It’s a rainy, late winter morning and the roads to north Kashmir’s Baramulla district are glistening wet. The barren apple trees that line up along the road patiently wait for yet another summer. A small cluster of houses stand hidden behind Gulnarg Park, Azad Gunj. The last house, a quaint brick house, stands alone, overlooking a meadow. A quiet stream flows along the side and a metal bunker with security forces inside keep a constant watch on Afzal Guru’s house.
As I enter, Tabassum Guru, Afzal Guru’s wife, is busy making tea.
Mohammad Afzal Guru and three others – SAR Geelani, Showkat Hussain Guru and Afshan Guru (Hussain’s wife) – were arrested for being the masterminds behind the December 2001 attack on Parliament. Subsequently, the High Court acquitted the other three, while Afzal was handed three life sentences and double death sentence.
In 2005, the Supreme Court in its judgement said the evidence against Afzal was circumstantial: “As is the case with most conspiracies, there is and could be no evidence amounting to criminal conspiracy.” The judgement continued to read: “The incident, which resulted in heavy casualties, had shaken the entire nation, and the collective conscience of society will only be satisfied if capital punishment is awarded to the offender.”
In the wee hours of February 9, 2013, after 12 years of solitary confinement, Afzal was hanged.
Five years later
It has now been five long years since the hanging of Tabassum’s husband. Like every year, last month on February 9, Kashmir observed a complete shutdown.
Sitting amid her husband’s photographs and love letters, Tabbassum, recited a couplet that Afzal used to recite to her:
“Woh kehte the [he used to say]:
Khaak ho jayenge hum,
Tumko khabar ho ne tak.
[I would have turned into soil,
By the time the news reaches you].”
She paused, looked up and said, “Aur phir aisa hi hua [and that is what happened].”
Afzal, 10 years older to her, was Tabassum’s cousin. Growing up in Kashmir, Afzal like many young boys, went to Pakistan for arms training. He returned, decided not to continue as a militant and moved to Delhi, where he did his Masters in Arts.
Returning to Kashmir during the late 90s, Afzal first ‘met’ his wife at a relative’s wedding. “Afzal had been singing ghazals and I was playing with the other kids. After our marriage when we used to look at the pictures of that wedding, he used to spot me and jokingly ask: ‘Who is that girl?’ It used to make us laugh so much,” she said.
Seventeen years ago
On December 13, 2001, the entire country sat back aghast. Using a fake pass, five men drove into the gates of Parliament in New Delhi, leapt from the car, killed at least 12 people and left 22 injured.
The same evening, like many others who had loved ones in Delhi, Tabassum too called her husband. “Me and my son Ghalib had just returned to Kashmir for Ramzan. I was worried about Afzal. He told me the situation in Delhi was bad and he was thinking of coming to Kashmir soon,” she said.
Ever since their son Ghalib was born she suspected her husband’s involvement in something he wasn’t letting her in on. It is clear that Tabassum doesn’t discount Afzal’s involvement in the attack. “I won’t lie. I suspected, but I never checked, asked or stopped him,” she said. If she knew, why didn’t she ever question him? Why didn’t she stop him? Was she an accomplice? These are questions that anyone would ask. If silence is compliance, then Tabassum is guilty of her lack of discouragement.
When I asked her this, she said, “The way we all grew up, the things we saw, I knew that he was bound to do something. Trying to talk him out of anything would have been pointless,” she said, with no further explanation to offer. After a long pause, she added that punishment would have been fair, it would have been something she could make peace with. “I agree, he was not fully innocent, but did he really deserve the death sentence? What about those who actually shot those people? They walk away free?” she asked.
Afzal’s anger, Tabassum said, rose from a lot of shame. Just days after their marriage, an incident took place. One that Tabassum believes affected her husband beyond repair. “We were walking back home, crossing an Army camp where the men in uniform were playing their evening games. When we walked past, they pelted stones at me, calling me names. Afzal did not say a word and neither did I expect him to. When we got home, he swallowed two painkillers. I asked him why and he said: ‘Look at me, he threw stones at you and I couldn’t say or do anything. What a coward I have become? How long should I keep quiet.’”
On December 15, two days after the attack the special cell of the Delhi Police arrested Afzal from Srinagar. It took Tabassum one year to gather courage and visit her husband after his arrest.
Afzal Guru had changed
“When I walked into that courtroom, all I could think of was his beard. He looked like Amir Khan from Mangal Pandey with all those chains on him,” she said. From the very first meeting, Afzal told Tabassum that he was in for a long stay in prison.
Scrabbling through the leftovers of her life with her husband, Tabassum pulled out a strange photograph from her photo album. In this picture, a man’s out of focus face covers the foreground. He sports a moustache, clear skin and neatly combed slick, black hair. What is in focus is the big black and white poster stuck to the wall behind the man. Actress Madhubala looks on. “He loved Madhubala,” said Tabassum thrusting the photograph into my hand.
Afzal had changed.
