Playing ‘hard state’

Print edition : March 08, 2013

Bajrang Dal activists (left) clash with Kashmiri students protesting at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on February 9. Photo: Kamal Narang

Ifthikhar Gilani. The Delhi Police arrested the journalist and his wife and locked up their children in a room. Photo: PTI

Jammu & Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah (right) and his father, Union Minister Farooq Abdullah. Photo: PTI

Kashmiri students protest against the hanging of Afzal Guru, at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on February 9. Photo: V. Sudershan

Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. The Congress' strategy is to counter the BJP's prime ministerial aspirant at any cost. Photo: Ajit Solanki/AP

The Congress’ calculation is clear: it wants to appropriate the “hard on terror” image that the BJP and its prime ministerial aspirant, Narendra Modi, swear by.

TELEVISION news channels, whose jingoistic coverage of the incidents of violence in January along the Line of Control almost had India and Pakistan at each other’s throats, once again managed to polarise public opinion following the hanging of Afzal Guru, who was sentenced to death for his role in the 2001 terrorist attack on Parliament House. In fact, one news anchor went so far as to declare that “all secular, progressive and nationalist” citizens supported the hanging, as, clearly in his view, any contrary view fell in the realm of the anti-national.

The first day of hysterical coverage gave way to sane and sober voices in sections of the print media. Journalists and commentators pointed to the travesty of justice in the trial and the hanging. Lawyers commented on the fact that Afzal Guru did not get a senior lawyer to represent him during the most crucial part of the trial. Human rights activists drew attention to the fact that the courts could not use the “collective conscience of society” argument as a sufficient reason to award the death sentence. A legal and human rights debate raged on the issue of the death penalty. Alongside, the questions of rights and ethics, which the television channels had failed to raise, made the headlines in the print media: Why was Afzal Guru’s family not informed in time about his hanging? Why was he denied a last meeting with his wife and son and other family members? And, the main query: Why was the government in such a rush to execute Afzal Guru?

It is a fact that New Delhi showed scant respect for the sentiments of Afzal Guru’s family and the people of Jammu and Kashmir. In a mockery of justice, the letter informing his family about the hanging, supposedly sent by Speed Post, was delivered four days after the execution. No one asked, and hence there was no answer from the government, as to why the family was not informed over the telephone. If the idea of the government was to keep the execution a “secret”, surely a letter sent by Speed Post negated it, as it was an open document and would have broken the news at a time (if delivered, of course) when it was clearly intended to remain a top secret. It does appear then that the intention was not to inform the family for, as Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah has said, he himself could have arranged for the family to meet Afzal Guru without anyone knowing about it. But this was not done, and appears deliberately so.Apart from the obvious legal aspect, this execution has raised several political issues as well. Foremost is the hype that hanging a “terrorist” is the act of a “hard state”. And India is thus, in this view, now a hard state since it has hanged two “terrorists”—Ajmal Kasab and Afzal Guru—in quick succession. Just as it would have been considered a hard state had it a few weeks ago declared war against Pakistan, regardless of the consequences.

The need of the hour is to redefine this notion in the context of rights and justice wherein a state that oppresses and marginalises its people, a state that is unable to tolerate dissent and opens fire at protestors, a state that cracks down on innocents from time to time, a state that refuses to equate security of citizens with hunger and poverty is a “soft state” in the conventional sense of the term. And therefore, a state that looks after its citizens, that respects their rights, that understands their sentiments, that dispenses justice and rights with an even hand is a “hard” state. Militaristic postures and death penalties are little more than macho manifestations of a nationalism that does not secure a country; governance with a soft hand and use of hard action to uphold the dignity and freedom of every single citizen and to ensure that justice reaches the last man and woman can and should be the only determinants of a state that is responsive to its citizens’ security and welfare.

Alienating Kashmir

A second issue that is staring India and the government in the face is the impact this execution has had on the Kashmir Valley. It has generated shock and anger and set back the clock by several years. It has ensured not just the further marginalisation of the leadership in the valley—both the so-called mainstream and separatist—but it has imbued a sense of helplessness that carries tragic overtones. It has consolidated the view that Kashmiris have no place in India, a dangerous consequence affecting now even those who had stayed on the fence despite the police killings of 118 youth in 2010.

It is important to point out here that after the execution of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) leader Maqbool Butt in 1984, the separatists were able to force a shutdown in the valley only after two years. At that point, while the people mourned Butt’s hanging, the disillusionment with New Delhi was not complete and the alienation was clearly limited. The valley eventually entered a period of militancy, but this was not directly prompted by Butt’s execution, which was only an addition to many other factors.

