Afzal Guru: The Afterlife Agitator

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The return to Indian politics of the man executed to assuage the nation’s collective conscience

Three years after his hanging, the spectre of Mohammad Afzal Guru has returned to haunt Indian politics, fuelling a series of reactions and counter-reactions, dividing the people of this country into seditionists, hyper nationalists and a mix of the two in between. Students have been arrested as ‘traitors’ to the nation, social networking sites are saturated with abuse and hate mail, lawyers have reportedly attacked journalists, politicians from every party are wading with glee in these troubled waters (the Congress, which okayed Guru’s execution when in power, has now decided to stand in the corner of those who spoke for him) and it is as if a deep schism has been opened in the Indian polity.

It was after several students from Jawaharlal Nehru University allegedly chanted slogans in support of Guru and the freedom of Kashmir that the present agitation took off. Members of the BJP’s student wing, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), tried to scuttle a meeting held to protest the 2013 hanging of Guru but what should have been an incident restricted to the level of local college politics will now probably wash Parliament’s Budget Session out.

A discussion on the hanging of Guru is uncomfortable and appalling to many, but, given the ambiguities of the case and manner of his execution, it periodically rears its head. Guru dropped out from a medical college in Srinagar to cross over to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir as a Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) member. But he returned and surrendered to Indian security forces, claiming he was disillusioned, and resumed life as a dealer of medicines. In an interview to a magazine, he said he was routinely hounded and tortured by the forces.

On 15 December 2001, Guru was arrested, along with a few others, for his alleged involvement in a conspiracy that had led to the attack on Parliament a couple of days earlier. From that moment on, especially once he was presented in front of the media, in handcuffs, to address a press conference to declare his guilt in the case, a media trial ensued. His face was played constantly on national TV and appeared on the front page of every major news publication. Guru later claimed that his confession had been forced out of him under pressure from the authorities.

The other accused were eventually acquitted, and the death sentence against one individual, Guru’s cousin Shaukat Hussain Guru, was commuted. But Guru was convicted on what some considered questionable evidence. According to the judge, the 2001 attack had “shaken the entire nation and the collective conscience of the society will be satisfied if capital punishment is awarded to the offender.”

The 2001 attack on Parliament was a national humiliation. Everyone was seething with justified rage. And political parties of all hues fanned that sentiment. Guru, a surrendered militant, became the face for the case.

For six years after the Supreme Court reconfirmed Guru’s death penalty, the Government sat on a mercy petition. And when the UPA Government decided to execute him, his family was notified shamelessly a day later in a letter with Guru’s name spelt incorrectly. All of Kashmir had to shut under a curfew in expectation of trouble; Guru’s body was not even handed over to his family.

In his conviction, the manner of his execution and the secrecy surrounding the case, what the state machinery actually did was recreate Afzal Guru as a political slogan. This current row that began on JNU’s campus will end at some point and a semblance of normalcy will eventually return. But the ghost of Guru’s execution is bound to return in some form or the other again and again.