On Hanging Kashmir’s Heroes: The Significance of Mohammed Afzal Guru


At approximately 11:30 AM New Delhi time on December 13, 2001, five armed men in a white Ambassador automobile entered the heavily fortified Indian Parliament complex in New Delhi.  They exchanged gunfire with security agents, killing nine people and injuring sixteen.  All five attackers were killed prior to entering the Parliament building.  In the attack’s aftermath, Indian politicians and journalists attributed responsibility for the attack to Pakistan-sponsored militant organizations operating in the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir, namely Lashkar-e-Tayaba and Jaish-e-Mohammed.  No public inquiry into the attack was ever conducted and the identity of the attackers and the organization(s) responsible for their actions has never been established.

Immediately after the attacks, a number of Kashmiri Muslims were arrested for alleged involvement in the “conspiracy” to attack the Indian Parliament.  Among them were Syed Abdul Rahman Geelani, Muhammed Afzal Guru, Afzal Guru’s cousin Shaukat Hussain Guru and Shaukat’s wife Afzan.  Geelani was arrested on December 14, 2001 in New Delhi.  Afzal and Shaukat Guru were arrested on December 15, 2001 in Srinagar.  Delhi police believed the four accused were co-conspirators who masterminded the Parliament attack and provided material support to the attackers.  Various politicians and media outlets conducted a public misinformation campaign, declaring the four accused terrorists, responsible for the attack and deserving of death.  According to various accounts, the accused were abused in prison.  On December 21, 2001, Afzal and Shaukat Guru were finally tortured into providing police with the detailed confessions upon which the prosecution case against the alleged co-conspirators was largely based.

The four accused were tried before a special court constituted under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), a major Indian counterrorism law (repealed by the Manmohan Singh government in 2004 but still applied to those arrested thereunder), which expanded police powers, reduced the due process rights of the accused and authorized, among other things, extended detentions without charges being brought, the discarding of the presumption of innocence (by placing the burden of proof on the accused) and the admissibility (as evidence in court) of confessions made to the police despite torture or coercion (which are known to be commonly employed by Indian police and security agents, including in the current case).  I will discuss here, in a cursory fashion, the cases of Geelani and Afzal Guru only.

Geelani and Guru were charged with, among other things, waging war against the Republic of India and conspiracy to murder.  It is evident from various reports that the investigation conducted by the police was riddled with irregularities and included the fabrication of, and failure to produce, key evidence, the improper use, and admission of, evidence in court, the improper questioning of witnesses, manifest bias against the accused and failure by the State to provide the accused with adequate legal assistance.  In any event, the evidentiary case against the accused substantiating the charges against them remains obscure to me and appears to consist largely of easily rebutted circumstantial evidence buttressed by conjecture and innuendo.  There appear to have been two major pieces of evidence against Geelani.  First, he happened to be acquainted with his co-defendants (who were from the same district of Jammu & Kashmir as Geelani and had been students at Delhi University, where Geelani was on faculty).  Second, he had a two minute conversation in Kashmiri with his brother (recorded by police who had been wiretapping his phone for many months) in which police claimed he made an oblique reference to the Parliament attack, although neither the recording nor its Kashmiri transcript was submitted as evidence by the prosecution.  The major piece of substantiated evidence against Guru was that he admitted to giving a ride from Kashmir to Delhi to a man who police believe was one of the Parliament attackers (more on this later).

Regardless, in October 2003, both Geelani and Guru were convicted of the charges leveled against them.  Geelani, who was purported to be the brains behind the conspiracy, was convicted of eleven counts and sentenced to, among other things, two death sentences.  Guru was also sentenced to die.

Geelani’s case became a cause célèbre and he found many champions among his erstwhile colleagues at Delhi University (he was a lecturer of Arabic at Zakir Hussain College) as well as among certain other prominent personalities in India, including the author and critic Arundhati Roy and Ram Jethmalani, the former Indian Law Minister.  Jethmalani participated in Geelani’s defense and was an outspoken critic of the case against Geelani, publicly declaring, among other things, that there was “no evidence” against him.  Geelani’s Defence Committee raised funds for his representation, secured defense counsel (including Nandita Haksar) and campaigned for his life in the press and in the courtroom.  Geelani’s defense counsel was able to secure his acquittal by the High Court on October 29, 2003.  There have subsequently been attempts on Geelani’s life, which Delhi police have blamed on his co-defendants, Afzal and Shaukat Guru.