In 2013, the atmosphere in the valley is very different. The people are sullen, angry, distrustful and definitely alienated from both India and Pakistan. Afzal Guru, a surrendered militant, in stature and in terms of leadership, was several notches below Butt. And yet the response to his execution has been immediate and widespread for reasons to do with the almost unbridgeable distance between Srinagar and New Delhi. Official sources told this writer that this intense reaction was expected.

Thus, the political point that arises here is that the government, whose intelligence agencies are present in strong numbers in the valley, was fully aware of the consequences of its action. For this reason, it decided to keep the execution a secret, and placed the State under curfew and a strong security blanket before announcing the done deed. Clearly, New Delhi did not care enough for Kashmiris, having placed them outside the fringe of decision-making quite a while ago. Even the voice of Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, whose party, the National Conference, is a constituent of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) ruling at the Centre, is not heard. His demand for the withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act falling on deaf ears in New Delhi is a case in point. The attitude is that Kashmiris can be ignored, and if they protest, the state has the wherewithal to imprison them in their homes, impose strict curfews, organise paramilitary and, if required, military patrols, fire at will, arrest at will, snap Internet and mobile services, shut down cable television and seize newspapers. In short, Kashmiris can be treated as occupied people with the kind of measures in place that would not be tolerated by any other State in the country.

The calculation

So, the next political question that arises from this is: why did Delhi do it then? If the government knew that it would completely alienate Kashmiris, what did, or does, it hope to achieve politically from the execution at this particular point in time? No one was clamouring for the hanging at this stage, and as in the case of prisoners who have been on death row for decades, Afzal Guru’s execution could have been delayed as well. Why has the government politically shot itself in the foot by opening a new chapter of confrontation?

The answer is simple: the Congress party, having weighed the pros and cons, is convinced that this one act, regardless of the alienation in Kashmir, will help it emerge triumphant in the 2014 general elections. The Congress is working around the fact that Narendra Modi will be the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate. The Congress’ top leaders are of the view that if this happens, the Muslim and secular vote, in a bid to defeat the Gujarat Chief Minister, will automatically gravitate to their party. And hence, the Congress needs to focus not on the minorities, but on the majority vote to prevent it from consolidating behind Modi. The one major thorn in its side was Afzal Guru, which was being hammered further in by the BJP, and the government acted in the belief that by removing it, it would finally earn the applause and admiration of the “hard” constituency as it were. Kashmir has become expendable in government planning, and the sentiments of the people are clearly irrelevant in New Delhi’s scheme of things.

Shutting out dialogue

The space in the Kashmir Valley that was willing to expand to cover the prospects of a dialogue with New Delhi has been almost closed with this execution. Some of the separatists, by meeting Jamaat-ud Dawa leader Hafiz Saeed in Pakistan, have painted themselves into a corner and lost the manoeuvring space they could still have claimed. The so-called mainstream politicians, such as Omar Abdullah and his father, Farooq, and People’s Democratic Party (PDP) president Mehbooba Mufti and her father, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, do not have the people’s trust or confidence, which have further eroded with Afzal Guru’s hanging. For instance, no one in the valley believes that the Chief Minister did not know about the execution well in advance; his passionate views to the contrary fell on ears deafened over the decades. For most, the hanging is a message from New Delhi that it is not interested in Kashmir and is not willing to begin talks, which could at least partially address the aspirations of the people for peace and justice.

The crackdown on Kashmiris in New Delhi was another indication of the same. The senior journalist Iftikhar Gilani was placed under house arrest along with his wife, his two terrified children were locked in a room by the officers of the special cell of the Delhi Police; Delhi University professor S.A.R. Geelani was picked up by the special cell; Kashmiri students demonstrating with others from their universities were detained by the same police that had earlier stood watching them being beaten at Jantar Mantar by Bajrang Dal youths. In its wisdom, New Delhi had found the “enemy” to muzzle as soon as it hanged Afzal Guru.

For Kashmiris, the growing alienation fuelled by years of trauma, and now helplessness bordering on desperation, is not going to disappear. Curfews cannot be sustained beyond a point by even the mightiest of governments, and security cover cannot detect or even understand the murmurs of dissent within before the volcano erupts. It is a highly foolish government that passes up the opportunity to usher in an era of peace in a troubled area, and instead opts for confrontation and violence as its weapon. Since the hanging of Afzal Guru, sporadic protests have broken out all over the valley despite the curfew, with deaths and injuries being reported in clashes with the police. The government has wilfully opened a Pandora’s box.

Seema Mustafa is a senior journalist based in New Delhi.