Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), Oskar Schindler tries telling Amon Goeth—a
psychopath lieutenant in a concentration camp—about the notion of fear and
forgiveness and the reality of power.
“They fear us because we have the power to kill arbitrarily,” Oskar tells him. “A man commits a crime, he should know better. We have him killed, and we feel pretty good about it. Or we kill him ourselves… and we feel even better. That’s not power, though. That’s justice. It’s different than power.”
“Power,” Oskar says, “is when we have every justification to kill... and we don’t.”
“You think that’s power?”
“… That’s power, Amon. That is power.”
A story of the
holocaust may sound like a stretch when talking about the secretive and
arbitrarily hastened execution of Mohammed Afzal Guru. But it does illustrate
what seems to be wrong with the notion of power in the Indian state’s discourse
and popular imagination around Afzal’s execution, which many people have
welcomed and celebrated.
Vital, too, is the diametrically opposite narrative that runs in Kashmir, asking: was Afzal really guilty enough to even deserve to be asking for pardon?
On February 9,
Kashmir woke to a siege across the valley. People who tried to venture out of
their homes for mundane things like bread were sent back by paramilitary
forces, deployed in the thousands on the streets. Newspapers did not reach
their destinations. The television news channels were off air.
Mobile Internet services were blocked. But even as the rumours multiplied, the news started trickling in. Mohammad Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri convicted of the 2001 attack on Parliament, had been executed. Even his wife, Tabassum, and their only son Ghalib, were unaware.
They heard about it from the news programme showing home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde. Afzal had been hanged in New Delhi’s Tihar Jail and buried in the compound soon afterwards. The right to challenge the President’s rejection of his mercy petition had been denied.
Many people in mainstream India, including government leaders and opposition politicians, welcomed the decision to hang Afzal. Many celebrated and congratulated each other.
In Kashmir, a seething rage is unmistakable. “We mourn, they celebrate. The masks have come off, theirs and ours. We are not the same. We are Kashmiris, they are Indians. There is not a single emotion we share with them at this moment, forget about interests,” said Mohamad Junaid, a Kashmiri scholar of anthropology based in the US.
“Afzal’s killing brings to fore the sacrificial aspects of the Kashmiri body which has become as mandatory as the Hindu ritual of coconut-smashing to appease the nationalistic gods of India, be it when the elections are near or when the fine bone of Pakistan sticks in India’s throat,” wrote Asima Nazki, a Kashmiri writer.
“We have witnessed countless fake encounters… they pick up men, kill them, pass them off as terrorists and win rewards and promotions for themselves. The whole act ends in a matter of days. Afzal’s was a fake encounter that lasted 11 years,” said Arif Ayaz Parrey, another writer from Kashmir.
We mourn, they celebrate. The masks have come off, theirs and ours. We are not the same. We are Kashmiris, they are Indians. There is not a single emotion we share with them at this moment, forget about interests.
“They may even return Afzal’s body to us one of these days—‘compensation’ for his ‘fake encounter’—and they’ll tell us there’s no further reason to shout and scream. So what if no one was allowed to challenge the rejection of the mercy petition. So what if anyone responsible for denying this right could be charged for homicide,” he said.
As the news of Afzal’s hanging spread, Kashmir boiled over in protest despite an extraordinary military siege generally considered here as collective punishment, raising fears of a major confrontation with government forces, reminiscent of other pro-freedom protests in which hundreds of youths were killed by soldiers. The peaceful protests by unarmed youths that often turn into stone-throwing clashes with police have changed the nature of a long and bloody armed rebellion beginning 1989.
This unarmed act of rebellion has provoked massive repression. SMSes have been banned for years now as are all local cable news programmes and bulletins. Prolonged, repeated bans on pre-paid mobile telephony were, reluctantly, revoked by New Delhi.
The muster of force by dawn on February 9—it lasted a week—wasn’t unfamiliar hence, except for the news that Afzal had been hanged. He had been sentenced to death by a Delhi court in December 2002, a little over a year after the Parliament attack. The sentence was upheld by the Delhi High Court in October 2003. His appeal in the Supreme Court was rejected in August 2005. A mercy petition filed by his wife delayed the execution scheduled for October 20, 2006.
“Afzal should be hanged soon and his execution video-graphed and telecast worldwide like the hanging of Saddam Hussein,” Uma Bharti, former Madhya Pradesh chief minister and senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader, had said on September 22, 2008, at a political rally. She had asked Prime Minister Manmohan Singh why Afzal was still alive.
