Shortly after Afzal Guru was hanged in Tihar Jail, a television news anchor declared, “All nationalist, secular and progressive people support this.” His was one statement amidst a cacophony of euphoric reactions, but it stood out. Many of us who have opposed the death penalty and questioned the fairness of Guru’s trial do not consider ourselves communal, reactionary or anti-national. Quite to the contrary really. So when so-called journalists — who support death by hanging, refuse to question how Guru didn’t get a capable lawyer during the trial, and block out those raising questions — easily put large segments of the Indian population into the ‘anti-national’ frame, it sounds strange.
Before analysing the possibly disastrous consequences of this hanging, it is imperative to understand the mindset of television news anchors who have successfully managed to convert personal beliefs into news, and trash all sane voices that seek answers to complex questions.
News channels are supposed to report the news, not give their editorial comments and restrict contrary voices from giving their views. Afzal Guru has been hanged. The news media now has the following responsibilities. One, to trace his story with the facts of the case highlighted. Two, get important voices to review the trial in order and ascertain whether or not he had the best legal advice. Three,to find out (and not just from official quotes) whether his family was informed in time to meet him as per the humane provisions of law. Four, to seek answers to the commonly-asked questions, like, why the rush now and has the hanging been prompted by political considerations. Five, look at the possible political consequences of the hanging. This constitutes responsible reporting.
The beating of drums can be safely left to political parties and the government, who have held innumerable press conferences to applaud the act. Journalists are supposed to play the devil’s advocate and review the story’s many dimensions. Indian democracy allows multiple views and a media that insists on only one view as ‘nationalist’ promotes a monolith that is in contradiction to the pluralism and diversity of this country. And it makes the media lose its credibility.
The terror attack on Parliament was heinous and it was clear from the very beginning that the police was clueless about the attackers. Finally, Delhi university lecturer SAR Geelani was arrested and then Afzal Guru, a Jaish-e-Muhammad hand, was picked up. Geelani’s trial took a chequered course, but because of the support in Delhi and the involvement of well-known lawyers, he was finally released.
Guru was from Kashmir and unable to afford a decent lawyer. He did not have the money and as senior advocate Kamini Jaiswal managed to say hastily on a news channel, he went virtually unrepresented. Geelani, contacted by a news website, said, “Afzal Guru was denied a fair trial. This has been proved in his last moments. I do not understand the attitude of the government.
They have done nothing but play to the gallery. Do you know there is a case pending in the Supreme Court of India? The court has been looking into the delay into this case, arguments are going on and the matter is pending justice. Do you think it was right to hurry up the matter? The due process of law has not been followed. This is nothing but a flawed process.”
We have become so bloodthirsty as a nation (largely because of TRP ratings) that we do not like to ask any questions. Should it not be the job of the sane voice of journalism to ensure the rule of law is respected and the rights of an individual are acknowledged? As women’s rights lawyer Indira Jaisingh said while arguing against the death penalty, is there not a right to reform? And if even reform is seen as impossible, is there not a right to remorse?
The impact of the hanging may have damaging repercussions beyond what this government can handle. The media informs us, through the usual sources, that the decision was taken after top level meetings. So one is led to believe this was a considered decision. Instead of instilling confidence, this actually evokes fear. Fear of being led by a government that can’t make the right assessments and doesn’t care if parts of the country go up in flames. The government has bitten the bullet, the channels screamed with joy. But what if the bullet explodes in its mouth? This makes one wonder at a political leadership that willfully invites trouble.
Aspects of the case, as has been pointed out by lawyers, were before the Supreme Court and the government could have easily ridden the issue out instead of converting it into a storm that will hit it, in all likelihood, Kashmir. The military has clamped down in Jammu and Kashmir and, according to a resident, “not even a leaf is fluttering here.” The state is confident of maintaining control in normal circumstances and beating down demonstrations, but it also knows that one civilian death can snowball into a major uprising. The hanging of JKLF leader Maqbool Bhat led to a decade of the worst violence that India has ever seen. Afzal Guru may not have the same stature as a leader, but in terms of sympathy and support he could be far ahead. Besides, the alienation and anger in Kashmir has been heightened since the death of the young boys in the stone pelting incidents of 2010. A Facebook post by this columnist on Guru’s hanging elicited a volley of responses, asking why those responsible for the death of the boys have not met with similar punishment. The anger and alienation felt by Kashmiris should be taken seriously by a government that claims to represent India.
The only logical explanation for Guru’s hanging is that general elections are around the corner. The Congress, with its usual cynical manipulation of votes, is trying to eat into the majority constituency. Kashmiris do not figure in Delhi’s plans and neither do minorities, who are seen as ‘becharas’ who can easily be made to run into Congress arms to flee communal shadows. The secularists will not be far behind since Narendra Modi is not likely to be their choice and there is neither any Left nor a third front alternative in 2014’s polls.
So all in all, a cosy scenario; except the dynamics of India and the aspirations of the people cannot be controlled and tend to upset the most careful calibrations.
The writer is a senior NewDelhi-based journalist