Afzal Guru’s Hanging in Perspective and the Kashmir Conflict

by Haifa Peerzada

On December 13th, 2001 there was an attack on the Indian parliament, when five terrorists opened indiscriminate firing killing 9 people and injuring over 15. Afzal Guru, (who hails from Sopore, a city in the Kashmir Valley) was hanged at 8.00 a.m. on February 9th, 2013. This has rightly evoked a debate on death penalty in India, and also puts forth a significant question; is it purely a legal matter or has a significant political dimension to it as well? What is that political dimension and what could be its likely potential fallout? The undesirable yet inevitable reaction of Guru’s hanging in the Kashmir Valley clearly reflects that the political problem attached to the issue is much deeper and deserves a much careful scrutiny, to nip the evil in the bud, which presupposes the resolution of the Kashmir conflict. In contrast to most of the debates and discussions in the mainstream Indian media ever since his hanging became public, it is important not to divert the attention from the main problem and dumbing it down as something insignificant.

Afzal’s hanging – only legal?

It is alleged that Afzal Guru  was not given sufficient legal representation, which both him and his family contended; the family also asserted that he had lost faith in the system which reinforces this fact. In other words, principles of natural justice were denied to him. As Indira Jaisingh rightly wrote about the fallacies of fair trial in the Guru’s case in 2007, “To send a man to his death without legal representation is not only unconstitutional but also barbaric”. Anjali Mody and Arundhati Roy among many others also endorse this opinion, while pointing out the lacunae in Afzal Guru’s trial which clearly did not warrant death penalty. In any criminal proceeding, the onus lies on the prosecution to prove the guilt of the accused beyond reasonable doubt, which was not done in this case and clearly did not warrant death sentence on purely circumstantial evidence. While the Indian state has constantly asserted that Guru’s hanging was carried out following due procedure of law, not only was it discredited by was also characterized as unfair and inappropriate by many, including Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir.

It’s important to move beyond the rhetoric of examining the legality of this case especially given that it has been upheld by the executive; it would not produce any ostensible outcome in terms of rendering justice to the bereaved or bringing the one, who has already been executed, back to life. While some may argue that it has brought closure and justice to those who lost their lives in this attack, it may not be so for others. Death penalty awarded in any civilized democratic society is shameful and also shame on the collective conscience of any society; yet the Supreme Court of India, probably in its best wisdom, passed a judgement that it felt appropriate, given the complexities of the case and the highly culpable nature of the crime. As subjective as it may get, it is more important that we don’t get stuck in over speculating the situation, as everything was done in secrecy and therefore nothing can be verified, to the extent that his family was also not informed about it. Lack of credible leadership and national consensus with respect to the Kashmir conflict, coupled with the communalisation of Indian politics playing the ethnic or religious card to remain in power is nothing new. These are just the symptoms that provide a trigger to the main cause of the conflict. Therefore attributing injustice or bias, to the state; for showing double standards with respect to the state of Jammu and Kashmir, using Kashmir as a political scapegoat to appease the opposition as 2014 elections are approaching, or to the courts for not conducting a fair trial, or the civil society in the state and elsewhere in the country for being presumptuous, is not called for at this time and would only cause more confusion or possibly even strife. While all these may be true in their own right, there is a need to look at the deeper and wider problem to address the problem at its root, which is what adds a significant political dimension to the issue. This is postulated in the need to cure an epidemic that has plagued the state of Jammu and Kashmir, especially in the last three decades, and not just the symptoms that cause it.

In a letter written in 2011, Afzal Guru asserted the attack was in connection with the Kashmir conflict stating:

 “It is Kashmir conflict that led to the attack on Indian Parliament. Hanging me or holding me guilty will not stop the resistance or the attacks in future. In parliament attack case, first session’s court, and then High Court and subsequently Supreme Court has held me guilty. Now Congress government also thinks I am culpable. This is the reality. But martyrdom is my craving and wish. It will be my biggest prize.”

