When parliament attack convict Afzal Guru was hanged three years ago, the UPA government refused to listen to voices demanding the return of his mortal remains to his family in Kashmir. He was instead quietly buried somewhere inside the Tihar Jail in Delhi. The idea behind the secret execution and burial was to prevent Afzal Guru from become a rallying point for "Azadi" (independence) and inspiration for the young in the Valley. With his hanging, the government wanted to kill any hold that Afzal Guru may have had in his home state forever.
Kashmir was put under strict curfew for weeks together at the time to stop support from being expressed for Afzal Guru. But that didn't happen. Instead, the 43-year-old attained the aura of a martyr in Kashmir. Like Maqbool Bhat who was hanged in Tihar in 1984 and secretly buried there, Afzal Guru captured the imagination of a young generation.
The UPA government's decision to hang Afzal Guru in the run-up to the 2014 parliamentary elections was bent on proving its patriotic credentials against a resurgent BJP and Modi juggernaut. It didn't help them then, and now they stand accused by the BJP for being on Afzal Guru's side after the JNU row with leaders like Rahul Gandhi making statements about free speech that are seen as condoning the chants that were shouted by students in support of Afzal Guru.
So Afzal Guru came alive exactly three years after his execution - the JNU event to mark his death anniversary and the way government handled it has resurrected him as well as the debate over whether he was rightly executed.
The hotheaded slogans in JNU by a handful of youth has triggered an unprecedented national debate about Afzal Guru and the arrest on charges of sedition of Kanhaiya Kumar, the arrested JNU student union president.
The provocative slogans shouted at the JNU event which called for azadi and the disintegration of India are neither new nor uncommon in the Valley. I have been hearing them for the last three decades, but they literally go unnoticed. The government even chooses to ignore ISIS banners which are often raised in parts of Srinagar. According to both state and central security agencies, not a single youth who raises these banners has any link with ISIS or intends to join any militant group. They just do it because they feel it can irritate the police more than stone-throwing and waving Pakistan flags. If the government were to take the same sort of action in the Valley as it has done at JNU, very few young Kashmiri men will remain outside jail. Note that the mature separatist leadership disapproves of such slogans. According to these leaders, the tone and tenor of such slogans is against the basic spirit of the separatist movement and the narrative of Kashmiris as victims of atrocities and dispossession.
I was not surprised to see boys and girls in Kolkata shouting slogans for Afzal and azadi for Kashmir. It was bound to happen when you use force to in a battle of ideas, no matter how misguided they may be.
If force had worked, the dissent in Kashmir would have faded into oblivion a long time ago. Instead, it reinforced the hostility towards the centre and this passes on from one generation to another. Killings of thousands of people, enforced disappearances, arson, crackdowns and curfews has not changed the ground realities. Despite tourist arrivals and long queues of voters in every election, the challenges in Kashmir remain unchanged. Spontaneous participation by the public in the funeral marches of militants is posing the same challenge now as it did in 1990. In the absence of any engagement with and the continuous confinement of separatist leaders, mobs are now breaking the cordons during fierce gun-battles between militants and security forces in an attempt to help holed-up militants to escape.
It's not the military might of the state but a section of polity that's maintaining a political equilibrium in Kashmir. The mainstream political parties who talk about the aspirations of people are striking that fine balance in Kashmir where the overwhelming secessionist discourse is countered by participatory democracy.
Many in Kashmir still believe that Afzal Guru was not given a fair trial. When confirming the death sentence for him, the Supreme Court observed that "collective conscience of the society will be satisfied only if death penalty is awarded to Afzal Guru". Three years after his hanging, the JNU row has drilled Afzal Guru into the collective psyche of the nation.
(Nazir Masoodi is NDTV's Srinagar Bureau Chief.)
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