Afzal Guru has not shared Geelani’s fortune.  Geelani, who has become something of a public spokesperson for Guru’s cause, has repeatedly articulated the many procedural failings of Guru’s trial.  Among other things, Geelani has pointed out that Guru, despite his requests for counsel, was not provided the assistance of any counsel at the trial phase.  He was not allowed to cross-examine any witnesses.  When Guru finally obtained representation, his counsel was apparently antagonistic toward him and his expressed interests.  Nonetheless, Guru’s conviction was affirmed by the High Court and then by the Supreme Court, India’s supreme judicial authority.  The Republic of India was due to kill Mohammed Afzal Guru by hanging at Tihar Jail on October 20, 2006.  On October 5, Guru’s wife, Tabassum, filed a petition seeking executive commutation of Guru’s death sentence (to life imprisonment), which has, till now, delayed the execution of Guru’s sentence.  Meanwhile, Guru’s pending hanging has sparked some amount of controversy in India and the delay in his killing has enlivened the debate. 

Some in India are publicly advocating for commutation of Guru’s death sentence, arguing, among other things, that the many glaring procedural failures in Guru’s trial before the special POTA court undermine his conviction and the legitimacy of the Indian justice system as a whole.  They argue that Guru’s death will only make him a hero and martyr, exacerbating tensions in the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir and setting back the ongoing India-Pakistan peace process, a central issue of which remains the two nations’ historical, territorial dispute over the lapsed princely state of Jammu & Kashmir. 

The voices in favor of commutation are, however, drowned out by urgent calls for Guru to hang.  Among those most vociferously making such calls, expressing frustration with the delay in Guru’s hanging while the executive considers Tabassum’s commutation petition, are the relatives of those killed in the Parliament attack and the politicians of the rightist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).  Illustrating the common logic of this viewpoint, Prakash Javdekar, a BJP spokesperson, was recently quoted as saying "We appeal that there should be no waiving of the death sentence. It would be like giving in to the militants. The government should not surrender to the militants."   Some media outlets have taken interest in the competition among various hangmen vying to kill Guru, each publicly appealing to be selected.  One such suitor, Walekar, an eighty-year old hangman of some repute hailing from Northern India, has expressed his belief that Guru deserves the death penalty and that killing him will “teach terrorists a lesson.”  Walekar was recently quoted as saying “the nation is ours and the enemy has to be slain.  A traitor must be eliminated.”

In the Valley of Kashmir, predictably, the reaction to Guru’s predicament has echoed the commutation discourse described above.  Across the political spectrum, establishment and anti-India politicians have appealed for Guru’s life, establishment politicians prevailing on Delhi’s decisionmakers in an effort to prevent any escalation of the ongoing violence in Jammu & Kashmir while anti-India politicians hold Guru’s treatment up as yet another demonstration of India’s hypocrisy – its truly anti-democratic, tyrannical, unjust, non-secular (anti-Muslim), brutal character.  Guru’s hanging has been likened to that of the late Maqbool Bhat, a Kashmir activist whose life and death continue to serve as inspiration for anti-Indian resistance among Kashmiris—Indian authorities hung Bhat at Tihar Jail on February 11, 1984. 

The intended date and venue of Guru’s killing are thick with symbolic significance.  In planning the killing of Afzal Guru, Indian authorities have seemingly intentionally offended the sentiments of Kashmiri Muslims and caused Kashmiris to remember Maqbool Bhat.  Although now delayed, they scheduled Guru to hang on the last Friday of Ramadan, the 27th day of Ramadan by the count of many, quite likely the annual Night of Power, a day of particular spiritual significance and heightened religious feeling among practicing Muslims.  Guru will be the first person hung at Tihar Jail in seventeen years, the first since before the contemporary violent political anti-India resistance movement in Jammu & Kashmir (the Tahrik) began.  Also, Maqbool Bhat’s mortal remains continue to be interred on the grounds of Tihar Jail, despite the repeated and vocal protests of many Kashmiris who have requested Indian authorities to return Bhat’s remains to the Valley of Kashmir.  

