Politics beyond the noose

It is the peculiar indignity of our republic that the odour of conspiracy so often attaches itself to death. Far from bringing a dignified closure to a serious episode, Afzal Guru's execution raises several political challenges. There is such a deeply entrenched suspicion among so many sections of Indian society that it is perhaps worth beginning by resetting some presumptive courtesies citizens should extend to each other. If you read the Supreme Court judgment upholding Afzal Guru's sentence in its entirety, it is very hard to sustain the charge that the court is being malicious, biased or has no concern for fairness. It does quite a job of sifting through various arguments. Indeed, there are moments where it is easy to use the court's own scrupulousness against it. The crime is serious. Even though Afzal Guru was not a regular member of a terrorist organisation, the court was convinced that he was part of a conspiracy. And the court came to a judgment, according to its best lights.

Having said that, it is not unreasonable for someone to disagree with the court's final determination. The disagreement turns on two judgement calls. Was the quality of representation at the stage of the first trial so inadequate as to cast doubt on whether Afzal Guru got a fair defence? This question is particularly germane when the death penalty is being awarded. And second, was the death sentence the right punishment for the crime? Raising these questions should not be out of bounds. Those campaigning on Afzal Guru's behalf are not enemies of democracy. On the contrary, they are strengthening it. If anything, India is more likely to be strengthened, not by the hangman's noose, but the candour and quality of its public discussion. Civil society can sometimes be too presumptuous in attributing bias to the state; equally it has to be said that the state is sometimes too quick to dismiss those who might think it has made a mistake. Let us at least grant some good faith disagreement in judgment.

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