Profiling of a terrorist and identifying the problem:

Terrorism, coupled with the self-determination conflict against the backdrop of secessionist and irredentist claims, which also led to militancy in 1989, has been one of the crucial factors that exacerbated the Kashmir conflict, of which the major sufferers have been the people in the state of Jammu and Kashmir – people like Afzal Guru. The hanging of Afzal Guru who was alleged to be a terrorist involved in this heinous crime against the Indian state, gives us a fair chance to do his profiling which is similar to many of those who were in the same situation at the time, to get to the root of the problem. Afzal was a friendly young man from a well-to-do family, best student in his class and an aspiring doctor. In this pursuit he had joined a medical school in Srinagar, which he left and like many young youth in 1989 crossed the border to get training. He returned back, opened a small business and never indulged in any militant activities. However, the instances of unabated torture and harassment by the police never receded. (Jaleel, 2013) In his interview in Tihar jail in 2006, he told that he did cross the border, but after a few weeks he was completely disillusioned by the way the Pakistani government treated Kashmiris and returned back to his home to start afresh. He started his own small business, but he was not allowed to live in peace because of the regular torture and harassment meted out to him by the Special Task Force and was given no option to live a life of dignity.

It is known, the Kashmir conflict has been haunting the Indian sub-continent and the South Asian region for over 60 years. In the last few days, after Afzal Guru’s hanging, immense significance has been attributed to 1984, and 1989 which saw the hanging of Maqbool Bhat (another separatist who was sent to gallows) and the subsequent beginning of insurgency in Kashmir, respectively. These experiences were exacerbated by the political rigging during the 1987 elections to keep the Muslim United Front (MUF) out of power. This disgruntled group was organized as a political party, of which Afzal Guru was a member, in pursuit of achieving self-determination by negotiating a peaceful settlement, grew disillusioned. Eventually many started crossing the border to get trained for an armed struggle against the Indian state, exemplifying alienation on all grounds of the Kashmir Muslims which was further exacerbated by the unfortunate exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley. While Kashmiri Pandits have also suffered a lot living a life in perpetual exile, Kashmiri Muslims within the valley are subjected to utter discrimination and alienation in all spheres of life. This is particularly significant now, as it seems to have recurred with Afzal’s hanging with an apprehension of revival of militancy as a long term implication, which has plagued the Kashmir valley for the last 24 years. There are those who would argue that the Kashmir of 2013 is not the same as it was in 1984, which in the larger context is a misguided assertion as the roots of the conflict remain the same and reactions in the valley on Afzal Guru’s hanging bear testimony to that. The enforced calm and emphasis on tourism in the recent past after the 2010 summer protests, as signs of normalcy should not elude this fact. This brings us to the root cause of the problem, which is not to justify that he had no hand in the attack on parliament, but to give a broader picture of the main problem.

The roots of the Kashmir conflict and prospects for peace

The abovementioned cannot be seen in isolation, disregarding things that are negatively impacting the people in Jammu and Kashmir especially Kashmiri Muslims. The callousness and apathy that has seeped in the Kashmiri society is worth considering, as it has led to a strong sense of hypocrisy based on falsehood and immorality. This has clearly led many people in Jammu and Kashmir to base their livelihood on the conflict and would thus want the conflict to continue. However, this assertion cannot dilute the legitimate grievances of innocent people who have been suffering. Therefore in any conflict, there are bound to be spoilers as well but that does not mean everyone is a spoiler. Having said that, this sort of callousness and hypocrisy also has its roots in the way Kashmiri Muslims are treated. As Mattoo and Roy rightly enunciate, while India may blame the radical groups operating from Pakistan radicalizing the Kashmiri youth who claim self-determination, the fact is that the reason for this is more complex and finds expression in a strong sense of victimhood, discrimination, alienation, injustice and insecurity about their identity that has produced such anti-India sentiments over the years[1]. However, the involvement of Pakistan based radical groups cannot be completely ruled out since the genuine grievances of people in such ethno-nationalist conflicts are more often hijacked by such groups. In 1989, Pakistan took advantage of the situation and set up training camps to train Kashmiri militants who had crossed the border, in guerrilla warfare against India. With respect to Guru’s hanging, the terrorist group  Lashkar – e – Toiba have started sending out warning messages for a possible retaliation.

India’s inability or unwillingness to win the hearts and minds of the people in the state of Jammu and Kashmir is extremely significant in this context. Be it the working group recommendations which never got implemented, or the interlocutors’ recommendations which were categorically rejected by the Parliament, the people of Jammu and Kashmir already distrusted the governments at both the state and the centre. While this was the case, the situation was relatively calm and less violent, after the summer of 2010. There was still an iota of hope for resolution of the Kashmir conflict, even though the level of trust was decreasing since the level of violence was receding; additionally the moderate faction of Hurriyat Conference showed willingness to participate in a dialogue process to reach a final settlement. However a major blow to that dialogue process, started with LoC (Line of Control) ceasefire violations and mutilation of army personnel on both sides of the border in January, 2013 and consequently, as the Defense Minister of India, A.K. Anthoy said, peace with Pakistan may also take some more time till things are back to normal. Till the time both internal and external hostilities retreat, it seems that the summer of 2010 will be repeated judging from the way the situation in Kashmir is spiraling, which will only reinforce the alienation of the Kashmiri Muslims. In that sense resolution of the Kashmir conflict still seems far-fetched and sustainable peace, an idealistic phenomenon.

