A Congress-led government executed Afzal Guru.
This much should be obvious and yet, in the din and clamour of the last few weeks, it almost seems as if this fact has been forgotten. Television channels have a part to play in this, characterising anyone who criticised the government's actions against the sedition-accused Jawaharlal Nehru University students as the Afzal League, or some variant thereof. But the party too has added to this impression, not least with audacious comments from former Cabinet minister Palaniappan Chidambaram.
In an interview with the Economic Times just as his new book is coming out, Chidambaram said that it was possible to ask questions about the role played by convicted terrorist Afzal Guru in the 2001 Parliament attack.
"There were grave doubts about his involvement in the conspiracy behind the attack on Parliament and even if he was involved, there were grave doubts about the extent of his involvement. He could have been imprisoned for life without parole for rest of his natural life," the former minister said. "But being in government you cannot say the court has decided the case wrongly because it was the government that prosecuted him."
Going simply on face value, Chidambaram is making an eminently reasonable point: It is possible to question both Afzal Guru's role in the terror attacks as well as ask whether he deserved capital punishment. But nothing the Congress does should be taken just at face value.
Chidambaram's party has been attempting to do a cynical dance, somewhat backing its Vice President Rahul Gandhi's decision to suddenly turn up at JNU and give a rabble-rousing speech. But, concerned about being labeled anti-national, the party has also repeatedly qualified its support for the sedition-accused students and barely even attempted to make a case for free speech.
The events of Friday were a perfect example of this. After a fiery, error-riddled speech by Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani, which included a portion disparaging alternative Hindu traditions, the Congress chose not to defend the plurality of India's rich, diverse religious heritage. Instead, it wanted Irani's statement's struck from the record for being blasphemous.
Chidambaram's comments are even more insidious. They may seem like a defence of free speech, galling enough coming from the leader of party that gave India section 66A, but they conveniently come many years after the fact. Now that there is political currency to be earned from siding with those who question Guru's involvement, Chidambaram is happy to do it.
Afzal Guru's execution
Never mind the fact that the minister did not raise these concerns during the decade in which Chidambaram's party was in power. It was his own ministry that rejected Guru's mercy petition and recommended to the President that he be hanged. And yet, audaciously, Chidambaram's comments include a suggestion that there might have been an alternative way of handling Guru.
"[Afzal Guru] could have been imprisoned for life without parole for rest of his natural life."— P. Chidambaram
Which is why it bears repeating: A government led by the Congress – Chidambaram's party – executed Guru and, worse, did it in secret a year before the 2014 elections.
Over the course of that year, the Congress attempted to sell itself as the party that killed Mumbai attacks convict Ajmal Kasab and Guru. These executions were meant to shore up its credentials as a strong-willed party capable of ensuring national security. Since that tack has failed miserably, with the 2014 Lok Sabha elections being the best indicator, the Congress has found it more than convenient to go back and raise doubts about the guilt of the man that the party had executed.
Ishrat Jahan killing
Former Home Secretary GK Pillai, this week, also gave us another reminder of the dangerously cynical manner in which the Congress plays with sentiments and lives. Pillai admitted that the home ministry in 2009 made changes to its affidavit in the Gujarat High Court about Ishrat Jahan, a 19-year-old who was shot dead by the Gujarat Police in 2004.
That Congress attempted to use the allegedly extra-judicial killing of Jahan as proof of the dangerous excesses of the Gujarat government under then-Chief Minister Narendra Modi. But in doing so it seems to have deliberately obfuscated the fact that Jahan may have been a terrorist, or had terror connections.
Instead of focusing on the extra-judicial nature of Jahan's death, the Congress sought to project her as an innocent woman murdered by Modi's henchmen, and went to the extent of deleting intelligence inputs suggesting a connection to the Lashkar-e-Taiba.
Over two months in 2009, the ministry filed two different affidavits, with the second one omitting Jahan's alleged connection to the LeT. The ministry even insisted that nothing stated in the first affidavit could be used to support or justify the action of the state police. Pillai, in a television interview, admitted that the ministry had deliberately made this change.
"One affidavit said these people were LeT operatives and in the other affidavit that aspect was deleted. I really won’t know why it was deleted. It was done at a political level," he told TimesNow.
As with the Afzal Guru comments, the Congress showed its willingness to alter facts and toy with the judicial process looking into the death of a person. And Pillai's comments are even more timely because of the person who was his boss and the country's Home Minister at the time: P Chidambaram.