Our Fractured Conscience

The Telegraph, Calcutta, Nov 7, 2006

Dilip Simeon

Is it of the very essence of truth to be impotent and of the very essence of power to be deceitful? And what kind of reality does truth possess if it is powerless in the public realm? :

Hannah Arendt, in Truth and Politics

Public opinion is now debating the death penalty awarded to Afzal Guru in connection with the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament. The debate is becoming a shouting match, but is an opportunity for us to think about the phenomenon of virtuous murder, of which judicial executions no less than political killings are a part.



A certain line of thinking places the roots of political violence in poverty and backwardness. A greater part of the explanation may lie in the experience of humiliation. The idea of justice is rooted in the sense of fairness. Unfair treatment gives rise to anger, which shifts towards revenge when it finds no redress. Fairness requires that wrong-doings be acknowledged. If the wrong-doers do not accept they have done wrong, society may render such acknowledgement to the victims. When even this is not forthcoming, violent emotions and deeds become probable. Such deeds are seen as crimes by one side and as justice by the other. When your anguish is greeted by silence, you want to make an explosive noise. Bhagat Singh’s bomb in the Legislative Assembly was meant to “make the deaf hear”. (The risk associated with loud noise is deafness on all sides). Where communities are pitted against each other, we enter the dark portals of collective guilt, innocent victims and faceless avengers, of killing as a means of obtaining recompense.

Consider that other ageless phenomenon, the double-standard. Humans have been sensitive to the terrible burden that killing imposes upon us. Hence we have always asked the Almighty to salve our consciences. Our ambivalence is exemplified in the ancient Judaeo-Christian debate on the Sixth Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Kill. Did God mean Thou Shalt Not Murder? Pacifist Christians insist upon the first meaning. Crusading Christians require the second. A current of thought in India has named Gandhi’s assassination Gandhi-vadh, rather than hatya. Godse considered his act to be an act of justice. Undoubtedly V.D. Savarkar (whose portrait adorns the halls of Parliament) thought so too. What ideals do our leaders wish to uphold by honouring a chief accused in the Gandhi murder trial?

Afzal didn’t kill anyone. If he may be hanged for enabling the attack on Parliament, is there not prima-facie evidence of politicians and policemen enabling carnages in Delhi and Gujarat in 1984 and 2002? How many of them have been brought to justice? The handful of convicts are underprivileged persons – the big fish are flourishing. In 1987 over 40 Muslims of Meerut were allegedly murdered by the Armed Constabulary. The case took eighteen years to come to court, with delaying tactics resorted to even by parties that claim to defend minority rights. Sometimes the phrase “rule of law” sounds farcical. The Indian establishment has regularly suborned the justice system to protect a certain class of criminal. Policemen in dereliction of duty end up with promotions and enablers of mass murder get hailed as heroes. Why is this contempt for human life any less culpable than the attack on Parliament?

In modern times, devotion to great causes has acquired a quasi-religious fervour, even when the devotees use secular language. Albert Camus named our time the age of historical murder. These habits of mind cut across the political spectrum. Our tradition of militancy includes crusades for self-determination and people’s wars for classless society. In August 2000, nearly 100 people were killed in eight massacres in Kashmir. They included Amarnath pilgrims and some members of a Kashmiri Muslim family. Most of them were brick kiln workers from central India and Bihar. (Revolutionaries are not very exercised at the annihilation of workers by jehadis of either Muslim or Hindu variety). On August 13, 2004, 9 school children were killed by the ULFA in Upper Assam. On August 15, the CPI-Maoist shot dead nine persons in Andhra Pradesh, including a legislator, his son, driver and a municipal employee. On September 12, 2005 it slit the throats of 17 villagers in Giridih (Jharkhand). This February saw 25 tribals dead in a landmine blast in Chhattisgarh. Another blast on March 25 killed 13 persons. The Maoists apologised for the latter, calling it a mistake. It is such ‘mistakes’ that motivate opponents of the death penalty to demand its abolition. There were no apologies for 60 people killed in Delhi’s Sarojini Nagar on October 29, 2005. Nor for the 200 dead and 625 injured in Mumbai this July.

Every act of violence leaves a lifetime of trauma for its victims, some of whom become avengers in their turn. But one senses irony when sympathisers of militancy ask for a revocation of the death penalty. Do they oppose it in principle or only when one of their own is sentenced to death? Why are they silent when militants administer death sentences to all and sundry? Does it make any sense to attach political threats to appeals for clemency? And can the Hindu nationalists understand how the well-wishers of Graham Staines feel when they see Dara Singh celebrated as a hero?

The list is endless. The Salwa Judum vigilantes of Chhattisgarh have allegedly committed rapes and killings. A recent citizen’s report documented the vicious activities of this state-supported militia but it also noted the Maoist’s brutality. Like their opponents they too kill without presumption of innocence or chance for appeals for mercy. The comrades should think about the impact of their activities upon the grand ideal of socialism. They reject the legitimacy of the Indian state, but their own political behaviour is highly autocratic. Should socialists hold themselves to a higher or a lower standard than the system they criticise? Tragically, those who wanted to prepare the soil for a just society have now become judge and executioner rolled into one – a pure version of tyranny. Along with right-wing radicals, their own legitimacy is grounded on nothing more substantial than outraged sentiment and a claim to superior understanding of Indian reality. Does this give them the right to kill anyone they want? India’s ruling elites as well their critics are playing host to a nihilist element that grows more confident the longer the democratic conscience clings to its double standard on political murder. The concept of ‘collateral damage’ is not confined to George Bush’s dictionary.

Our radicals have changed the world for the worse. From militant communalists and nationalists to those who kill for the sake of People or Historical Destiny, too many of us believe in the death penalty. Those demanding death for Afzal are mobilising relatives of the dead policemen. The families deserve our sympathy, but in any case Afzal is due for life imprisonment. What good will it do to end his life? Policemen may now sympathise with the families of two other murder victims, Jessica Lal and Nitish Katara both of whom have seen their hopes for justice dashed to the ground. The main suspects in these cases are relatives of Congressmen. Jessica was shot in clear view of the high and mighty. Do those in charge of our criminal justice system possess a clean conscience when it comes to restitution for the victims of killers? Restraint and compassion are the best means by which to contain the rising tide of political violence. For a system with so much blood on its hands, the hanging of Mohammad Afzal Guru would be yet another example of its breathtaking hypocrisy.

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