The telecast may have found many takers in the rest of India. In Kashmir, however, most people wished Afzal the life of a free man.
“India has lost and
Kashmir has won again,” said Shahmala, mother of Mohammad Maqbool Bhat, a
founder leader of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front hanged and buried in
Tihar Jail 29 years ago in 1984. “The enemies of Kashmir’s freedom struggle
have suffered a big blow with Afzal’s dignified death. He is a martyr,” she
told a local newspaper.
In the next two days, three youths died in protests. Two drowned while a third, Ubair, 14, died of his injuries after being shot by the CRPF. At first there were reports of “an FIR filed against the CRPF”, but the CRPF Inspector-General said it had been lodged “against the protesters, not the CRPF”. The police statement said the drownings were the result of a “boat capsize”.
On February 10, Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah justified the
Internet ban saying it had been done to avoid rumour-mongering. His interview
appeared on several news channels. Around the same time, cable television in
Kashmir resumed the news channels, blocking them again after some time,
apparently to bring the chief minister’s message home.
Abdullah also said he had “a premonition” that Afzal’s execution would follow Ajmal Kasab. “You will have to prove to the world that the death penalty is not used selectively. The onus rests on the judiciary and the political leadership to show that this wasn’t a selective execution,” he said.
“Why don’t we see the BJP clamouring for the execution of Beant Singh’s (former Punjab chief minister) killers or Rajiv Gandhi’s killers? If that (Afzal Guru’s execution) was to be the last execution of people who attacked Indian democracy, I would call it a political decision,” he told television channels.
Abdullah’s public stance has caused shock and rage across the valley. A week after the hanging, hundreds had been wounded, some seriously and crippled for life by injuries from “non-lethal” weapons at the hands of government forces. The siege continued for a week.
In order for the government to “prove” Afzal’s was not a “political execution”, Abdullah wanted more to be sent to the gallows. And indeed, India is set to hang more people currently on death row.
He ought to know that the BJP doesn’t “clamour for the execution of Beant Singh’s killers” because the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal, its ally in Punjab, has vehemently opposed the execution.
There is no “clamour for the execution of Rajiv Gandhi’s killers”—who aren’t even Indian nationals—because Tamil Nadu chief minister J. Jayalalithaa moved a resolution in the state assembly for their amnesty.
On the other hand, when an independent MLA in September 2011, submitted in the Jammu and Kashmir state assembly a resolution seeking amnesty for Afzal, the BJP warned the National Conference-Congress government against “any misadventure”.
So there was not even
a whimper from the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir when three young lives
were lost in the protests in a political climate that had moved the government
to ban local cable news programmes and SMSes for years.
Dozens of protesters had been injured by this time in clashes with government forces. Though Afzal’s hanging “didn’t come as a complete surprise,” Abdullah said, “we would have preferred it if he hadn’t been hanged.” The reason, however, was not the same as the protesters.
He was anxious to be spared the horror of the street—the execution would breed alienation afresh among Kashmiris. “A lot of what happens in the Valley simmers under the surface. There are a few things I need to discuss with the government over the larger implications,” Abdullah said.
Has anyone ever heard of a death sentence on a man who was undefended at his
trial? This monstrous miscarriage of justice warrants retrial. … Mediaeval
rulers ordered humans to ‘become extinct’. Judges do not… All constitutional
tests would justify pardon on one ground alone—popular feeling in a state
charged with alienation, where a peace process is underway.” This was A. G.
Noorani, lawyer and constitutional expert, in Hindustan Times (October 24,
2006), not long after Afzal was sentenced to death.
On August 10, 2011, the home ministry sent a letter to then President Pratibha Patil, recommending the death penalty. She deferred her decision. It was time for the chief minister to intervene.
On November 16 last year, President Pranab Mukherjee sent Afzal’s petition back to the home ministry seeking a “re-look at its opinion”. The chief minister could have intervened.
On December 10, Shinde said he would examine Afzal’s file after Parliament’s winter session, which would conclude on December 22. There was time for the chief minister to intervene.
On December 13, the opposition BJP gave notice for the suspension of Question Hour in the Lok Sabha to discuss the delay in Afzal’s hanging. On January 11, Shinde said he was yet to take a decision on the mercy plea.
