Ambassadors of Conscience

In today’s Times of India, an article on an innocent man who spent 11 years in jail for allegedly raping and murdering a six year old girl.

Kounder was released from the Yerawada prison on the directives of the Bombay High Court which took cognisance of a suicide note left by police inspector Iqbal Bargir in 2000 who said that Kounder was not guilty of the crime he was charged with.

The court order said that Kounder, who at the time of his arrest in 1995 was employed as an illiterate sweeper with the Brihan Mumbai Municipal Corporation, was suspected to have been wrongly implicated in the crime.

And what if Kounder had been given capital punishment? Surely raping and murdering a six year old girl justifies it (after all, the last time a Manila rope was made at Buxar jail was in 2004, for Dhananjay Chatterjee)? The next time I rise in righteous anger against rapists and murderers and shout ‘off with their heads’ in a grotesque imitation of the Red Queen, I will have to remember Armogam Munnaswami Kounder. A poor man, from a family of casual labourers in Tamil Nadu. A family he had lost all contact with in the past eleven years. As I write this, he is on a train – somewhere between Pune and Vellore – wondering whether his wife and son will recognise him.

In the midst of the on/off line (in more ways than one) debate around the death penalty, I think Shivam said it simply and effectively. Dilip quotes Nandita Haksar, the civil rights activist representing Mohammed Afzal Guru:

Can the collective conscience of our people be satisfied if a fellow citizen is hanged without having a chance to defend himself? We have not even had a chance to hear Afzal’s story. Hanging Mohammad Afzal will only be a blot on our democracy.

However, Rahul Mahajan gets into the act, saying he will sit on dharna to register his protest against those seeking pardon for Afzal. Perhaps he feels the Delhi police will then help him get elected.

Collective conscience? I leave you with an excerpt from Seamus Heaney’s extraordinary poem, that asks from us the greatest and deepest responsibility of all time: to be an ambassador of conscience, beyond the platitudes, beyond the politics of expedience. Please read the whole poem on the Art for Amnesty site.

When I landed in the republic of conscience
it was so noiseless when the engines stopped
I could hear a curlew high above the runway

At immigration, the clerk was an old man
who produced a wallet from his homespun coat
and showed me a photograph of my grandfather

The woman in customs asked me to declare
the words of our traditional cures and charms
to heal dumbness and avert the evil eye

No porters. No interpreter. No taxi.
You carried your own burden and very soon
your symptoms of creeping privilege disappeared


I came back from that frugal republic
with my two arms the one length, the customs woman
having insisted my allowance was myself

The old man rose and gazed into my face
and said that was official recognition
that I was now a dual citizen

He therefore desired me when I got home
to consider myself a representative
and to speak on their behalf in my own tongue

Their embassies, he said, were everywhere
but operated independently
and no ambassador would ever be relieved

7 thoughts on “Ambassadors of Conscience”

  1. The field of capital punishment is a very complex topic, and there are plenty of arguments for and against it. Obviously, convicting an accused man is a major issue. A lot of countries have also abolished capital punishment.
    The other side of the argument talks about justice: There are serial murderers, terrorists who see nothing wrong in killing people for a cause. What do you tell the family of Priyadarshini Mattoo whose life was snuffed out in cold blood.
    The alternative is a life sentence; anything less than that would be injustice, and no society can function that allows leniency in such cases.
    I do not know the minute details of the Afzal case, but I do know that the main terrorists are dead, and conspirators in case of heinous crimes are held to be as guilty as the perpetrators. Further, the law system typically takes a much harsher view of terrorism, casting such people as acting against the state, for which punishments are typically more severe. If Afzal was wilfully deprived of a lawyer, then that would be a traversty of justice because any law system does treat any accused an innocent until proven guilty.

  2. “if a fellow citizen is hanged without having a chance to defend himself? We have not even had a chance to hear Afzal’s story.”

    Lie. Afzal’s “story” was more than heard. He had a lawyer.

    What can one say about a “cause” that is sought to be pushed with the aid of lies?

  3. @Ashish: You’re very right, punishment itself is a complex issue – but in my opinion, capital punishment should be abolished; the death penalty is not the answer. Yes, for heinous crimes, life imprisonment is what we should seek. But working with the criminal justice system as I do, I also see the frailties of the system, up close and personal. I believe innately in a just, constitutional system, but I do know how many people are left out of that loop in so many ways – for every Priyadarshini whose murderer is convicted (though in a case which re-opened mainly through civil society protest), are thousands of women raped or murdered who have no privilege, no power, no influence, no access to public opinion or the justness of a justice system. What tends to happen is that the system is skewed against the complainant, towards the accused, so that the higher the punishment sought, the less likely is the conviction. When there is conviction, it almost always tends to be of those who are poor, less privileged, who have no access to the portals (and possibilities) of influence like Manu Sharma in the Jessica Lall case… Institutions are a sum of their individual parts, and sometimes greater than the sum. While there are those who show extraordinary courage and individual as well as institutional will to give justice, there will always be those tempted into being less than they should be (and who may admit it only in a suicide note).

    @ivtec: If you see Nandita Haksar’s full statement at
    you will find that it is the courts themselves who note the illegalities of his trial with concern. To quote: “the courts noted with concern that evidence was fabricated and he never had a lawyer who represented him. The Designated Judge passed an order giving Afzal the right to cross-examine witnesses but even a person with legal training without knowledge of criminal law would find it difficult to conduct such a trial.”

    All of us sometimes call inconvenient truth a lie. It’s up to us, really, to understand – and be honest about – the difference.

  4. @Manu: Really liked your aunt’s website, thanks for pointing it out. Will try and call you next week, nijvagalu. Thondre yen andre, naanu seedha Rutgers hogbittu vaapas bartha iddinni. No time in the midst of it at all…

    We’ll swalpa adjust maadi-fy next time.

  5. The Supreme Court dealt on this issue at length, and refuted the claims that Afzal Guru had no legal support. Fact of the matter is that the claim that Afzal had no lawyer is simply a lie. He HAD a lawyer except for a brief period of two weeks or so when no important business was transacted in the courts. The Supreme Court notes this point too.

    Even this gap in his defence arose because the lawyer representing him quit to take up another client’s defence. This client happened to be Afzal’s co-accused Geelani. You should ask Nandita Haskar why was it that the lawyer representing Afzal was ‘stolen’ for Geelani’s defence.

    My question remains: why does any cause have to be defended with untruths? What can one say about such causes?

  6. Dear ivtec: Just back from a long trip and saw this. Let me clarify: whatever the complexities around legal representation – though I agree we need to know more, and there should be more transparency around what happened (wish I knew Nandita Haksar personally, but I don’t) – it still doesn’t take away from the fact that I believe that the death penalty is not the answer. Lies, damn lies or stutter-stics notwithstanding.

    In other words, however many times you might call it an untruth, it doesn’t lessen this truth for me: capital punishment cannot be the way this world lives out justice. Whether for Mohammed Afzal or for Santosh Kumar Singh. Priyadarshini Mattoo and this nation deserve better from us.

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