Advocate Nandita Haksar and I had helped draft the petition. Nandita suggested that we should seek an appointment with the President of India—Dr APJ Abdul Kalam– on behalf of Guru’s mother, wife and minor son for a personal hearing.
I was sceptical as never before had a President given any such opportunity to the family of a death row convict. Moreover, the Union Home Ministry was deadly against Guru, determined to ensure his execution. Nevertheless we decided to try, and I wrote to the President. To our surprise within two days I received a phone call from Rashtrapati Bhawan that Dr. Abdul Kalam, the President, had accepted our request and we were asked to meet him the day after.
Guru’s wife, mother and minor son including Nandita Haksar and I went to meet the President. Nandita and I were part of the delegation as the advocates. The meeting lasted for about one hour. Dr. Kalam first ascertained whether the ladies from Kashmir could talk in Urdu/Hindustani. Getting an answer in the affirmative he said that he would like to hear the family first. Both the mother and wife placed their woes before him and he listened patiently and attentively to both of them, with intermittent questioning. He was affectionate to the child who was about 8/9 years old. Both Nandita and I made our legal submissions. The President’s staff took down notes. He looked serious, and appeared considerate. At the end of the meeting he said that he would look into it. We came out of the meeting with a glimmer of hope.
Before filing the mercy petition on behalf of the wife, we wanted Afzal Guru himself to file it personally on his own behalf. But he was not willing as he thought it to of no use, as he felt the government was determined to hang him. So the petition was filed by the wife. After the meeting with President Abdul Kalam, both Guru’s wife and mother met and gave him the details, as to how they were given a patient hearing.
Afzal Guru had already read the news and seemed to be moved by the unprecedented gesture shown by Dr.Kalam to his family. The mercy petition by the wife was prepared in haste and we were of the opinion that a properly well drafted document should be prepared and be filed on behalf of Guru himself. This time it was easy to persuade him. In the first para of his petition Afzal wrote in the petition addressed to the President of India :
“….I myself had no hope that I would get a hearing . However, after my wife, Tabassum, my mother, Ayesha Begum and son Ghalib, told me how graciously you had received them I was really moved and it kindled a new hope that I may still get justice.”
But the Home Ministry was determined to deny justice to Afzal Guru.
We came to know later that the mercy petition filed by him was never sent to Dr. Abdul Kalam Azad, with or without the comments of the Ministry. By the time he with its comments by the Ministry.
By that time Dr. Kalam had come to entertain doubts about the death sentence in itself. He raised the question as to how it was that only those persons who belonged to the poorer and marginalized sections of society were getting death sentences! He publicly expressed his doubts.
The Home Ministry seems to have been scared by his unconventional views. So the mercy petition of Afzal Guru was not sent to Dr. Abdul Kalam.
More so, as he had already returned 50 mercy petitions in 2005 back to the Home Ministry for consideration. He had dismissed only one petition that of Dhananjay Chatterji, a lift operator, which he did reluctantly as he said himself later on. This delay by the President helped death row convicts like Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar and three others accused in the Rajiv Gandhi case. As later the Supreme Court commuted their death sentence into life imprisonment on the ground that there was unexplained delay in deciding their mercy petitions. These had been dismissed by present President Pranab Mukherjee sometime in 2013.
Afzal Guru would have been alive today on the same grounds had the government not hanged him secretly on Feb 9,2013 without following due procedures. This was done just done a few months before the judgment of the Supreme Court that gave relief to Bhullar and the others.
Dr. Abdul Kalam was at heart a man of the people and remained so when he became the President of India. He led a simple life even as the President. In him lay a pious soul and kind heart who sought to serve society according to dictates of his conscience. He was against the death penalty and his views in this regard are a significant contribution to the human rights movement for its abolition.
I, personally as well as on behalf of the Citizens For Democracy, pay our sincere tribute to the man of the people –Dr. Abdul Kalam.
(N.D.Pancholi is a civil rights lawyer and a founder member of the Citizens for Democracy).