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