When I boarded a Mumbai-bound flight from Srinagar on Friday February 8, it was packed. Before it could take off, I tweeted “Srinagar-Mumbai flight packed. Promising a better 2013 in terms of tourism”. One night after this positive tweet, I got a call from a friend with disturbing news. “Srinagar is barricaded, curfew has been clamped as there is news that Afzal Guru (the convict in the Parliament attack case) will be hanged”. I had an immediate pang of fear envisaging what was in store for Kashmir. It was obviously more trouble which surely would prove my tweet wrong. That is how things are unfolding now. Kashmir is back to square one.
For the last four days, the Valley – which saw 1.4 million tourists in 2012, thus changing its tag for better – is caged, and as curfew has not been relaxed, three young boys have died and more battalions of Central Reserve Police and Border Security Force have been rushed here. Amidst the cries for withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and extra troops, Kashmir has again been garrisoned even as the Army continues to be in barracks. There was no provocation from people this time who were caught unawares on Saturday morning when the authorities announced the curfew.
What forced them to take this extreme step is the answer to how fragile Kashmir is. If the government believed that the hanging of Afzal Guru was the outcome of a genuine legal and judicial process, then why clamp curfew? That is where the problem of deep alienation and complete lack of trust in the system comes up with visibility. While majority of Kashmiris do not condone an attack on the Parliament, they refuse to buy the theory that Afzal’s hanging was had been ordered after “a genuine scrutiny through the judicial process”. There are many on death row. Why jump to Afzal’s name, and that too so suddenly? This is the question every Kashmiri is asking.
Even the political parties such as National Conference and People’s Democratic Party, who do not question Jammu and Kashmir’s accession to Indian Union, are talking a common language. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah was more belligerent when he asked if it was a selective killing. He apprehended that it would have a deep impact on the psyche of the Kashmiri youth who did not identify themselves with Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) founder Maqbool Butt. Butt was hanged the same way in the same prison on February 11, 1984, immediately after the JKLF abducted and killed Indian diplomat Ravinder Mahtre in London. It is widely believed that his hanging was responsible for giving birth to armed rebellion five years later in 1989, throwing Kashmir into a protracted conflict.
The hanging, as suggested by Omar Abdullah has a potential to destabilise the situation for a longer term. “The long term implications of Afzal Guru’s execution are worrying as they are linked to the people of Kashmir, especially the younger generation. Like it or not, the execution has reinforced the point that there is no justice. We will have to deal with how we can change that sort of alienation.” He acknowledged that there was a sense that Guru did not get a fair trial and the “collective conscience theory” does not work in such cases. “The Supreme Court judgment in the case talks about strong circumstantial evidence and about satisfying the collective conscience of the society. You don’t hang people because society demands it. You hang people because the law demands it”, he said.
What is more painful for the people in Kashmir is the way he was sent to the gallows without giving him an opportunity to meet his wife and son. The intimation to the family by speed post became a big joke as it reached them three days after he was hanged. Both Omar Abdullah and his archrival, PDP president Mehbooba Mufti have expressed disappointment on how the Centre went about the hanging in a hush-hush manner and kept the family away. “They have a right to have his final rites and his body should be handed over to them”, said Mehbooba.
This stand by the mainstream parties reinforces the sense of alienation in Kashmir across the spectrum. Many would believe that leaders like Abdullah and Mehbooba are playing politics since Kashmir is on edge, but it makes clear how vulnerable they are to the situation. Even if they agree with the punishment, they cannot negate the sentiment of the people. The separatist leadership too is up against Delhi, though on expected lines. But one thing is clear. Kashmir has been pushed back to square one and there seems to be no reason for Delhi to have dealt with it in such an explosive manner. The United Progressive Alliance government’s decision has not done right by Kashmir, which was limping back to normalcy after the 2010 unrest in which 120 civilians died. What gives confidence to Delhi to take such a consequential step perhaps is the confidence that Kashmir was a law and order issue which could be managed through curfews and some sops.
But the seething anger that has enveloped the Valley is something that cannot be dismissed just as an administrative issue. The event has reinforced the sense of alienation and made a common Kashmiri rethink where he fits in growing and prosperous India. Not only do the people talk about the “selective” decision but also its insensitive approach towards a problem, which has been like a festering wound. With curfew in place for four days, people are virtually caged and the situation ratifies what the European Union called Kashmir a few years back – a “Beautiful Prison”.
Not only is curfew adding to the miseries of people with shortage of medicines and essential supplies, the information blockade in the shape of a ban on cable TV, partially on internet services and the restriction on newspapers, has made it a “closed place” where voices have been choked.
The Chief Minister has no bargaining power and has no option but to watch helplessly and see that situation does not go out of control. Kashmir, which according to some armchair analysts had been brought back into the fold after the 2010 unrest, has once again been thrown into an unsavory situation which will only distance the people from what is called a “larger democratic set up” of India. Some of the rational voices in the Indian media have rightly flagged off the apprehensions of pushing Kashmir back to turmoil, but does anyone listen to such voices? Whatever has been done by Delhi is at the cost of Kashmir, its normalcy, peace and prosperity, and it does not have the capacity to compensate for such a loss in times to come.
Images Courtesy: Farooq Shah