Beyond intractability – Way forward

While it is a necessary predicament for India and Pakistan to sincerely cooperate in order to find a lasting solution to the Kashmir conflict, it is more important for India to reach out to the people of Kashmir than just paying lip service, which has been reiterated time and again but seems to be falling on deaf ears. Under this enforced calm, the conflict still simmers in need of just a trigger to erupt and Afzal Guru’s hanging just provided that. This finds expression in the perpetual offensive and brutal posture of the governments at the Centre and the State in controlling the Muslim majority Kashmir Valley. The national security paradigm in the main political discourse in India as far as Kashmir is concerned, emphasizes on sending in more army and paramilitary troops to maintain law and order. This in simple terms means enforcing peace and calm by imposing curfews with shoot at sight orders. Nevertheless it also entails collateral damage which can primarily be seen in the humanitarian crisis which ensue subsequently. This includes deaths of the innocent, institutionalized human rights violations, which are as grave as crimes against humanity, shortage of basic essentials and more importantly which is very significant- education in the valley. All this just induces fear, suspicion and mistrust in the minds of the people which over a period of time translate into people turning rebellious, to reinforce their identity. This is what Nitasha Kaul rightly calls, Mandarin-Machiavelli interaction. It is also important to note here that even in security dilemma approach of the contemporary conflicts, there is nothing that elicits exclusion of fear, suspicion and other psychodynamics, to understand and analyse the main causes of the conflict and deal with them[2]. This clearly exemplifies that human security and national security are complementary to each other, and need to be applied evenly for handling a given situation.

The pattern of governance and its interaction in the political institutions both at the centre and the state level have come to describe the prevailing condition of the Kashmiri Muslims. It can be described under two concepts. The one is the relative deprivation theory in which people feel that they are not getting the goods and conditions conducive for their living which they can rightfully claim and deserve. The other is the grievance based explanation of ethnic conflicts in which people feel that they do not have enough political rights and hence impinging on their political representation[3]. Therefore a significant emphasis on human security while filling the contours of national security is the way to go to handle this situation in short term as well as long term to reach a peaceful political settlement of the Kashmir conflict, with the participation of the Kashmiri people.

To put it simply, as Mirza Waheed claims:

 “Before India can even begin to contemplate negotiating a lasting political solution in consultation with Kashmiris it must act to deliver justice — for the parents of the disappeared; for the young lives brutally extinguished in 2010; for the innocent dead stealthily buried in unmarked graves in the mountains; for the Kashmiris languishing in Indian prisons without any legal recourse; for the exiled Kashmiri Hindu Pandits who fled in 1990 after some were targeted and killed by militants…”

It is important to note here that with insecure people, the state cannot be secure. In this context, a bare minimum should be fixed for providing people basic freedoms which is essential to live with dignity. While this should be realistically adapted, to make it work, emphasis should be laid on protection as well as empowerment with the civil society playing a positive role in such an endeavor. To suffice roots of the conflict should also be taken into due consideration[4]. This is the approach that India should adopt to deal with Kashmir and sooner they realize it, the better.

Haifa Peerzada is a law graduate from University of Delhi and in 2010, she enrolled with the Bar Council of Delhi and licensed to practice law by the Bar Council of India in 2011. She also holds a M.A in International Relations (Security) from the University of Birmingham. She is inclined towards alternative dispute resolution and conflict resolution, including policies related to peacekeeping, security- both traditional and non-traditional forms, international development and peace management.


[1] Mattoo, Amitabh and Suresh Roy. “Summer of Discontent: Considering Conditions in Kashmir.” Harvard International Review (2011): 54-58

[2] Shiping, Tang. “The Security Dilemma and Ethnic Conflict: Towards a Dynamic and Integrative Theory of Ethnic Conflict.” Review of International Studies 37 (2011): 511-36

[3] Theuerkauf, Ulrike G. “Institutional Design and Ethnic Violence: Do Grievances Help to Explain Ethnopolitical Instability?” Civil Wars 12 (2010): 118-120

[4] Fouinat, Francois.  “A Comprehensive Framework for Human Security.” Conflict, Security and Development 4 (2004)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s