First Person | Fighting a Ghost

When it comes to national security, who dare argue

Ghazala WahabGhazala Wahab

A few years ago, an Andhra lawyer and a civil rights activist, which in the local police parlance means a cover-up for being a Naxal sympathiser, said while talking about Naxalism that the all-pervasive sense of national security knows no other value system. He was referring to Andhra police’s crackdown on people like him, who had frequently taken up cases of those accused of being anti-national. According to him, the definition of anti-national was so ambiguous that all those who protest against the excesses by the state were vulnerable to the charges of being branded as one.

In the last few weeks, his words returned to me, though in a different context. The context was Mohd Afzal Guru, one of the alleged facilitators of the terrorist attack on Indian Parliament. The Supreme Court sentenced him to death, because as it said in the verdict, only such a punishment could satisfy the collective conscience of the nation. Afzal is neither the mastermind nor the perpetrator; he is only supposed to be a facilitator, as he brought one of the perpetrators to Delhi.

While there has been a lot of debate on the quantum of his punishment, on the circumstances of his bringing a terrorist to Delhi and so on, my problem has been with the judgement itself and the concept of collective conscience of the nation. Does it not smack of revenge killing? After the verdict, former minister of home affairs, L.K. Advani insisted that Afzal be hanged immediately; everyday that he stays alive (in solitary confinement though) he is a threat to national security. As clamour to save Afzal increased, so did the deafening roar to kill him instantly. Professional protestor, and self-appointed saviour of national security, Maninderjit Singh Bitta organised a well-rehearsed demonstration by roping in the families of the security men who were martyred on that day. The families said that they would return the compensation cheques the government gave them if Afzal was not hanged. What? After five years? Didn’t they encash the cheques? How did they know that there could be a reason later to return them? Or did Mr Bitta and company convince the families that such a cry would get them the headlines? Anyway, as of now, Afzals’s curative petition in the Supreme Court has been rejected and now his only hope is his mercy petition with the President. Most probably, no decision would be taken on it in a hurry, as Presidential elections are due. Besides, in any case, there are a few people in Delhi’s Tihar jail who have been on the death row for over a decade. Afzal is hardly likely to make any news if he ends up being one of them.

However, what is most troubling about the Afzal case is that not that an innocent Kashmiri is getting hanged or that the situation in Kashmir would worsen if he is hanged, just as Maqbool Dar’s hanging turned resentment into an armed rebellion. Afzal is no Dar; heroism is being foisted on him. The troubling bit is that through careful political manipulation of the public opinion, national security has become a holy cow. Anyone can be arrested and can remain incarcerated without any charges in the garb of national security. There is no value-based information on what qualifies as threat to national security, with the entire concept being subjective and hostage to men in uniform (whether it is the police or the intelligence agencies). If he wants, even an ordinary sub-inspector can deem somebody a threat and deprive him of his liberty till such time that the filing of the charge sheet can no longer be postponed. At FORCE, we had a very close brush with this kind of paranoia or getting-even tactics, depending upon how you view them. A sub-inspector flipped through the magazine and told us that we are compromising national security by publishing the photograph of the army chief. His logic was that since the magazine is in public domain, the enemy now knows what the Indian chief looks like. It was our good fortune that he didn’t have time to read FORCE. God knows what would have happened then. Sure, this was a rare instance, but given the number of innocents in various Indian jails, it is clear that this is happening to a lot of people all the time. Take the example of Tariq Ahmed Dar, the Kashmiri model who was detained by the police. The police suspected him of being a terrorist, because one arrested terrorist named him. A reasonable approach could have been to do a background check on him and watch his activities for sometime, instead of detaining him for three months and beating him up.

But then there is nothing reasonable about the ghost of national security. It is an amorphous concept, which cannot be questioned. The moment this ghost rises, patriotism turns into jingoism, and voices of sanity are labelled as traitors. What else can explain the stubbornness to see a man hang even if he is not the perpetrator? What else can explain the fact that no lawyer wanted to fight his case, when under the Indian law, a person is innocent unless proved otherwise? And yet, the highest court insists that he must die.


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