Afzal Guru was convicted and sentenced to death for his role in the 2001 terrorist attack on the Parliament in New Delhi. His execution took place in 2013 behind closed doors, and it remains controversial till today. With this case recently in the news again in connection with the JNU students’ arrest, let’s refresh our memory on how this story developed.
Stage 1: 2001 Parliamentary Attacks
On 13th December, 2001, terrorists associated with organisations Lakshar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) conducted an attack on Indian Parliament. There were 14 casualties in all (including all attackers) and it ended in half an hour without any harm coming to Parliamentarians.
Stage 2: The Investigation and Arrest
The investigation into this attack led the police to arrest Afzal Guru (a Kashmiri separatist), S.A.R. Geelani, Afzal’s cousin Shaukat Guru and his wife Afsan. They were arrested under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) on charges of waging war against the Indian Government, murder and criminal conspiracy.
Stage 3: The Trial and Conviction
The trial began in 2002 and lasted 6 months, and the 3 men were found guilty and sentenced to death. S.A.R. Geelani was acquitted on appeal, and Shaukat’s sentence was commuted to life. But the verdict was upheld in Afzal Guru’s case by both the Delhi High Court and the Supreme Court. The verdict was hotly disputed since Guru was convicted on the basis of circumstantial evidence (evidence indirectly implicating the accused), as was noted by the courts as well. At first, Guru had confessed to his role in the attack, but at the time he had no legal representation and later retracted his confession, saying that it had been coerced.
Stage 4: The Execution
Guru’s last hope was the mercy plea for a Presidential pardon. In 2013, the President of India, Pranab Mukherjee, rejected Guru’s mercy plea and recommended his execution. On 9th February 2013, Guru’s execution was carried out in secret to prevent a public furore, and a curfew was then imposed in Kashmir to prevent protests.
Stage 5: The Backlash
When news of Afzal Guru’s execution was made public, there was a simultaneous celebration and uproar. Those who believed in his guilt rejoiced in what they believed was an overdue carriage of justice. On the other hand, the opponents of the verdict pointed out the many irregularities in this case, like the reliance on circumstantial evidence and improperly sealed evidence. They contended that the sentence was unjust.
The execution was condemned nationally and internationally. Amnesty International said that the execution indicated a regressive trend towards secret executions. Justice S.N. Dhingra, who sentenced Afzal Guru, condemned the government for taking nearly 9 years to implement his sentence and labelled the execution a political move.
This issue flared up again earlier this year with a proposed cultural program at Jawaharlal Nehru University on the 3rd anniversary of Afzal Guru’s execution. The permission for this program was revoked by the University after pressure from the BJP’s youth arm, leading to protests from the JNU student body that were deemed ‘anti-national’. Eventually the protests landed the organisers, led by JNU Student Union President, Kanhaiya Kumar, in legal trouble.