To most of us, Afzal Guru’s name brings to memory one particularly severe photograph. A short, well-built man with a black shawl covering his head, his nostrils flared, sharp eyes looking pointedly away from the camera, being hustled away by a cluster of policemen. The calm, bespectacled man with a few grey hair decorating his overflowing beard constructed the perfect image for an enraged nation.
The media had duly responded to their own conscience’s call and splashed the latter image on all our TV screens day and night.
Credits: Agence France-Presse
The “inadmissible” Aaj Tak interview
In 2001, Afzal had given an interview to Aaj Tak correspondent Shams Tahir. In the controversial interview he ‘confessed’ about his involvement in the attack. Later, Afzal disowned the confession stating that he was forced by the Indian Special Forces to say what he did. Eventually, the Supreme Court also set aside this valuable piece of evidence stating that it was “inadmissible”.
On the morning of the interview, Afzal had spoken to his wife. Tabassum had picked up his call thinking he had been released. “I was stupid. How was I to know these things don’t work like that?” she said.
She recounted that that particular day he sounded different and “distant”. “I asked him what was wrong and he asked me to watch his interview in the evening. I was excited. I asked when he was coming home. He kept quiet for a long time and finally said: ‘Everyone else will be going home Tabassum, not me. You watch the interview.’ That was all he said before hanging up,” said Tabassum.
Tabassum and Kashmir
We know what Afzal thought about Kashmir, we know what our politicians think about Kashmir and now we even know what the media thinks about Kashmir. But what does Tabassum – a young woman, an ex-militant’s wife, the widow of a man who was involved in a terror activity, a mother, a daughter; what does she think of Kashmir?
“When I was 13, I too used to go out to protest. We used to walk, cry and scream ‘go India go back’,” she said giggling and raising her arm to show me how she protested.
At the age of 13, is it really possible to internalise a resistance movement so complex?
“When I was around 12, my 14-year-old cousin was shot dead. He used to play with us under the tree outside our house. The security forces suspected him of being a militant and shot him in his head,” Tabassum claimed. Eventually, Tabassum said she stopped protesting.
Tabassum and the media
What about when her husband was hanged, I ask her. Did it spark a fresh splurge of rage? Did she go out to protest? Pelt stones?
Yes, it did splurge a fresh rage. Yes, she protested. Tabassum switched off her phone the moment SAR Geelani confirmed the news of Afzal’s death.
“Initially, my silence to the media was my protest,” she said. Her phone remained unreachable for the next 15 days. As a mourning wife, Tabassum said she did not want media organisations capitalising on her tears.
Once she had taken control of her grief, Tabassum decided not to hide her anger. Eventually, she came out, not merely as a grieving wife but as an enraged woman. “When Aaj Tak reporters came home to me with their cameras and questions, instead of them asking me, I had questions for them. Why didn’t Shams Tahir come to interview me? Why did they do that interview with Afzal? I asked every media house who came, why they did what they did at all?” she said.
Even though she was angry at the State, at not being handed her husband’s body, at politicians who capitalised on her husband’s death, Tabassum’s anger was primarily directed towards the media.
Tabassum’s fight against the media had been a long one. In 2005, when Guru was still in prison, reporters from a media house visited her for an interview. “I clearly told Tehelka magazine reporters that I did not want them to bring cameras with them. I served them tea, snacks and spoke very freely with them. Little did I know that they had shot the entire thing with a hidden camera. Why did they do that? Couldn’t they just respect the fact that I did not want to be videographed?” she asked.
She added that the magazine had twisted her words and published a completely false report where they mentioned that one of her relatives was against Afzal and her. “Those relatives of ours did not speak to me for eight years until Afzal was hanged,” she said.
Tabassum never remarried. In 2005, Afzal wrote to Tabassum’s father asking him to find his daughter another husband. “I was so angry. Who was he to say that to me? I hadn’t ever asked for a divorce,” she said.
As she shuts her photo albums and puts away the bunch of letters that Afzal wrote to her from Tihar jail, I couldn’t help but ask her – “In all these years, didn’t you ever miss having a man close to you? Didn’t you miss the intimacy?”
She paused and began, “When I used to meet Afzal in jail he would sit opposite me and hold my hand. Few times, I even put my head on his shoulders. We asked each other for patience,” she said.
As an afterthought, Tabassum giggled and said: “Sometimes when I visited him, Afzal would open his arms for a hug and I really wanted to hug him. But there were too many people around and I was so shy.”
Today, Tabassum lives by herself. Her son, Ghalib studies in Srinagar and visits her every weekend. Almost every week security forces visit her house for checking. “They walk around with their dirty boots all over my carpet. Nowadays, I laugh and tell them ‘Please come in, this is your own house’,” she said.
As we step out, I ask if I can take a picture of her. Tabassum Guru puts one hand in her pheran pocket and smiles for me.
Correction: The article has been updated to reflect that Tabassum Guru stays in Azad Gunj in Baramulla district and not Sopore.