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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 9, February 16, 2013

Killing Afzal — Hanging My Head In Shame!

Monday 18 February 2013, by Humra Quraishi



Hanging my head in shame. No, not my form, for that’s what the state can do. Hang and bury in absolute secrecy, without informing the family and without being sensitive to any of the basic human rights and also towards that bigger picture that looms large.

No, I did not know Afzal Guru and had never met him. Nor can I claim to be a legal expert. Then, why did his hanging hit? The basic reasons could perhaps be these:

I have read lawyer, well-respected activist and human rights campaigner Nandita Haksar’s volume — Framing Geelani, Hanging Afzal: Patriotism In The Time of Terror. Published exactly six years back by Bibliophile South Asia. I had attended its launch here in New Delhi, where some of our best known academics spoke out. Former Vice-Chancellor of the Delhi University Professor Upendra Baxi was one of the speakers and there were others too … all focusing on the ground realities in terms of human rights violations, biased machinery, communal politics and much more along the strain. And later as I sat reading this volume, the realities hit. It’s through a series of open letters which Nandita writes, including one addressed to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, that she has highlighted the brutalities this system is heaping on its very people. If only the top rung would take out time to read this volume they would not be able to sleep; their eyes wouldn’t shut. The 348 pages of this volume carry all possible facts on S.A.R. Geelani and Afzal Guru in the context of this case, and the serious offshoots that follow.

In fact, as Saturday morning (February 9) brought along the news of Afzal Guru’s hanging, I re-read this volume. And this time it hit as never before. Let me quote Nandita from this book, from the chapter, Letter to Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh: ‘I am sure you know that I have been part of the defence team of S.A.R. Geelani, the man who was first sentenced to death on charges of conspiring to attack the Indian Parliament and then acquitted by the High Court of Delhi. I have been accused of being anti-national and people have expressed shock that a daughter of a nationalist father should betray his ideals. I feel the need to explain why I took up the case and what I learnt about our country in the course of this case... I do not know how many Kashmiri prisoners there are in Tihar Jail. Most of these men are locked inside the high security cells of the jail. They are denied basic facilities and are subjected to torture and brutalities inside the jail, and often their lives are in danger. There were at least two attempts on the life of Geelani while he was in jail. More recently, two other prisoners have been attacked inside the high security cells of the Tihar Jail. I have details of other atrocities, brutalities and crimes committed by the jail authorities. Where do I go and file a complaint? I feel so helpless despite being a lawyer and well-connected in society, what do you think the Kashmiris feel? Can we win the hearts and minds of the Kashmiri people by treating them like subhuman beings?’ And with that take-off she takes the reader to what’s been happening inside and outside our jails and prisons and in those corridors of power and in those so-called international-cum-national conferences. This volume is a must read for those who want to study the facts and factors around the Afzal Guru case in the context and backdrop of the prevailing political scenario. She has laid out every single detail—right from that basic ‘why’ she took up this particular case to, of course, the very system and police machinery and those underlying offshoots.

The other reason is that I do know Afzal Guru’s other lawyer, N.D. Pancholi. And on two earlier occasions, when I had asked him about Afzal’s conduct in jail, he had said: ‘He keeps reading the Quran and praying …he is kept in isolation but he sits calm …’ Pancholi was also of the firm view and adamant opinion that Afzal was used and implicated and could never get a fair trial.

And then, of course, the way he was hanged. In sheer secrecy. In that tearing hurry, so much so he was not even allowed to give that one last hug to his son and wife. Why? Why this secrecy in this day and age! Hangings took place in those rajas and maharajas’ era too but they were done out there, in broad daylight, in full public view.

And in our so-called democratic framework protests and mourning were sabotaged. Curfew and shutdown in the Valley and here, in New Delhi, the boot ruled. And, of course, the Right-wing goons who picked up adequate courage to blacken the faces of Left-wing protestors. Mind you, under the ever so watchful eyes of the cops! Coupled with that unsettling news that senior journalist Iftikhar Gilani (he is with DNA) and his family were detained and questioned for several hours in their home situated in South Delhi.

By Sunday evening as more facts gathered and hit, I made way to Khushwant Singh’s home. And even before I could utter ‘hello’, he said: ‘Why do you think they did this …hang Afzal! Why did they have to do this! I’m going to write about this. In this day and age we are following these medieval and brutal and terrible practices. Death penalty ought to be abolished. It’s shocking …this hanging! Why did we have to hang Afzal!Why?’

I have no answer, except these lines of Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet—who spent 35 years in prison because he was a Communist—which Nandita has quoted in her volume-

‘The moment you’re born/they plant around you/mills that grind lies/lies to last you a lifetime./You keep thinking of your great freedom/a finger on your temple/free to have a free conscience.
Your heart bent as if half-cut from the nape,/your arms long, hanging,/you saunter about in your great freedom:/you’re free/with the freedom of being unemployed./
You love your country/as the nearest, most precious thing to you./But one day, for example,/they may endorse it over to America,/and you too, with your great freedom—/you have the freedom to become an air-base./You may proclaim that you must live/not as a tool, a number or a link/but as human being—/then at once they handcuff your wrists./You are free to be arrested, imprisoned/and even hanged./

There’s neither an iron, wooden/nor a tulle curtain/in your life;/there’s no need to choose freedom:/you are free./But this kind of freedom/is a sad affair under the stars.’

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