Back to the brink

Print edition : March 08, 2013

Activists of the JKLF staging a protest in the Maisuma area of Srinagar on February 8, holding pictures of Maqbool Butt, its founder who was hanged in 1984 in the Tihar Jail. They demanded that his remains be returned to the valley for a proper burial. Photo: NISSAR AMAD

Paramilitary troops patrol a deserted street on the seventh day of the curfew imposed in Srinagar following the hanging of Afzal Guru. Photo: NISSAR AHMAD

Omar Abdullah: “The execution has reinforced the point that there is no justice.” Photo: Mukhtar Khan/AP

Newspapers are back on the stands on February 13, after a break of three days following Afzal Guru's hanging. Photo: NISSAR AHMAD

In Islamabad, Jamat-ud-Dawa chief Hafiz Saeed (left) and Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front chairman Yasin Malik at a hunger strike to protest against the hanging. Photo: A.H. Chaudary/AP

Independent MLA Engineer Rashid. He had wanted to move a resolution in the Assembly against hanging Afzal Guru. Photo: NISSAR AHMAD

Mehbooba Mufti: “If Omar Abdullah says he was not consulted, New Delhi is disempowering Kashmir again.” Photo: ROUF BHAT/AFP

The rise of militancy and the alienation of people in Kashmir can be traced back to the hanging of JKLF leader Maqbool Butt in 1984. Although an uneasy peace prevailed in the valley in the past two years, the hanging of Afzal Guru has reopened old wounds.

KASHMIR’S tryst with trouble is not new. But the one kick-started by the hanging of Mohammad Afzal Guru, sentenced to death for his role in the attack on Parliament House in December 2001, is different for several reasons. Much before the State’s over 6.5 million people woke up on February 9, the day Afzal Guru was hanged, Srinagar and other major towns of the valley were barricaded and indefinite curfews clamped. It took the majority of the people by surprise as no one had a clue that Afzal Guru was to be hanged in such great secrecy. The valley, at the time of writing, remains under strict curfew with people confined to their homes. Three people have died in clashes and scores have been injured, Internet services are blocked partially, and newspapers did not come out for three days.

These pre-emptive moves were made because the authorities apprehended serious trouble. Despite such a fragile situation in Kashmir, the Government of India went ahead with the decision to send Afzal Guru to the gallows. The pleas from his family, Kashmiri separatists and even mainstream leaders to commute the death sentence were rejected. The attempt last year by Engineer Rashid, Independent MLA from Langate, to get the State Assembly to pass a resolution demanding that Afzal Guru should not be hanged was unsuccessful. Following the execution, Rashid had to spend a few days in jail for leading a procession against the hanging.

The hanging has come in for condemnation not just from people like Rashid or separatists such as Syed Ali Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Shabir Shah; even mainstream politicians such as Chief Minister Omar Abdullah and opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) president Mehbooba Mufti have come down heavily on the Centre for what they call a hasty decision. Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, former Union Home Minister and former Chief Minister of Kashmir, said that Mahatma Gandhi’s India had been turned into a “banana republic”. Separatists and mainstream parties may have their own political compulsions to make such statements, but they largely reflect the anger and resentment in the valley.

The rise of militancy

Many analysts compared the mood in the valley now to what prevailed when Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front founder Maqbool Butt was hanged in the same jail, the same month, in 1984. Butt was executed for his role in the JKLF’s abduction and killing of an Indian diplomat, Ravinder Mahtre, in London. It is widely believed that Butt’s hanging was one of the triggers for the rise of militancy in Kashmir five years later. The generation that took up arms were inspired by Butt’s ideology of an “independent Jammu and Kashmir”. The large-scale rigging in the 1987 Assembly elections, in which the Muslim United Front (MUF) was pitted against the National Conference-Congress alliance, added fuel to the fire. The JKLF’s present chairman, Yasin Malik, then an election agent of MUF candidate Mohammad Yusuf Shah (now Hizbul Mujahideen commander Syed Salahuddin), was among the early converts to militancy. A large number of youth, disillusioned with the sham of democracy, found in Butt’s hanging enough reasons to be among the first advocates of “wresting Kashmir from India” through militancy. But analysts feel 2013 is not 1984 and do not anticipate, in the aftermath of Afzal Guru’s hanging, the 1989-like trouble in Kashmir, when militancy was in the ascendant.

However, resentment is brewing among the youth, and indications are that things will not remain calm the way they were in the past two years. Afzal Guru’s hanging has aggravated the sense of alienation that already exists among Kashmiris towards the Indian mainstream. The participation of people in the 2008 Assembly elections soon after the Amarnath land row (triggered by the transfer of forest land to the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board to set up temporary shelters and facilities for pilgrims) or the 2011 panchayat elections does not mask the anger and distrust one finds on the ground. In 2010, nearly 120 civilians, mostly young people, were killed in the unrest over the killing of three people in a fake encounter by the Army in the Machil area in the north of the State. Kashmir did move on, but the bruised psyche of its people has not healed and events such as Afzal Guru’s hanging will further aggravate the situation.

