The execution of two convicts on charges of terror in less than three months — a record of sorts in recent times — has unwittingly put the spotlight on President Pranab Mukherjee, who took office last July. His quick rejection of the mercy petitions of Ajmal Kasab, the only survivor among the perpetrators of 26/11, and Mohammad Afzal Guru, the main accused in the case of attack on Parliament in 2001, has helped the Congress-led UPA government neutralise its critics who say this is an administration that is soft on terror.
Of course, publicly, through the day, government managers sought to delink the hanging of Afzal Guru from any politics. “Unlike the Bharatiya Janata Party, we don’t politicise decisions that pertain to national security,” Information and Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari said, adding, “When you are dealing with a process under criminal jurisprudence, you see that the law is followed rigorously.”
Union Minister of State for Home R.P.N. Singh’s tone was equally sombre: “This is not a time for politics but calm, restraint and sobriety.”
But government sources told The Hindu that their task had been made easier by having a Home Minister — Sushilkumar Shinde — and a President who were agreed on speedy disposal of the Afzal Guru case. They pointed out that A.P.J Abdul Kalam, during his tenure as President, indicated to the then Home Minister Shivraj Patil — shortly after he cleared Dhananjoy Chatterjee’s execution in 2004 — his lack of enthusiasm for the death penalty. His successor, Pratibha Patil, commuted as many as 35 death sentences to life imprisonment before she demitted office — and was seen as opposing the death penalty in principle.
Sources close to Mr. Mukherjee take a more nuanced view of his rejection of these two mercy petitions: they say he viewed the two cases differently — while he felt that there were no two views on Kasab’s guilt, he was aware that in Afzal Guru’s case, there had always been a question mark on the extent of his involvement in the attack on Parliament — and made that distinction in private conversations after the execution of the 26/11 accused last November. However, these sources added, Mr. Mukherjee also believed that the attack on Parliament was an attack on Indian democracy and a message needed to be sent out that such assaults would not be tolerated.
Though Afzal Guru’s mercy petition file came to Rashtrapati Bhavan on August 4, 2011 (when Ms. Patil was in office), Mr. Mukherjee, after taking charge, sent the file back on November 15, 2012 to the Home Ministry for a fresh look. The Home Ministry returned the file to the President on January 23 this year, and he sent it back, rejecting the petition, on February 3, paving the way for Saturday’s execution.
In short, Mr. Mukherjee did send back the file for reconsideration once. However, he could have sat on the file — as there is no time limit for the President to take a decision.
The Congress line for a while has been that the Supreme Court verdict must be executed. General secretary Digvijay Singh, while articulating this view last year, cited two reasons: that the attack on Parliament was a serious terror attack and that the highest court in the land had handed the death penalty to Afzal Guru.
Repeating that view on Saturday to The Hindu, he said, “Any kind of mercy shown to the perpetrator of a terror attack on Parliament would not have been the right thing to do.” To a question on the timing of the hanging, he said, “The timing had to be decided by the government, keeping the ground situation in mind and ensuring that all the reports were ready... the Home Ministry had not recommended the case earlier as it had to consult the State [J&K] government.”
Finally, Mr. Singh said, the President took the decision. Could the President not have sat on the file? “Yes, you can’t cap the time,” Mr. Singh agreed, concluding: “That was his call.”
A ministerial source told The Hindu that the timing of the Afzal Guru execution was virtually taken after the execution of Kasab in November 2012: “When we took out Kasab,” he said, “it was clear Afzal Guru was in line. After the Kasab hanging, there was no negative fallout in the country. Two, there was a perceptible change in Kashmir — so then the only thing left was to complete the procedural formalities, and convince the President.”
With these two executions, government sources said, the Congress-led UPA sent out a signal that it was prepared to take the harshest possible steps to deal with acts of terror. This would also strengthen Mr. Shinde’s hands, they added, in dealing with acts of terror committed by Hindu organisations.