Political games

Print edition : August 21, 2015

Congress leader Digvijay Singh. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

AIMIM president Asaduddin Owaisi. Photo: Nagara Gopal

Inflammatory rhetoric: BJP MP Sakshi Maharaj . Photo: R.V. Moorthy

Polarising communities: Maharashtra Navnirman Sena workers celebrate the hanging of Afzal Guru at Minara Masjid in Mumbai on February 9, 2013. Photo: PTI

Looking at the two controversial hangings in the recent past, that of Afzal Guru and Yakub Memon, it is clear that both the Congress and the BJP use these as stratagems towards narrow political gains.

Political games, particularly those relating to electoral politicking, have been an inseparable part of almost all the deliberations and developments in India on the issue of capital punishment. And when the government in power makes haste to carry out the execution of capital punishment as per judicial orders, these games manifest themselves through many manoeuvres and nuances, ranging from the plain and the subtle to the indelicate and the gross. Not surprisingly, the principal players in these games have been the two big political outfits of the country, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress, though a number of smaller parties and organisations have also partaken from time to time. The political context created by the hanging of Yakub Memon and the immediate developments that led to it to have once again underscored this aspect of the country’s polity. In fact, the current context closely resembles the conditions that existed around the February 2013 hanging of the alleged Kashmiri militant Afzal Guru, who was charged in the 2001 Parliament attack case.

As it has turned out, the argumentations and the gambits in the context of Yakub Memon’s hanging have revolved around three major themes: patriotism, governmental efficiency, and communalism. Indeed, other substantive themes such as the irrelevance of capital punishment in modern jurisprudence have been raised by political and social organisations, including the Left parties and politicians like former Union Minister Shashi Tharoor of the Congress. The points raised by them have generated intense debate in some quarters but have not gained the same kind of attention or traction that the other three points have.

The three domineering themes have been advanced primarily and rigorously by the BJP and its associates in the Sangh Parivar, using varied means, platforms and strategies. These include public statements, campaign in the media including social media, and, on the ground, propaganda reaching out to individuals and groups employing various Sangh Parivar outfits. A large number of the other voices in the political debates and manoeuvres in relation to the Yakub Memon hanging have come up as a response to this concerted campaign of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar.

The patriotism theme has been built around the argument that Yakub Memon was found guilty of the Mumbai blasts by all the courts that addressed his case and the right retribution for this is capital punishment. The advocates of this line go on to argue that this is the only course that would help uphold national pride, especially because the case pointed towards the involvement of Pakistan in the blasts.

The governmental efficiency theme goes hand in hand with the patriotism argument. Its line of reasoning is simple. Look how effectively and resolutely the Narendra Modi-led BJP-National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has pursued judicial directives on Yakub Memon and taken them to the logical conclusion of death by hanging. A comparison with the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government follows this with assertions about the UPA’s confusion, dilly-dallying and procrastination on punishing Islamist anti-nationals.

While the BJP and the Sangh Parivar have been able to advance their hypothesis on patriotism and governmental efficiency more or less unchallenged, their theorisation on communalism has encountered stiff resistance from several quarters, including a number of smaller parties and individuals. On communalism, the main argument in the Sangh Parivar-driven campaign is that the secular parties as a whole have refused to pursue determinedly capital punishment for those like Yakub Memon to appease minorities, particularly Muslim minorities. The corollary is that the BJP and the Sangh Parivar have no such limitations and that is why they have moved ahead sternly to ensure the hanging of Yakub Memon.

Polarisation tactics

Evidently, this expostulation is a continuation of the Hindutva-oriented communal polarisation tactics that the Sangh Parivar has consistently advanced since the 2014 Lok Sabha election campaign. Various organisations in the Sangh Parivar have taken this line forward through the 14-month-old rule of the Narendra Modi-led BJP-NDA government too. This has been done through programmes such as Ghar Wapsi and campaigns such as the ones against the alleged love jehad carried out by the Muslim minority community. Indications from within Sangh Parivar organisations are that, in the context of the Yakub Memon hanging, issues that add to the communal polarisation are being taken up with a special focus in Bihar, which is expected to witness Assembly elections in September-October 2015.

The resistance to the communalism-based propaganda of the Sangh Parivar has come from different sources, ranging from the Congress to the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM). Lok Sabha member Asaduddin Owaisi, who is also the president of the AIMIM, contended that capital punishment was awarded to Yakub Memon only because he belonged to the minority community. “Why have not the perpetrators of the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, the communal riots of Mumbai and Gujarat and other such sinister cases got a similar punishment?” Owaisi asked. He also pointed out that the recommendations of the Srikrishna Commission, which went into the Mumbai riots of 1992-93, had been put in cold storage both by the BJP-Shiv Sena and Congress-NCP governments in Maharashtra. “More than a thousand people were killed in the communal riots of December 1992 and January 1993. How many are convicted? Would Sadhvi Pragya, Colonel Purohit and Swami Aseemanand, whose names have come up in connection with Malegaon blasts, also get capital punishment?”