Omar’s criticism

Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, whose party, the National Conference, is a constituent of the United Progressive Alliance ruling at the Centre, expressed his fears that the execution would further distance the youth from the mainstream. “The long-term implications of Afzal Guru’s execution are worrying as they are linked to the people of Kashmir, especially the younger generation. Like it or not, the execution has reinforced the point that there is no justice. We will have to deal with how we can change that sort of alienation,” he told a news channel. Omar Abdullah did not mince words when he said that if today’s younger generation did not identify with Maqbool Butt, they would definitely identify with Afzal Guru.

He was also critical of how Afzal Guru’s case was dealt with. “The Supreme Court judgment in the case talks about strong circumstantial evidence and about satisfying the collective conscience of society. You don’t hang people because society demands it. You hang people because the law demands it,” he said. He had pleaded with the government not to rush through with the execution. He also asked why the Indian government was in a hurry to hang Afzal Guru when there were others on the death row in the Rajiv Gandhi or the Beant Singh assassination case. Obviously, having to face the ire of the public directly, he was keen to distance himself from the decision on the execution.

Mehbooba Mufti and Communist Party of India (Marxist) State secretary M.Y. Tarigami, too, were critical of the decision. Describing the execution as disappointing, Mehbooba Mufti demanded the handing over of the body of Afzal Guru to his family for last rites. “While the hanging should not have been carried out, the return of Afzal’s body was the least the government could do to show its concern for humanitarian values,” she said. She also did not buy into Omar Abdullah’s claims that he had no role in the hanging, especially when the National Conference was part of the UPA and his father, Farooq Abdullah, was a Minister in the Union Cabinet. “It is a shameful execution, which should not have happened, but if Omar Abdullah says he was not consulted on the execution then New Delhi is disempowering Kashmir once again,” she said.

Tarigami felt the execution would create further alienation among the people. “The decision to hang Afzal Guru was taken in haste and without taking the sensitivities of Jammu and Kashmir into consideration. The Central government did not pay any heed to the volatile situation of this trouble-torn State before finalising the decision,” he told Frontline.

Hurting sentiments

The fact that the family was denied a last meeting with Afzal Guru and the manner in which the government deigned to inform it of the execution have hurt people’s sentiments. The letter sent through Speed Post by the authorities of Tihar Jail reached the family three days after the hanging.

People saw parallels between Afzal Guru’s and Butt’s executions. Butt’s body, too, was buried in Tihar and the government refused to return the remains to his family despite repeated pleas. Afzal Guru’s family rejected the government’s offer that the family could visit Tihar and offer prayers at the grave. “We can offer prayers from here even. They are mixing the two things; we don’t understand what they mean. We want the body to be handed back, nothing less than that,” Mohammad Yasin, Afzal Guru’s cousin, said.

With Kashmir on the edge again, normalcy cannot be anticipated in the near future as the focus of the family and the separatists would now shift to demanding the handing back of the body, and this situation could last a long time. The government has nothing to offer that can satisfy the family and the people. Human rights activists have criticised the government for keeping the body. “It is legally and ethically wrong for them to keep the body. Even on the basis of the sham trial, the Supreme Court ordered to hang him, not to keep his body. They cannot deny the family the right to have the body. This conduct makes the state culpable. Kashmir did not react to Butt’s hanging in 1984, but the times have changed now. It will further strengthen the resolve of the people for the struggle they are in for political rights,” said Khurram Parvez, a leading human rights activist and coordinator of the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society.

Jolt to peace

Whether Afzal Guru’s hanging was a political decision or a bureaucratic one is not relevant to today’s Kashmir. It has surely given a severe jolt to the process of peace and reconciliation, and there will hardly be anyone in the State who will accept New Delhi’s overtures on peace in the near future. Analysts are anyway of the opinion that Kashmir has been put on the back burner not only in India but also in Pakistan. The Government of India has not learnt the lesson from 2010 that the political volcano could erupt any time.

However, peace activists such as Sushobha Barve, who heads the Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation (CDR), even though she is disappointed with the Centre’s decision, has a serious issue with politicians linking the hanging with political issues in the State. “It is really unfortunate to choose, at this particular juncture, to take this action and somehow people talk about national security in this context. Rather than strengthening national security it puts it in jeopardy. Political issues are very much connected with security issues. [Their action] does not make much sense to me,” Barve said, adding, “Kashmiri politicians are also politicising and not trying to disconnect [the death] sentence from the politics, just as other parties are doing in Delhi.” She also pointed out that Pakistan was making dangerous moves when people like Rehman Malik were talking about hanging the Indian death row prisoner in Pakistan, Sarabjit Singh. “Yasin Malik’s mature statement about Sarabjit, asking Pakistan not to move ahead with his hanging, was unfortunately lost in the din created by Hafiz Saeed’s presence at his hunger strike,” she said.

But the academic Siddiq Wahid disagrees with such a view and says it will increase the alienation. “Within Kashmir, there is very little that we can do to counter the logic of the Indian judicial system which has tried, condemned and hanged Afzal Guru. But the heartlessness with which an antiquated colonial-era legal provision has been implemented confirms the Kashmiri argument that it is colonised territory and will only increase its long-term alienation; that is a certainty,” he said.

As things stand, it seems that Kashmir’s normalcy has been hit badly. The gains made in 2011 and 2012, culminating in the arrival of 1.4 million tourists, are under serious threat. People had shown resilience and increased their stakes in economic development, even in the absence of any serious political initiative from Delhi. But as of now, the doors of reconciliation have been shut and it will take a long time to pick up the threads again.

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