On January 23, the recommendation to hang Afzal was sent to Mukherjee. Mukherjee rejected the mercy petition and approved his execution on February 3. Clearly, there was enough time for the chief minister to intervene.
But New Delhi was not publicly confronted by the chief minister for executing a fellow Kashmiri in a political decision. A “few things” would be discussed “with the government over the larger implications”.
On February 10,
Hindustan Times reported that Abdullah was “taken into confidence 10 days”
before the hanging. He also “did not want to get breaking news of Afzal’s
hanging through television” and there would be “greater consequences if (he
were) executed in the summer months”.
Abdullah’s public stance has caused shock and rage across the valley. A week after the hanging, hundreds had been wounded, some seriously and crippled for life by injuries from “non-lethal” weapons at the hands of government forces. As the flow of the injured started rushing in to hospitals, doctors were given directions to “not declare dead” anyone who succumbed to injuries and “put them on ventilators”. The siege continued for a week.
“Kashmir’s siege is to
each Kashmiri what solitary confinement is to a criminal, the purpose being
punishment, where you can do nothing but brood over your helplessness, powerlessness,”
said Arif. “The state expects you to mend your ways, or else.”
We will liquidate the terrorists and their sponsors wherever they are,
whoever they are,” thundered the government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee in a
Cabinet resolution hours after the attack on Parliament on December 13, 2001.
In his address to the nation that day, Vajpayee said he saw the attack “as the
continuation of the two-decade-old terrorist onslaught against India. Our fight
is now reaching the last stage. A decisive battle has to take place.”
India had just witnessed a spectacle whose magnitude would be surpassed only by 26/11 some seven years later in Mumbai. Five armed men (six by some accounts) crashed their vehicle, a white Ambassador car loaded with explosives, through the gates of the Parliament complex around 11.30 a.m. Challenged by security, they opened fire, beginning a 30-minute gun battle that ended with all five dead, leaving loads of explosives and evidence behind, and killing eight security personnel and a gardener.
The government was frantically trying to explain an extraordinary security lapse. Home minister L. K. Advani dismissed the suggestion: there could be no foolproof protection against those indoctrinated in the ‘fidayeen mentality’ (The Hindu, December 14, 2001).
Just a day after the attack, The Hindu reported that Delhi police claimed to have “clinching evidence” of the involvement of two Pakistan-based groups, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad. At the same time foreign minister Jaswant Singh said there was enough “technical evidence” to hold Lashkar responsible.
The response from Pakistan was that the attack could have been “stage-managed'” by the government to divert attention from “internal problems” and to defame the “freedom struggle” in Kashmir (The Hindu, December 15, 2001). In a separate statement, Pakistan said such an incident was “against our interest whereas it serves a number of purposes of the Indian government”.
By this time, as many as 14 people, including two Pakistan nationals “who were trying to flee the country” had been arrested. On December 16, Delhi Police Commissioner Ajai Raj Sharma described the “conspiracy” at a press conference: the attackers had been in “constant touch” with one Syed Abdul Rehman Geelani, a lecturer at Delhi University, “who was arrested on December 15”. SAR Geelani, in turn, the police claimed, was in “constant touch” with Mohammed Afzal Guru and his cousin Shaukat.
“In the first week of December, a meeting attended by the three and the fidayeen squad was held at Shaukat’s residence.” After arresting Geelani, police raided Shaukat’s residence only to find his wife, Afshan, and promptly arrested her. Afshan, police claimed, said that “after the attack on Parliament, Shaukat and Afzal left for Srinagar… “The two were arrested and brought back to the capital. A laptop and ₹10 lakh were recovered from the duo. The details of the conspiracy were apparently stored in the laptop.”
Police further claimed that “in February, Tariq, a close associate of Ghazi Baba, contacted Afzal in Srinagar and motivated him to join the JeM. Afzal came to Delhi and motivated Shaukat and Geelani” (The Hindu, December 17, 2001). The Frontline in its December 22, 2001-January 4, 2002 edition described in magnificent detail how the entire conspiracy had been planned and how “Jaish-e-Mohammad cell member SAR Geelani” had been a vital figure in the plot, along with Afzal, Shaukat and Afshan.
In the days following the attack, the media unquestioningly reproduced versions of the police claim. The arrested Pakistan nationals, however, “who were trying to flee the country” had disappeared from the plot. That, however, would hardly appear as a problem in the course of the trial. It was the arrest of Geelani that led to the arrest of Afshan and then Afzal and Shaukat.
Geelani was convicted by a Delhi court and sentenced to be hanged, but eventually acquitted, along with Afshan, of all charges. The foundation of the whole story had been knocked down. What, then, led to the conviction of the rest?
The Supreme Court verdict of August 4, 2005 noted that there was no evidence that Mohammed Afzal belonged to any terrorist group. It stated: “…there is and could be no direct evidence of the agreement amounting to criminal conspiracy. However, the circumstances, cumulatively weighed, would unerringly point to the collaboration of the accused Afzal with the slain fidayeen terrorists.”
It went on to note, to much controversy: “The incident, which resulted in heavy casualties, had shaken the entire nation, and the collective conscience of the society will only be satisfied if capital punishment is awarded to offender…”
In his own account, Afzal told Vinod K Jose, a journalist who managed to interview him in prison, “But I wonder whether the outside world knows anything about this Afzal. I ask you, did I get a chance to tell my story? Do you think justice is done? Would you like to hang a person without giving him a lawyer? Without a fair trial? Without listening to what he had to go through in life? Democracy doesn’t mean all this, does it?”
Afzal’s media confessions, extracted under torture and threats, were rejected by both the High Court and Supreme Court. So much so that when Afzal talked about Geelani’s innocence in reply to a question, he was shouted down by ACP Rajbir Singh, and the media present agreed to not show the part! Months later, an uncut version, perhaps inadvertently, was broadcast by the Aaj Tak television channel.
“A Kashmiri friend walked up to me and said Afzal was hanged,” said Nousheen Ahmed, 28, a college lecturer from Allahabad working in Delhi (name changed on request).
“Since then, I’ve been in a daze but no one around me understands what I’m feeling or why. I don’t fit in here. This is not my country. It shouldn’t be surprising that ‘no one around understands’. The mass media have been playing the same ‘confession’ tapes repeatedly even today. The media have quite simply manufactured consent that Afzal must die.”
In September last year, a rare, extensive documentation of police
investigations gone dreadfully wrong was put together by the Jamia Teachers’
Solidarity Association (JTSA). “Framed, Damned, Acquitted: Dossiers of a Very
Special Cell”, documented 16 cases in which the people arrested and accused of
being operatives of various “terrorist organizations” were acquitted by the
courts. Most of the cases related to the Special Cell of Delhi Police, which
investigated Parliament attack.
These acquittals, however, came after the accused had spent up to 14 horrendous years in prison. Worse, the accused, the report noted, were acquitted not for want of evidence, but because “the evidence was tampered with, and the police story found to be unreliable and incredulous”. Most damning, the report was compiled entirely on the basis of court judgments in relevant cases.
“It unravels the manner in which false cases are foisted upon innocents and how the Special Cell uses the immunity it enjoys to manufacture stories of guilt,” said Manisha Sethi, president of the JTSA. “The report raises important questions over the credibility of a force touted as one of the elite counter-terrorism agencies in the country,” the report notes.
Syed Maqbool Shah of Srinagar—arrested at the age of 16 in 1996 over the serial blasts at Lajpat Nagar in New Delhi and let off in 2010—lost his father and sister during his time in jail. Another accused, New Delhi’s Mohammed Aamir Khan, was arrested in 1998 and acquitted last year after 14 years in prison.
fabrication of evidence is rampant,” the report states. Eventually, “cases fall
in courts because they are backed not by evidence but by the belief that the
court will be seduced by the hysteria of national security”. Most of the cases
that were documented involved Kashmiris.
What explains the
position taken by Abdullah vis-à-vis New Delhi’s decision to execute Afzal? Why
is the chief minister’s position on Afzal’s execution diametrically opposite to
that of the people who voted for his party? The answer lies partly in the fact
that, however much New Delhi publicises elections as a “referendum in favour of
India”, elections are fought not just merely in the name of “development”, but
also with the explicit declaration that they have nothing to do with the
“Kashmir issue” or Kashmiris’ demand for independence.
This has meant that over the years, the state government has been relegated as irrelevant when it comes to policy issues vis-à-vis Kashmir, turned into a glorified municipality, where all it can do is build a road here or a bridge there. The ban on SMSes and prepaid mobile telephony, for example, was dictated by New Delhi with the state government powerless to intervene.
Security crackdowns too, people widely believe, are directed from New Delhi despite the chief minister being head of the Unified Command, the top decision- making body on security here. Abdullah’s efforts to revoke the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, unsurprisingly, have come to naught. But the state government hasn’t made any attempt to revoke the harsh Public Safety Act either, something in its own power. In fact, even children have been booked for sedition and “waging war against the state”.
New Delhi’s creation of and initial support for the Peoples Democratic Party led by former Union home minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed was a masterstroke in this regard.
With its “soft separatism”, the PDP divided the Kashmiri vote in half and created itself as an alternative for the Congress, the latter now emerging as an eternal kingmaker in Kashmir.
In 2008 the PDP, in
the aftermath of the massive agitation against the Amarnath forest land
transfer, pulled out of the coalition government fearing loss of vote,
elections being just around the corner. Post the elections the PDP was left out
in the cold as the Congress, its partner in the previous government, cosied up
to the NC.
Abdullah understands this well; the best he hopes for is a vote share just equal to PDP’s. The harvest is the privilege of being able to preside over the municipality of Jammu and Kashmir.
“I thought the Centre was sincere in Kashmir. But all they care about is politics under the garb of ‘national interest’,” said Raja Muzaffar Bhat, a doctor-turned-RTI activist.
He joined the PDP last year, only to resign the day Afzal was hanged. “The Congress-led government just wanted to counter the challenge posed by the BJP on issues of national security. They made Afzal a scapegoat for making Rahul Gandhi the next yuvraaj, and the local pro-India political leadership kept silent. It’s pointless being in this space. They can hang even the chief minister if it suits their politics,” he said.
Even so, Abdullah’s surrender of political authority to New Delhi (read the Congress) must have surprised even his detractors. It’s a moment of disgrace for both Abdullah and the NC, but they would rather take the bitter pill than confront the Congress and risk the loss of power. The sword of the PDP hangs over their heads.
The case of Abdullah today would thus be a touchstone for those on the fringes who harbour dreams of entering pro-India politics in Kashmir. It lays bare the extent to which New Delhi understands it can go in Kashmir. As for what the people of Kashmir want and stand for, the message from New Delhi is loud and clear: it doesn’t make a difference.
Junaid said, “Afzal’s execution clearly establishes the Otherness of Kashmiris in the Indian political imagination, toward whom the state would act under no norm of human rights, far less concern itself with questions of citizenship rights. Toward Kashmiris the state can only exercise its sovereignty—every act of the state is such an exercise, each act a display of what it calls its national will.”
It is interesting to
note how two similar incidents some time ago involving two political actors in
India led to two different reactions. In the first, L. K. Advani spoke about
reports of the torture in custody of terror accused Sadhvi Pragya Thakur.
“When I heard of the kind of treatment the sadhvi was given, I had tears in my eyes,” Advani said. Immediately, there was a hue and cry from opponents: Advani was being “communal”.
When Congress leader Salman Khursheed said in Azamgarh that Sonia Gandhi had “tears in her eyes” when she saw the pictures of the slain boys of the Batla House encounter, the opposition, especially the BJP, was up in arms. Sonia Gandhi’s tears were termed not merely “communal”. They were “anti-national”.
The politics of both the Congress and the BJP vis-à-vis the “nation” is essentially common. Whatever the stated position of the two parties, their operational approach is not just similar, it is the same. It is for this reason that the BJP calls Congress politics “pseudo-secular”, as if it were a term of abuse.
In a sense, it underlines the BJP’s envy at the Congress pulling off a communally-loaded political project as potent as that of the Hindu right-wing while successfully calling itself the founder, practitioner and proponent of a secular state. The Congress runs an agenda similar to the BJP’s, Muslims, Dalits and tribals being at the receiving end—the story of the holocaust isn’t such a far stretch.
What makes Kashmir different, however, is not just its vastly different historical and political realities but also that those realities belong to it as a nation, a distinct population. It’s under attack as a population and it responds too, more or less, as a whole population.
Afzal’s execution may still not begin, or end, anything that hasn’t been happening in Kashmir in the last 65 years. However, it does mark a watershed for how Kashmir looks at the subcontinent and the world, almost refashioning discourse. To that extent, New Delhi’s long-term options are more restricted than they were until now. Unless it deliberately wants another armed rebellion.