral partners and are keeping a sharp eye on potential post-poll alliances that could help them go past the 272-mark of bare majority in Parliament, what was their reaction to the Tamil Nadu decision?

The criticism was muted at best. It was left almost entirely to the Congress party to strongly criticise the Tamil Nadu decision, as if only the Congress party should worry about Rajiv Gandhi’s killers walking free for he was their leader.

While certainly there can be no excuse for delays of several years in deciding mercy petitions, surely, the court could have laid out a time-frame for such decisions in the future instead of allowing long delays for the last 60 years and then suddenly allowing commuting of all death sentences because of delay in disposing of mercy petitions. The ‘people’s president’ Abdul Kalam cleared only two petitions although 17 were pending during his term.

It is one thing to argue in favour of abolition of capital punishment, which over a 100 countries have done away with. But it is quite another to be seen to favour terrorists simply because they belong to the same state, speak the same language or have the same religion. In the case of the Rajiv Gandhi killers the argument is not that they were innocent of the crime or were genuinely remorseful. Jayalalitha was surely appealing to the basest parochial Tamil sentiment. 

Politicisation of terror

The two Dravida parties are not alone in this game. On August 31, 1995 Beant Singh, then Chief Minister of Punjab, was assassinated. Seventeen others died with him in what was an attack by a Babbar Khalsa suicide bomber.

Balwant Singh Rajaona, an accomplice who confessed to having helped the bomber tie the explosive-laden belt, was convicted and given a death sentence in 2007 that was confirmed by the High Court in 2010.

With his mercy petition rejected, he was to be hanged on March 31, 2012 – no inordinate delay here -- but Punjab Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal cited orders of the ‘Singh Sahiban’ (Sikh clergy of the Akal Takht) to petition the President for mercy once again. His execution was stayed, for the ruling Congress too had an eye on Sikh votes.

It was no act of compassion on the part of the Akalis, but a result of competitive radical Sikh politics, veering dangerously close to the separatist Khalistani agitation. For how else can one describe the Akali decision favouring a martyr’s memorial to Bhindranwale, who led the demand for Khalistan?

And why has the BJP, a coalition partner of the Akali Dal, maintained a studied silence on this despite its posture of zero tolerance to terror? Was Bhindranwale not a terrorist? For that matter, there has been no national protest against this blatant politicisation of terror.

In April 2012 the highest court had turned down the mercy plea of Devender Singh Bhullar convicted for a bomb attack on former Indian Youth Congress president Maninderjeet Singh Bitta. The court reasoned he was not just a murder accused but also a terrorist, deserving no mercy. 

Less than two years later, the Supreme Court overturned its earlier judgement when on January 21 this year it failed to make a distinction between murder and terror cases. Delay in disposal of mercy petitions was a good enough reason for commuting all death sentences to life imprisonment. The Bhullar case was instantly revived and is awaiting final disposal. And of course, for years the Akalis have been lobbying against his execution.

The dangerous signal that is being sent out is that it is all right to hang a Muslim terrorist, but not a Hindu or a Sikh. Justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done. Unless we wake up, the day may not be far away when some outfit decides on a memorial to Indira Gandhi assassins or to ‘honour’ Nathuram Godse as a martyr?