Owaisi’s spirited and rather rhetorical counter to the Sangh Parivar propaganda on the appeasement of minorities infuriated many leaders of the BJP. So much so that Lok Sabha member Sakshi Maharaj fell back on his own oft-repeated rhetoric of sending to Pakistan all those who opposed capital punishment to Yakub Memon. But Owaisi’s line of reasoning found reflection in the arguments of senior Congress leader Digvijay Singh too. In a series of tweets, he expressed the hope that the urgency and commitment shown by the government and the judiciary in punishing Yakub Memon would be shown in all cases of terror, irrespective of the perpetrators'’ caste, creed and religion. He also added that he had his own doubts about this because of the way in which cases of other terror accused were being conducted. Singh also said that these doubts put the credibility of the government and the judiciary at stake.

One fallout of these responses by Owaisi and Singh has been the exercise to analyse comparatively the stance taken by the Congress and the BJP in the developments leading to the hanging of Afzal Guru in 2013 under the Congress-led UPA regime. The UPA II regime was to complete four years in May that year and was reeling under a barrage of corruption charges. There were also allegations that the government was indecisive. More importantly, 2013 was the year the ruling Congress was facing a number of Assembly elections, including in crucial States such as Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Delhi.

Afzal Guru was hanged in February 2013. At that time too, the social curbs suffered by Afzal Guru in the judicial and political sphere since he was a member of the minority community had been highlighted by many, including political leaders. As senior a politician as Omar Abdulla, the then Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister, had stated: “The fact is, whether we like it or not, he (Afzal Guru) was hanged for political reasons. It’s a fact.” Omar Abdullah said that the then Union Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde had given him no choice in the matter, and had presented a fait accompli, informing him of the decision to execute Afzal Guru only a few hours before the hanging.

On his part, Shinde had denied Omar’s charges and maintained that he was not playing politics but only fulfilling his constitutional obligations. But the fact remains that the Congress was facing these challenges and continuously losing popular appeal. And in such a situation, there was no way the Congress leadership could escape the perception that it was using the hanging as a desperate tactic to assert that the Congress was strong and resolute and to regain some popular appeal. It is another matter that this did not work on the ground. The Congress lost in all the major States that went to the polls in 2013, barring Karnataka.

Miscarriage of justice

Commenting on the current political context surrounding the Yakub Memon hanging, Sitaram Yechury, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), told Frontline that the execution was a miscarriage of justice. “The Justice Srikrishna Commission report on the communal riots and the 1993 serial blasts in Mumbai had stated clearly that the blasts were a consequence of the communal incidents after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992. It had said in as many words that the communal riots in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition were the causative factor for the blasts in Mumbai.

“The report has also said that the Memon family suffered extensively in these riots. It is also known that foreign powers used them to carry out the blasts. Yakub was hanged because of the Mumbai blasts, but then what action has been taken against those responsible for the communal violence in Mumbai and elsewhere after the Babri Masjid demolition? What is happening in the cases engineered by Hindutva terrorism, such as the Malegaon or Samjhauta Express blasts or in the cases of the accused in the 2002 Gujarat riots such as BJP leader Maya Kodnani? Obviously, the larger signs are not very positive. The justice delivery system must not only be impartial, but should also be seen to be impartial so as to retain people’s confidence in it,” said Yechury.

According to the Patna-based political analyst Surendra Kishore, assessments that evidently put the Modi-led NDA regime on the defensive in relation to its employment of political stratagems linked to the capital punishment strategy have had no effect on the BJP or its Sangh Parivar associates. “One can see this stratagem at work most conspicuously in Bihar. The Union Home Ministry itself admits that there has been an approximate increase of 25 per cent in communal clashes in the country over the past year. Most of it is in north India. While there is no official tabulation, social and political observers have pointed out to the emergence of hundreds of low-intensity communal conflicts in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. It was rooted in both local and national factors. Now, the posturing and the deliberate propaganda on the Yakub Memon hanging would also aggravate this situation. As one can see from the polarising campaign as well as its effects on the ground across large parts of Bihar and the rest of north India, the potential consequences of this situation are certainly ominous,” Kishore told Frontline. To paraphrase Omar Abdullah’s 2013 comment, the political factors of the Yakub Memon hanging are there for all to see whether one likes it or not. Now, we will have to wait and watch what their impact on the nation and its people will be.

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