The Hanging of Afzal Guru: How an Execution Is Roiling Kashmir

  • Share
  • Read Later

On the morning of Feb. 9, India-administered Kashmir woke up to deserted streets. There were no newspapers to be bought that Saturday morning — no television, no Internet. Streets throughout the valley had been taken over by Indian security forces before dawn broke, setting up barricades and a strict edict for all residents to stay indoors. Locals who ventured out to look for breakfast essentials like bread and milk were sent back home. “I went out of my home to offer prayers in a local mosque and to buy milk for tea, but I was surprised when policemen didn’t allow me,” says Bashir Ahmed, a Srinagar resident. “When I asked them the reason, they tried to hit me with a bamboo stick, and I ran away.”

What Ahmed didn’t know was that New Delhi was on a mission to keep as much information as possible out of Kashmir about the execution of Muhammad Afzal Guru early Saturday morning. In 2002, a special court convicted Guru of aiding terrorists in planning the 2001 attack on Parliament, in which five gunmen entered India’s legislative house, shooting indiscriminately. Fourteen people were killed, including the gunmen, and 18 were injured. The government accused Guru, a former Kashmiri militant, of being a member of the separatist extremist group Jaish-e-Muhammad, which the government held responsible for the attack. Fearing repercussions in the valley, where the 43-year-old was from, New Delhi cut off all Internet in the region, forced Kashmiri daily newspapers to stop printing for four days and prohibited cable networks from broadcasting news channels apart from the state-run Doordarshan. A curfew was imposed in 10 districts.

The order did not go as New Delhi might have planned. As news of Guru’s execution reached the valley, Kashmir erupted into unrest that is still continuing nearly a week later, concentrated mostly in Guru’s home district. Small groups of protesters gathered together, defying the curfew, shouting anti-Indian slogans and burning the Indian flag. Three people died and 50 people, including 23 policemen, were injured in the protests. On Thursday, the curfew was temporarily relaxed in Srinagar’s old city, but was withdrawn within minutes when protesters started gathering in the streets. The unrest has prompted Chief Minister Omar Abdullah to appeal for calm in a televised address. On Feb. 14, lawyers from the Kashmir Bar Association took to the streets demanding the Indian government return the remains of Guru, who was buried inside Tihar Jail in New Delhi. On Friday, a blanket curfew was reimposed across the valley to prevent a planned protest march by separatists.

The draconian measures to keep information out of the region last weekend surprised none, but angered many. “In Kashmir everything is seen through the prism of security,” says Shameem Meraj, editor of the English-language daily the Kashmir Monitor. “Even newspapers that are the most authentic source of information are seen as possible inciters.” Many have said the restrictions were designed to stop people from visiting Guru’s family, who live in the Kashmiri town of Sopore. Guru’s village, Seer Jagir, lies on the banks of the Jhelum River, which passes through an army camp. The official communiqué regarding Guru’s hanging reached his family two days after it happened, angering many who questioned why the government couldn’t have used a quicker medium like the telephone to convey the message. Indian media reported that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was upset that the message of Guru’s hanging reached his family so late. “As a human being, I find it very difficult to reconcile myself to the fact that we executed a person who was not given the opportunity to see his family for the last time,” Abdullah told the Indian television channel CNN-IBN. “If in this day and age, we are relying on speed post to inform a family that their loved one is going to be executed, there is something seriously wrong.”

On Wednesday, the two-story house where Guru spent all his free life was silent with grief. Tabassum, Guru’s wife and a paramedic in a nursing home in Sopore, sat in a corner of the living room, her face buried in her arms. When neighbors came to offer condolences, she stood up and hugged them with dry eyes. She says she still hasn’t had the courage to read the last letter that her husband had written to her from Tihar Jail, where he had been imprisoned for the past 11 years. “When the news of his hanging broke out, it was more than mourning,” says Haji Farooq Ahmed Guru, Guru’s cousin. “He died as a martyr.”

Guru’s guilt was never established in the mind of many Kashmiris, who believe he was falsely implicated in the case and was not given a fair trial. After he was sentenced to death, Kashmir’s chief minister often warned the central government that his hanging could have serious consequences. It would not be the first time. In February 1984, Maqbool Bhat, a Kashmiri separatist leader and founder of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, of which Guru too was a former member, was also hanged in Tihar Jail for the murder of a Crime Investigation Department inspector. After Bhat’s execution, the valley exploded into a full-blown insurgency for almost three decades, a fact that was not lost in New Delhi as they planned their clampdown last week. “Most of the youngsters who are on the forefront at present were not even born when Bhat was executed,” says Khurram Pervez, a social activist in Srinagar. “Still he became the hero … [Guru] has lived in [the youth’s] heart as they have themselves witnessed everything. His death has only cemented the belief of hatred and radicalization among Kashmiris.”

Many in Kashmir, and elsewhere in India, see broader political maneuvers in Guru’s sudden hanging, carried out in absolute secrecy by the state. Until very recently, the last time India put somebody to death was in 2004. But Guru was hanged a mere few months after 26/11 attack convict Ajmal Kasab, one of 10 Pakistani terrorists who laid a siege in Mumbai in 2008, was executed. The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party had been clamoring for Guru’s execution and accusing the ruling government of being soft on terrorism. New Delhi was also drubbed after Pakistani soldiers allegedly violated the border last month and cut off the head of one Indian soldier, reportedly in retaliation for Indian attacks on Pakistani troops. Critics have said the back to back achieved simultaneous political ends: to silence the opposition and to win back public confidence ahead of 2014 elections after the ruling Congress Party has been beset by a string of scandals. “It does project the image of a government that is being reasonably determined in dealing with national security issues at a time when it is being accused of various other lapses,” says C. Uday Bhaskar, a New Delhi–based political analyst. “It does shore up its image.”

It is unclear whether the valley will descend into further protests, as New Delhi feared when it put controls in place last week. Many Kashmiri youth today have more faith in the political process than in arms. “When Bhat was hanged I was not born. When I came to read about him later, he became our hero,” says Arifa Gani, a student of diplomacy and statecraft at the University of Birmingham. “I have never felt the way I am feeling this time [after Guru’s execution] … We will retaliate, but we won’t take to arms like our elders. We will react more intelligently.”

— With reporting by Aliya Bashir / Srinagar