India’s secret executions: necropolitics and government by stealth

India’s democratic futures lie with a sovereignty whose essence is freedom and imagination, not one driven by power, amoral sentiment and a death wish, argues Vijay Nagaraj.

“[S]overeignty means the capacity to define who matters and who does not, who is disposable and who is not.  - Achille Mbembe in Necropolitics (Public Culture, Winter 2003 15(1))

On the morning of 9th February, Afzal Guru—convicted of conspiring with those who attacked India’s Parliament in 2001—was secretly executed in Delhi’s Tihar Jail, following the President’s rejection of his mercy petition. Even his family were not informed about his execution, let alone being allowed to meet him. They  have also been denied his mortal remains—a tragic finale in a tale of manipulation and injustice at the hands of the Indian law enforcement and judicial establishments.

The Indian judiciary has been rather selective, to the point of being discriminatory, in deciding who should die and who should live.  It must be noted that Guru was not amongst those who actually attacked the Parliament and nor was it claimed that he was the ‘mastermind’. In fact, even though the Supreme Court found “no direct evidence” against him, it upheld his death sentence because “[t]he 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.”

In 2011, the Supreme Court refused to award the death penalty to Dara Singh, convicted for attacking and burning alive Graham Staines, an Australian missionary, and his two minor sons in Orissa in January 1999. Clearly, the “collective conscience of society” had made its choice—Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri Muslim whose guilt was as far from reasonable doubt as Kashmir is from India’s collective conscience, mattered less and was more disposable than Dara Singh, linked to the militant Hindu right-wing Bajrang Dal, whose guilt was established beyond doubt.

Guru’s secret execution comes close on the heels of the execution last November, again in secret, of Ajmal Kasab, the sole surviving gunman from the 2008 Mumbai attacks. That these secret executions are seen as demonstrating the government’s decisiveness and even welcomed underlines -  among other things - the moral bankruptcy of political discourse and the hollowness of India’s so-called collective conscience.  A scandal-ridden Congress-led central government, its own credibility on death row, is deploying necropolitics, propping itself up on executions whose secrecy is also feeding a media spectacle: Did he sleep well? What time did he wake up? What did he eat? Was he calm? What were his last words? And of course, the biggest question of all, who is next?

While the state has much to answer for in Guru’s case, the execution raises questions that go beyond the problems inherent in the death penalty. The secrecy surrounding the execution once again reinforces the Indian state’s (Delhi and beyond) growing resort to government by stealth and its cunning enforcement of assessments of who matters and who does not.  Here is a quick sample:

Just last week, the union government rushed through a hastily, and yes, secretly drawn up ordinance reforming rape laws. Cherry picking from a comprehensive set of recommendations made by the Justice Verma commission, set-up in the aftermath of the gang-rape in Delhi of a young woman in December, the ordinance ensures the continuation of several “citadels of impunity” for rape. Tragically, the episode mirrored the government-enforced secret cremation of the young woman herself following her death in a Singapore hospital.

A few days ago, 12 platoons of armed police launched a pre-dawn raid on the village of Gobindpur in coastal Orissa, destroying crops and assaulting those resisting the unjust and forcible acquisition of their lands for the South Korean steel corporation POSCO.

In April last year, the government of Maharashtra secretly amended the right to information law to render it more restrictive and difficult to use.

Two years ago, a publicly funded agricultural research centre in the state of Karnataka collaborated with a multinational company to secretly field-test genetically modified rice, without even informing the local village government, a constitutional body, or local farmers.

In 2008, the state secretly dumped 40 tons of toxic waste from the site of the 1984 Bhopal gas leak, the world's worst industrial disaster, in an incinerator about 200 km away.

Millions of dollars worth of coal blocks, air-waves spectrum, and mining leases across the country have been allocated in non-transparent and secretive ways leading to huge losses to the public exchequer while thousands have been left displaced and the environment ravaged.

The government of India kept hidden critical parts of an Indo-US Nuclear deal including aspects pertaining to capping of liability; details of a more recent civilian nuclear agreement reached with Canada are also to remain secret. Even ongoing trade negotiations with the EU, whose adverse effects may include restricted access to generic medicines, have been kept under wraps.

There will be more such cases than any systematic enquiry can ever reveal. The Indian state is busy and effective in stealth mode: killing, dispossessing, displacing, polluting, pillaging, and disempowering with unerring accuracy and frightening regularity.  

Beholden to a politics of hollow sentiments—of mobs and market alike—the executions themselves have further emboldened the Hindu right-wing, who will brook no democratic dissent, which in turn feeds further extremism. The social disciplining championed by a vulgar nationalism that silences protest, curbs freedom of expression and enforces social control, especially of women, youth, Dalits, and minorities, is an exercise in ‘populist’ sovereignty.  This, however, nicely complements the economic disciplining by market-led policies, whose most recent act of ‘consumerist’ sovereignty is foreign direct investment in retailing and the conversion of all welfare entitlements into cash transfers.

In the meantime, the stealthy Indian state is rapidly sharpening its already formidable ability to snoop on its subjects by establishing a gargantuan repository of personal data and information and nodes of surveillance. There is the UID, a database of key personal identity information including biometrics, ostensibly to ensure profile-based access to development schemes. Add to that the National Population Register of all ‘usual residents’—more personal data and biometrics. And as if that were not enough, a National Intelligence Grid and a Crime and Criminal Tracking Network System linking all police stations, law enforcement and command centres—even more data and biometrics but generated and backed by policing, surveillance and intelligence.

Apart from serving as a timely bail-out package to an IT industry hit by global recession in the form of lucrative contracts, this massive data and surveillance matrix will no doubt help the state better direct its instrumentalities of necro-power and decode more efficiently who matters and who does not. Even a strong privacy regime, and there is none at the moment, is unlikely to deter the state or its agents. Consider what is happening in the case of the right to information legislation, apart from secret and not-so secret amendments and subversion that exists. As far as we know, 29 right to information (RTI) activists have been killed since May 2008, and around 164 cases of assault and harassment of RTI activists registered across India.

The execution of Guru has been justified on the grounds that he had conspired against India’s sovereignty.  However, now more than ever, there is a need to ‘conspire’ and act against chauvinist, populist, and consumerist ideas of sovereignty. Tagore’s “sovereignty of reasoning—fearless reasoning in freedom”, compassionate and life affirming, may be upheld instead. India’s democratic futures lie with a sovereignty whose essence is freedom and imagination, not one driven by power, amoral sentiment and a death wish.