During the 1980s, Mohammad Afzal Guru dropped out of his medical degree program and crossed over the Line of Control into Pakistan-administered Kashmir. He, like thousands of other Kashmiris, went to receive arms training in order to return and fight the Indian occupation of Kashmir. However, disillusioned by the way Pakistan treated the Kashmir issue for its national interest alone, Afzal called it quits. After returning to Kashmir, he formally surrendered to Border Security Forces, which in turn invited ridicule from common Kashmiris who saw it as a betrayal of the Kashmir cause. After the surrender, life became miserable. The government had let loose a reign of terror that ensured former militants would never find a safe way to live normal lives.
According to his own account, filed as a mercy petition in front of the president of India, Afzal narrates the treatment meted out to him at the hands of the government’s Special Task Force. He recounts torture and humiliation. He was constantly pressured to work as an informer. Resisting these advances resulted in the worst kind of punishment. He was stripped, and hung upside down. Petrol was poured in his anus, and he was kept in freezing water in the bitter cold. His genitals were electrocuted and Afzal received floggings all over his body. He claimed that under these conditions, he was introduced by the police officers to a man named Mohammed who later turned out to be involved in the Indian parliament attack in 2001.
On February 9, 2013, The National Congress government in New Delhi suddenly decided to hang Afzal Guru for his alleged role in the attack on parliament. That morning Kashmiris woke up to this news, agitated. Afzal had anticipated what his hanging would mean in an interview with the Sunday Indian on September 26, 2011:
My hanging would worsen the situation in Kashmir. The people there look upon my punishment as part of the repressive policies pursued by the Indian government in Kashmir. There was no militancy in Kashmir till 1984. But after the hanging of Maqbool Bhatt in 1984 in Tihar jail, the resentment of the people of Kashmir against the Indian government grew stronger and militancy took roots and flourished.
The mass uprising in Indian-administered Kashmir in 2010—where the lives of 190 teenagers were cut-short by Indian troops—had brought this simmering conflict to a boil. Social media played a decisive role in dispelling the lies and half-baked truths served up to mainstream Indians for the last sixty years about the conflict in Kashmir. While the world recognizes Kashmir as a disputed territory, the average Indian thought of Kashmir as a part of India that simply suffered from a few troublemakers here and there. The right-wing Hindutva ideology attempted to further cement this belief by adding religious and historical myths to India’s claims of political control over Kashmir. Any kind of indigenous struggle in the region came to be seen as Pakistan’s attempt to annex the region.
On February 9, 2016, a cultural event was organized by five students previously affiliated with the Democratic Students Federation at Jawaharlal Nehru University in India. Over the past several weeks, Indian media has been portraying these students as potential radicals whose mission is to annihilate India. The government has constantly tried to expose the students’ supposed backing from Pakistan. The Union Home Minister of India on February 14 claimed that students were backed by Hafiz Saeed, the head of Jamiat u Dawa, an organization based in Pakistan. It turned out that the basis for the claim rested solely on a tweet issued by a fake Twitter account of Hafiz Saeed.
The event the students had organized, entitled “A Country without a Post Office,” commemorated the hanging death of Afzal Guru, and has since been the target of right-wing attacks. This was not the first time the group had been active on this front. Right after Afzal’s hanging in 2013, the group publicly raised questions about the legitimacy of the judgment, and whether Afzal’s sentence was fair. They borrowed existing arguments made by dissenting luminaries such as Arundhati Roy, Prashant Bhushan, and Harsh Mandar. Afzal’s lawyer, Nandita Haksar, also went on record declaring Afzal Guru’s hanging a travesty of justice. Thus, claims that these students are radicalized do not hold ground. They were merely echoing sentiments already reverberating throughout the public domain.
However, these students also allied with Kashmiri activists whose politics are not “constitutionally guaranteed,” even as they point to the promise of the right to Kashmiri self-determination made by Indian prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru had on several occasions declared this right, including most famously on November 2, 1948. Such an alliance exposed these students to the problems of militarization and human rights abuse in the Kashmir region.
The attack on these students is an attempt to simplify, silence and squelch the middle-class young population’s growing political awareness. Formerly, those who were politically conscious worried that speaking out about Kashmir politics could easily lead to being publicly named and shamed for their actions. Indeed, the threat of being labelled “anti-national” has traditionally silenced many Indians into a posture of consent in the face of the slow-moving genocide underway in Kashmir.
With Afzal’s hanging in 2013, things changed. A public conversation between Kashmir and India ensued over social media debating Afzal’s hanging. The disagreements were enthusiastically reported by many Indian news channels. Kashmiris not only condemned Afzal’s hanging but linked his secret burial inside the Tihar Jail with the memory of another Kashmiri man, Maqbool Bhat, who hung from the noose in 1984 for supposed crimes. There is no doubt that Afzal’s hanging provided Kashmir’s nationalist cause with a serious martyr—a martyr who at the same time evokes a memory of Kashmir’s tattered history, and who personifies the suffering of many Indians.
Adding insult to injury, Afzal’s young son Ghalib, and his wife Tabassum were denied information about him while he was in custody, and then were refused their request to see him before the execution. In a humiliating final blow, they were also denied Afzal’s mortal remains—actions that not only alienated Kashmiris still further, but which resonated with poor, marginalized Indians across the country.
One wonders why, given that these debates have been playing out in mainstream Indian culture of late, the students’ commemorations of Afzal should generate such anger in the governing administration. It is likely that right-wing Hindutva politicians are taking the opportunity to settle scores with the Indian National Congress. However, in the process, they are misunderstanding the nature of secular politics in India. Right-wing politicians want to align public discourse with their own nationalist motivations while invoking spectres of Kashmiri self-determination—for some Indian conservatives, the worst possible scenario.
The aspirations of the Kashmiri people were successfully sidelined by the Indian National Congress during its rule despite the party’s being secular. The sixty-year-old military occupation of the region has ensured protection for the Hindu nationalist dream of Akhand Bharat” (Unbreakable India). The Hindutva brigade, ironically, has nothing to fear. To be sure, secularism is not synonymous with radicalism, nor does it conflict with nationalism or its interests. Indeed, these students fall very much within the ambit of the Indian nationalism. Through understanding India’s role in Kashmir, they want to strengthen the democratic nature of the Indian society.
The right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party is trying its best to make this student event about nationalism, and is whittling down the ways in which nationalists are defined. Meanwhile, the students’ actions are clearly designed to raise attention to India’s policy towards Kashmir and other marginalized communities. Attempting to silence these voices and push the students into a corner won’t do away with the crises in Kashmir, but suggests instead that India has never looked beyond military solutions on the issue. As pressure mounts, the fissures of the Indian society—caste, religion, and class—will continue surfacing. So will the question of the continued military occupation of Kashmir.
Inshah Malik submitted her doctoral work on Women and Agency in Kashmir's resistance movement at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India. She was also an International Fox Fellow at Yale University for the year 2014-15. Follow her on Twitter at @InshahMalik.