Prima facie, it is not easy to
refute Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah's argument
that if the Tamil Nadu and Punjab legislatures can ask for the
pardon of Rajiv Gandhi's killers and Khalistani terrorist Devinder
Pal Singh Bhullar, why should those Kashmiris be pilloried who
want a similar reprieve for Afzal Guru, the terrorist involved in
the attack on the Indian parliament in 2001.
Unfortunately, there are reasons why secessionism in Kashmir
arouses greater passions than separatist movements elsewhere. One
is its duration. The prolonged spell is also coupled with a sense
of betrayal because Kashmir was once the first choice of everyone
in the rest of the country as a holiday destination. After 1989,
it fell off the tourist itineraries.
But it isn't only the two-decade-long militancy which
distinguishes Kashmir from the other areas of unrest, as in the
northeast, for instance. What also complicates matters are some of
the flawed interpretations of the centuries-old interactions of
Hindu and Muslim civilisations in the subcontinent, which finally
led to the country's partition.
Although Kashmir has remained with India and has its own syncretic
tradition, there are political elements in India who want to
exploit its Muslim background. But more of that later. For the
present, it will be worthwhile looking at another reason why
Kashmir is different. It is Pakistan's involvement in a "proxy
war" in the valley, which has underlined the brutal reality of the
jehadi objective of bleeding India with a thousand cuts.
But even more relevant is the political expediency of the Hindu
right, which was hinted at by Omar Abdullah when he asked whether
the fact that Afzal Guru was a Muslim made the clemency moves in
the Kashmir assembly unacceptable.
Few will deny the basis of the accusation. It is no secret that
the political weltanschauung of the saffron brotherhood comprising
the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Bharatiya Janata Party
(BJP), the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and others is based on an
The question of Afzal Guru's death sentence has become mixed up,
therefore, with the communal mindset of the Hindu right. This
isn't the case with either Rajiv Gandhi's killers or the
Khalistani terrorist since neither Sinhala Tamil nor Sikh
separatism has the long background of Hindu-Muslim relations in
the subcontinent which are projected in a negative light by the
While the BJP's political compulsions make it insist on even
advancing the date for carrying out Afzal Guru's death sentence,
with its voluble president, Nitin Gadkari, asking whether the
Muslim terrorist is not being hanged because he is the Congress'
"son-in-law", a comment typical of the coarse jibes which the
party uses to mobilise its core group of supporters, the BJP
cannot but be embarrassed by the demands within the ruling
alliance in Punjab (which includes it) to spare the Sikh
Tamil Nadu, of course, is too far away from the BJP's main bases
of support in mofussil north India for the party to be too worried
about the demands of the Tamil apologists for Rajiv Gandhi's
killers. However, the implications of this move also have a
disturbing aspect, though on a more muted scale than in Kashmir.
For one, Tamil Nadu had a history of separatist movements till
1962 although this is now largely forgotten. For another, there
was considerable support in the state for the secessionist
movement of Tamils in Sri Lanka. The state was against the
government of India's policies, which was why Rajiv Gandhi was
killed by a Tamil suicide bomber.
It will not be beside the point to recall that the DMK, which is
part of the ruling alliance at the centre, was implicated in the
assassination, which was why the Congress parted company with it
in 1997. The DMK leaders had also pointedly stayed away from the
Chennai port when the Indian peacekeeping force returned from Sri
Similarly, in Punjab, there are still tiny pro-Khalistani outfits,
which extol their secessionist hero, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.
Despite their insignificance, a predominantly Sikh party like the
Shiromani Akali Dal would not like to go out of its way to
What these trends indicate is the role, not always salutary, which
politics plays in relation to death sentences. These are not seen
as just retribution for a crime, but either as an expression of
revenge or a matter for compassion. And, as may be expected, these
sentiments have a political purpose intended to appeal to a
section of supporters, either Hindu or Tamil or Sikh.
Given this unfortunate tendency in India, it may be time to
consider abolishing death sentences altogether as has been done in
a majority of countries.
Amulya Ganguli is a political
analyst. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org