Paris. January, 1895. The immediate shadow of the symbol of modernity, La Tour Eiffel in fancy French or the Eiffel Tower as is called by anglophones. A young artillery officer is stripped of his insignia medals, his sword is broken over the knee of the degrader and he is jeered at by a crowd shouting “Judas” in unison despite his desperate cries, “I swear that I am innocent. I remain worthy of serving in the Army. Long live France! Long live the Army!”
Delhi. February, 2012. A jail in the political capital of the largest democracy of the world. A surrendered militant who had been denied a lawyer, is secretly executed early in the morning without being allowed to meet his family for one last time- all to satisfy “the collective conscience of the society”. Cable television and internet services are shut down to prevent the spread of news about the incident.
The sole crime of both these convicts was to be born not as the Faceless Foreigner, but as the inalienable Enemy Within. If institutionalised anti-Semitism accounted for the injustice meted out to Alfred Dreyfus, L’affaire Afzal Guru was a result of unchecked Islamophobia imposed on a nation-state of millions. If the former was Judas by dint of being born a Jew in a milieu dominated by Catholics, the latter was Vibhisana by virtue of being born a Muslim in a country mostly inhabited by Hindus. The blot of cultural scapegoating has as much stained the pages of history as it continues to stain headlines till date.
The Dreyfus affair created a ridge in the then French society between the pro-army, mostly Catholic ‘anti-Dreyfusards’ and the anti-clerical, pro-Republican Dreyfusards. The aftermath of the execution of Guru was marked by a sharp disagreement between calling him a militant and a martyr. While Dreyfus was bearing upon his shoulders the crime originally committed by Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, of passing to the Germans information regarding new artillery parts, Guru was encumbered with treason by aiding Jaish-e-Mohammad in attacking the Indian Parliament- an act forced upon him by the Indian intelligence agencies. Dreyfus was free at the cost of his honour. He still is espionage in the eyes of law. Guru was free only in death- his corpse buried under public wrath of a democracy which boasts of equal rights for all.
Lt. Colonel Georges Picquart, the new chief of French military intelligence who reported to his superiors that he had found evidence to the effect that the real traitor was Esterhazy and
For love of justice and for love of truth”—
Aye, ‘t was for these, for these he put aside
Place and preferment, fortune and the pride
Of fair renown;
-was silenced by being transferred to the southern desert of Tunisia. Afzal Guru was denied a lawyer until Sushil Kumar, Senior Advocate, Supreme Court agreed to fight his case. To him, Afzal said,
“STF made [me] an [a] scapegoat in all this criminal act which was designed and directed by STF and others which I don’t know. Special Police is definitely the part of this game because every time they forced me to remain silent.”
The strength of both the French and the Indian liberal democracies gagged the voices which demanded justice.
The scapegoats at hand spent their lives on the basis of meritocracy. The first sign of disaffection against the Jewishness of Dreyfus manifested itself when General Bonneford granted him poor marks for cote d’amour (likeability), thus bringing down his overall grade for the War College examination in 1892. Guru, an aspiring doctor had not only had his aspiration of becoming a doctor crushed under the fact that he was a surrendered militant, but he was also denied a government job. However, the intelligence agency did not find it unlawful to abuse him as a human resource when it asked him to escort Mohammad to Delhi and help him find a rented room and a car. The eyes of Justice were blindfolded with jingoism (nationalism in the contemporary parlance).
Both the convicts were dehumanized but never detached of their ascribed identities (of Jew and Muslim), which became battlegrounds of pertinent definitions- soldier or spy, militant or martyr, friend or foe- identities which have been blurred by modernity. The shocking public reaction to the legal proceedings against both Alfred and Afzal compounded the dilemma of a conscience collective and how it should ideally function in a civilized setting, not because of social indifference, but because of the very breach of human rights that public intervention displayed.
Law, besides being a product of the conscience collective, is a cause for the same, especially when it comes to the context of the eternal other. It is a convenient weapon wielded by the majority to tweak justice to its favour. The facts of history have been erased from the considerations of law. Modernity is as liquid as it was at the fin de-siècle a century ago, as it now is. Simultaneously, it is surprisingly watertight with hardly any space for the ability to gauge the balance of individual responsibility with social, political and economic circumstance to seep through. The eternal case of the faithful traitor effectively challenges the perpetual quest for progress that societies across the world are trapped in- be it on the map of the occidental past, or that of the oriental present.