India’s self-goal in the Valley

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ON the morning of Feb 9, 2013, Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri convict on death row, lodged in New Delhi’s high security Tihar jail was taken from his cot by the prison authorities and quickly hanged in an extremely secret operation, codenamed three-star.

In its efforts to contain the fallout over this very sensitive issue, especially in the Kashmir Valley, India resorted to an information blockade. However, in no time it badly bounced back. Within hours of his execution, the angst was palpable in Kashmir where the entire exercise is being seen as an elaborate frame-up and an act of state belligerence against a hapless Kashmiri.

A harsh curfew was promptly imposed in Indian Kashmir, together with a media clampdown and restrictions on the Internet. Both the manner of Afzal Guru’s execution and his lack of access to proper legal counsel during the trial process came under serious criticism not only from Kashmiris but several Indian intellectuals, lawyers and academics too.

Globally influential bodies like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and European Union have denounced the Indian government for the secret hanging.

Guru, who was “convicted” in the 2001 parliament attack, was buried inside the Tihar jail complex. The hanging took place less than 20 metres away from his 16 feet by 12 feet cell, in Jail No 3, where he spent more than a decade on death row — in solitary confinement.

Not only is Afzal Guru the first prisoner in 24 years to be hanged in Tihar, he is also the second Kashmiri in the history of independent India to be hanged in this fashion.

An overwhelming majority of Kashmiris feel that Afzal Guru did not receive a fair trial; instead he became part of a murky frame-up by intelligence agencies, police and the state task force, who thought it expedient to link a surrendered militant in a case laced with sketchiness.

There have been several question marks raised over the role of the “nationalistic”/ jingoistic Indian media, which, baring few notable exceptions, conducted a media trial that started immediately after Guru’s arrest, creating a pre-trial mindset to adversely impact the case.

Some of India’s finest legal minds are on record stating that the weak defence provided to counter the prosecution in this case is simply mind-boggling.

Kashmir is currently witnessing fury at several levels. Whilst there is a growing feeling that the Indian judicial system failed Guru, a lot of people are simply outraged that his family was not informed about the execution on time.

The Supreme Court of India had in its ruling duly acknowledged that there is no proof that Guru was a member of any terrorist group, and the evidence against him was at best circumstantial. The apex court, however, noted that it was necessary to hang Guru to “satisfy the collective conscience of the Indian society”.

While there is a great deal of consternation over the Supreme Court judgment, no one really thought that Guru would be hanged. Justice, it was argued, is supposed to be based on law and not raw emotions. Moreover, justice, in a ruling that involves taking the life of an individual in the light of no direct evidence, has to be restorative and not retributive.

Meanwhile, the angst against India on the streets of Kashmir is growing because of the hurried manner in which the execution was carried out. It is seen as a complete disregard for Kashmiri opinion.

Many analysts and Kashmir watchers are of the opinion that in the run-up to the 2014 general elections in India, the decision to execute Afzal Guru appeared to have covert political undertones. Why else, the argument goes, would the government fumble in informing his family about the execution?

Although the law of the land would require them to do so, the authorities were fully aware that his wife, who filed the mercy petition, was entitled to file a judicial review petition against the rejection of her husband’s clemency appeal.

The constitutional bench of India’s Supreme Court in 1988 held that “Undue long delay in execution of the sentence of death will entitle the condemned person to approach this court under Article 32”. Why did the government of India throw caution to the wind?

In reality much of the younger generation of Kashmiris has a very vague image of Maqbool Bhat, the first Kashmiri hanged by the Indian government in 1984. Every year, for the last two decades, Kashmir has observed Feb 11 as Maqbool Day in his remembrance. With Guru, they now have someone, who they believe was terribly wronged, dehumanised, and eventually murdered by the state, abdicating all his fundamental rights.

The fact was established by Omar Abdullah, Kashmir’s pro-India chief minister, who noted, “Kashmiris have always looked for symbols whether in the mainstream or in the separatist camp. They have always identified with people. They identified with Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, they have identified with other leaders from time to time. Make no mistake, ask the generation of separatist leadership represented by those in their 40s and 50s, they will tell you they identified with Maqbool Bhat.

“I have said not every Kashmiri will identify with him, but make no mistake a new generation of Kashmiris will identify with Afzal Guru because he belongs to their generation. Maqbool Bhat was a name, Afzal Guru is a face.”

The identification may have already begun. Rage on the street notwithstanding, the online ecosystem reflected how unequivocally Kashmiris reacted to the hanging. In no time young Kashmiri men and women drew cartoons, wrote poems, put blogs up and articulated their displeasure about the hanging on Twitter and Facebook.

While the administration in Kashmir is likely to contain the backlash in the short-term by adopting restrictive measures, it is the long-term implications of this execution that must be giving sleepless nights to the policy wonks in New Delhi.

One wonders as to what the Indian security establishment was thinking when they decided to carry out the hanging of Afzal Guru. More importantly, what did they achieve by not informing Afzal Guru’s family of his impending hanging? And what did they achieve by not allowing Afzal Guru to meet his wife and son for one last time?

We may never know the answer to these questions and now, ex-post facto, they are irrelevant. Instead, by carrying out this hanging in such a clandestine manner they have provided a new war time lexicon for a new generation of Kashmiris: Afzal Guru.

The writer is a Kashmir blogger and journalist. The article was first published in Dawn

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