Is there space for a non-hysterical debate on terrorism in India? The hanging of Afzal Guru last week has exposed a number of different viewpoints but the basic reaction has been this: approval of hangings equals patriotism.
The natural corollary is that any other opinion amounts to high treason. For the past 11 years, Afzal Guru has been upheld as the sort of poster boy of liberals and the red flag for ultra-rightists.
The first group has pointed out that Guru may well have confessed to being the facilitator for the group of Pakistani terrorists who decided to attack the Indian Parliament but since then, he was denied legal representation in a way that has impinged on basic human rights. To the other group, Guru is nothing but scum who may not have pulled any triggers but deserved the worst punishment.
Any other argument meant that you are an Islamist terrorist sympathiser who wants nothing more than to garner more votes from Muslims. The implication is obvious - the link between Muslims and terrorists can be denied only by ‘sickulars’, as anyone who is not a right-wing Hindutva believer is called in common Internet parlance.
Guru at some point ceased to be a human being and became a symbol of our different ideas of death and terrorism. In addition, there is the Kashmir angle since he was a Kashmiri. It is interesting that we know more about him and he is spoken about more than the other terrorists waiting on death row, even though he actually killed no one. He was not even the mastermind. He was a cog in a giant terrorism machine.
There are some similarities in the case of Balwant Singh Rajaona, awarded the death sentence for assisting in the killing Punjab chief minister Beant Singh. According to Rajaona’s confession, he tied the bomb belt on Dilawar, who died in the attack on Singh. Therefore, like Guru, he did no actual killing himself.
However, he was an integral part of the conspiracy. The Shiromani Akali Dal is fighting his mercy plea, claiming his execution will hurt Sikh sentiment. Regardless of the horrors inflicted on Sikhs after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, there can be no doubt that the Khalistani movement led to innumerable acts of terrorism, committed by Sikhs.
With the three killers of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi awaiting execution - Santhan, Murugan and Perarivalan - the Tamil Nadu assembly and government have opposed their execution, claiming their deaths will hurt Tamil sentiments. In both these other cases, the human rights angle has been brought up as well - they have spent years on death row which is unfair and there are some legal loopholes in their cases.
Interestingly, those who bring up these human rights issues are not excoriated for being traitors, terrorist-sympathisers, bleeding hearts liberals and so on. But all those who said similar things about Afzal Guru are. What is one to make of this? That in our discourse, Muslims accused of terrorism have no human rights? Or that terrorism committed by Muslims is more important than terrorism committed in the name of Sikhism or ethnic rights? Or that the sentiments of Sikhs and Tamils are more significant than those of Kashmiris?
The tragedy is that our polity has become so sharply divided that we seem incapable of applying the same logic - or indeed any logic - to these difficult problems. Fanned by the jingoistic danse macabre that passes for debate on TV and shy of confronting Hindutva hatred of Muslims beyond a point, we forget that justice and the law has to apply to everyone equally.
Instead, these blatant double standards continue to foster pain and confusion in marginalised and discriminated against communities across India. Afzal Guru helped in an attack on an institution of the Indian state. So did Rajaona, Santhan, Murugan and Periravalan attack the Indian state, in their own ways. But justice, evidently, is not
Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona