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The hanging and its aftermath
Publication Date : 14-02-2013
I was in Parliament House when Afzal Guru and a few others attacked it in December 2001. Members such as myself were furious and the first suspicion fell on Pakistan. It turned out to be true because the three terrorists who had managed to escape were from Pakistan. Guru was from Kashmir and hence was evident the same Pakistan-Kashmir mix when it comes to terrorism.
How to sort out the Kashmir problem or, even more important, why it has been hanging fire thus far are among questions that need to be answered by rulers, both in Srinagar and in New Delhi. J&K chief minister Omar Abdullah shrugs to say that it is a long-term problem as if the statement itself makes the problem less pressing. He says he has attended to the short-term concerns of law and order following Guru’s hanging.
Has Omar Abdullah really done so? Already, curfew has been clamped on most towns in Kashmir and there are reports of clashes between youth and the security forces. The fact that newspapers have been advised not to publish stories about the trouble and television channels asked to black them out are enough indication of how grim the situation is.
The effect on the youth, entrapped in a situation not of their making, is there for everyone to see. Some 66 years of uncertainty, accentuated by three wars between India and Pakistan, should have been long enough to narrow down the distance on the Kashmir problem, if not find a final settlement. What do Kashmiris do when they are considered a problem in the rest of the country? They are pigeonholed as a people who are yet to accept their state’s accession to India even after decades.
By repeating ad nauseum that Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of India, the state does not become one. True, independent elections have thrown up representatives who govern the state. Yet, they are always seeking New Delhi’s approval. Sheikh Abdullah, who spent 12 years in detention, had to accept an agreement that he assumed would give the state an autonomy of sorts. But his assessment turned out to be wrong. I can appreciate the argument that the Centre wants to “do something” but I find it hard to believe that leaders willingly endorsing New Delhi’s ways.
Pakistan could have helped the situation ease by not sending terrorists across the border. But why should it oblige New Delhi when everyone from ISI to Hafiz Saeed--responsible for the 26/11 Mumbai attacks--are demanding the Valley’s accession to Pakistan?
Enemies can sit across the table for talks but as long as they do not give up suspicion and mistrust, they will not make any headway.
Therefore, composite talks will not take the two anywhere, but a composite approach can. For one whole year, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government kept the forces stationed at the border but only sheepishly withdraw them eventually.
Yet, it is not understandable why Guru, no doubt pronounced guilty by the Supreme Court and refused clemency by President Pranab Mukherjee, was not given his due before being hanged. His family was not given access to him. Even a dictator like General Zia-ul Haq allowed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s family to meet him a day or so before he was hanged. Why not Guru’s family?
Guru’s family could have been summoned to New Delhi on some “urgent” pretext so as not to raise even a whiff of suspicion. The jail manual allows the condemned to meet family ahead of execution. It is understandable that the body cannot be handed over to the family, lest another centre of martyrdom comes up at Srinagar. But there would be no harm in allowing the family members to say fateh at the place where Guru has been buried at Tihar Jail in Delhi.
When the Supreme Court bases its judgment primarily on “circumstantial evidence,” it becomes all the more necessary to commute a death penalty to life sentence. It would have been better had that been done. I am against capital punishment. But a life sentence for Guru till he breathed his last in jail could have served the ends of justice.
If Guru’s hanging leads to a serious discussion on Kashmir, the entire furore would take some shape. But had the government taken a broader view of the matter, it would not have detained Hurriyat leaders.
It is a pity that the government’s perspective does not expand beyond temporary law and order concerns. Omar Abdullah could have initiated talks himself at his level, to be taken further by Delhi subsequently.
Whether or not a dialogue begins, the experience of being in Parliament House when it was attacked will always stay with me. I recall how tempers were frayed in the Central Hall. Two hours after the first shot rang out, the then minister for parliamentary affairs Pramod Mahajan mounted a table to announce that MPs could now leave, women first. The members were not panicky even in the first instance but appeared more than relieved when they heard that all was over.
Information and broadcasting minister Sushma Swaraj refused to go with the caravan of women. I heard her saying something like: “Let me find out what really happened.” By then, the Army had arrived. I saw some MPs thanking Mr Mahajan, including those who had sought his resignation. It was a curious kind of camaraderie, reflecting a unity that cloaks the country when confronting an external threat.
Democracy is an idea, a nation’s determination that extremists can never understand. They only strengthen the belief that no price is too high to sustain freedom and democracy. I returned to Parliament the following day as usual, as others did, to reaffirm our faith in the institution and to warn the assailants and their masters to keep their hands off India. Still, the anger against Pakistan was voiced practically by every member. I often wonder if Pakistan is a solution or a problem.
The writer is a veteran journalist and commentator.