Looking back at Maqbool, Afzal hangings at Tihar
February 11 this year was the 36th death anniversary of Maqbool Bhat, co-founder of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front. Bhat was hanged inside Tihar Jail on February 11, 1984. Similarly, another Kashmiri named Afzal Guru was hanged at Tihar Jail on February 9, 2013. This year, it was his seventh hanging anniversary. The man who witnessed many hangings, including those of Bhat and Guru, at Tihar Jail, has a lot to say about the duo.
The man is none other than Sunil Gupta. In his recently-released book Black Warrant, co-authored with Sunetra Choudhury, the former spokesperson and legal adviser of Tihar Jail recalls the hangings of two Kashmiris, Maqbool and Afzal. The details are bone chilling. Mr Gupta began working in Tihar Jail in 1981. He has been an eyewitness to many a hanging, including executions of high-profile prisoners like Maqbool and Afzal.
After Afzal Guru’s arrest soon after the Parliament attack, his wife, Tabassum, had applied for clemency. On February 3, 2013, then President Pranab Mukherjee rejected the mercy petition. It was also rejected on January 23, 2013. A clemency petition was filed by Tabassum in 2006. Afzal was sentenced to death for “providing logistical support to the men who attacked the Indian Parliament in 2001”. He was sentenced to death in August 2005.
Guru’s hanging was Mr Gupta’s last black warrant. According to him, “every aspect of Afzal Guru’s case was controversial”. “The Supreme Court itself admitted that Afzal Guru was not part of any terror group, not part of Jaish-e-Mohammad which was behind the Parliament attack,” he writes.
The Supreme Court in its judgment had said the evidence was circumstantial: “As is the case with most conspiracies, there is and could be no direct evidence amounting to criminal conspiracy.” It further said: “The incident, which resulted in heavy casualties, had shaken the entire nation, and the ‘collective conscience of society’ will only be satisfied if capital punishment is awarded to the offender.” He was suspected of ferrying and assisting the attackers who targeted the Indian Parliament. The Supreme Court had said there was no “direct evidence” of Guru’s involvement in the attack nor was he part of a militant group that attacked Parliament. The court approved orders on his hanging to satisfy the “collective conscience of society”.
Dissatisfied with the SC judgment at the time, many leading judicial experts and authors like Arundhati Roy and others described Guru’s hanging as “judicial murder”.
Gautam Navlakha, a human rights defender based in New Delhi, voiced his concern: “We are against the death penalty. It has been our demand since day one that capital punishment should be abolished in India. In a way, the decision to hang Afzal Guru, I think, is a ‘judicial murder’,” Mr Navlakha told this writer, adding, “When you don’t allow a person a fair trial and a chance to defend himself, you are being unfair.”
According to Mr Gupta’s account, the hanging of Guru “still haunts me”. Call records showed that Guru had been in touch with Mohammed, one of the attackers. “However, what Afzal pointed out (and the court did not accept) were details of how that phone was provided to him by the Special Task Force (STF) in Kashmir. According to him, the STF had tortured him from the time he returned to Kashmir from his failed adventure as a separatist in Pakistan.”
“Afzal alleged that he had no choice but to help Mohammed. Afzal named someone called Davinder Singh, a deputy superintendent of police in the Jammu and Kashmir Special Operations Group. He said his involvement in the entire attack came about because Singh asked him to take Parliament attacker Mohammed to Delhi and to provide him with all the help he needed.”
More important, after the dramatic arrest of J&K police’s “decorated” DSP Davinder Singh in Srinagar recently, it came to the surface once again that Guru had ferried one of the Parliament attackers, Mohammed, to New Delhi allegedly at Singh’s behest. Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy has written in detail about the same. In 2006, Davinder Singh, in an interview, had himself admitted to having tortured Afzal Guru. The same officer had dealt with Afzal when he had surrendered. Singh was arrested recently from Srinagar while ferrying and shielding a top Hizbul Mujahideen commander, Naveed alias Babar Azam.
On the hanging anniversary of Mohammad Afzal Guru, Kashmir remained shut in protest. The authorities shut down low bandwidth 2G mobile Internet services, imposed Section 144 and also deployed additional units of paramilitary troops to “maintain the law and order” situation.
According to the government’s version, Guru was the prime accused in the attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001. After his hanging in February 2013, the authorities interred his body in Delhi’s Tihar Jail, where he had been in solitary confinement for 12 years. Guru’s wife, Tabasum, and son, Ghalib, were not informed. Bhat’s mortal remains also lay buried in Tihar Jail.
That is why Afzal Guru’s hanging has stirred a controversy.
Several letters attributed to Afzal Guru have mentioned how he was allegedly tortured by government forces personnel and coerced to ferry a militant to New Delhi.
Nandita Haksar, noted human rights lawyer and author, in her book The Many Faces of Kashmiri Nationalism, gives a detailed account of how Afzal Guru was treated inside the notorious torture centres and jails, and how he was made a victim. “After all, in order to understand Afzal’s story, one would have to practically know the history of insurgency and counterinsurgency in Kashmir. And history cannot be presented as evidence in a court of law. Afzal was a victim of history,” Ms Haksar writes. (The Many Faces of Kashmiri Nationalism p. 185)
She writes that a police officer, DSP Davinder Singh, ordered Guru to confess to being in touch with militants and possessing weapons. When Guru refused, the author says that “he was stripped naked and put in freezing water and given electric shocks”.
“…Afzal was forcibly made to drink water and given electric shocks for three hours by an inspector called Shanti Singh, while the officer (DSP Davinder Singh) watched. Petrol was poured into his anus and chillies stuffed into it and he was kept in that state the whole day,” (The Many Faces of Kashmiri Nationalism, p. 184; the details of the torture were written in a letter by Guru to his lawyer in the Supreme Court, Sushil Kumar, and the letter was later published in a pamphlet.)
Omar Abdullah, then chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir and now arrested under the draconian Public Safety Act (PSA), had confirmed that his government was kept in the loop regarding the decision on Guru’s execution. The Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP), then the main Opposition, had condemned the hanging while launching a scathing attack on the Omar-led coalition government.
On Maqbool Bhat, Mr Gupta said that he was “the highly educated, pious inmate with whom I used to practice my English language skills”. In Kerala at the third edition of the Mathrubhumi International Festival of Letters (MBIFL 2020), Mr Gupta told this writer that “Bhat was a learned man. Graceful. He was passionate about the freedom of Kashmir”.
“It was very clear that Maqbool was a political prisoner and he was treated as one too. Unlike others who would spend their time gossiping or trying to make trouble, all he did was read,” Mr Gupta writes in a chapter titled “The Anatomy Of A Hanging” (p.72). He described Bhat as a victim of circumstances.