Maqbool Bhat may be Kashmir’s and Kashmiris’ only modern Hero.  Scores of Kashmiris (as well as some non-Kashmiris) have committed themselves to and sacrificed themselves for a better future for Kashmir and its people, often through means other than violent struggle.  I do not diminish their sacrifices.  But Maqbool Bhat is unique.  He is a profound symbol of commitment to Kashmir, a champion of popular struggle against exploitation and oppression, a proponent of the now passé belief in the possibility of a liberated Kashmir effected by self-reliant Kashmiris.  No other figure in modern Kashmiri history has so passionately, publicly, blatantly and unsparingly endured the trial of being a modern Kashmiri.  Bhat was a democrat and a nationalist, the first Kashmiri activist to publicly call for armed struggle as a means of liberation in post-Partition Kashmir and among the first to declare to his people that Pakistan’s ruling elites, often perceived as allies, could not be trusted as friends.  By 1965, Bhat and his colleagues had concluded that the failure of Kashmiris’ decades-long non-violent political struggle for the right to national self-demonstration demonstrated its insufficiency as a means of resistance.  They formed an organization called the National Liberation Front (NLF) and planned an armed freedom struggle from Pakistan-Administered Kashmir, returning to the Valley of Kashmir in 1966 to execute their plan.  In September of 1966, Bhat and his colleagues found themselves besieged by Indian military personnel.  In the skirmish that ensued, an Indian intelligence officer was killed.  Bhat was tried for the officer’s death and sentenced to die.  Without indulging in the confusing details of Bhat’s political life, suffice it to say that he escaped from jail in Srinagar and fled to Pakistan-Administered Kashmir where Pakistani authorities arrested and tortured him for being an Indian agent.  Bhat would return to Indian-Administered Kashmir in 1976, only to be arrested by the Indian authorities and imprisoned at Tihar Jail where he was ultimately hung by Indian authorities who viewed him as a Pakistani agent, terrorist and criminal. 

In describing Bhat as Kashmir’s and Kashmiris’ only modern Hero, I do not intend to make Bhat out as a saint.  Bhat’s notion of armed struggle, for instance, seems, at best, to have been politically naïve and, in some weak sense at least, has been demonstrated to have been so by what has happened in and to Kashmir since Bhat’s death.  Whatever his failings, Bhat seems to have believed unwaveringly that Kashmir could have a better future and that Kashmiris could effect positive changes for Kashmir and for themselves.  Committed to Kashmir, he was perceived as a threat by the ruling elites of both India and Pakistan, and persecuted by both.  He lived a life of constant exile – strangers had made him a trespasser in his own home.  Despite being forced into an itinerant life of struggle and suppression, he stayed committed to his cause and, ultimately, died for it.  He did not compromise.  If nothing else, Bhat’s life should have taught us a lesson that we have learned and relearned without mercy over the last seventeen years – that Kashmiris are alone in their aspirations, that they have no external allies, that their struggle, painful, bloody and unpitying, will not generate sympathy from anyone, often not even from other Kashmiris.

It is worth noting that Bhat’s NLF was the precursor to the secular nationalist Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), an organization still active in Kashmiri resistance politics which could, at a time in the not-too-distant past, count Afzal Guru among its members.  In 1989, JKLF activists set off the cycle of violent rebellion and state-sponsored violent suppression of rebellion that has overwhelmed and largely decimated Kashmir society over the course of the last seventeen years.  To be clear, the JKLF is not responsible for the violence that has ravaged Kashmir since 1989.  Lest it be obscured, Kashmir has been ravaged by New Delhi-sponsored tyranny since the time of Partition.  One can apportion responsibility and causality for the violence since 1989 in various ways, but the JKLF was neither responsible for nor the cause of that violence (and, incidentally, renounced violent struggle as a means of resistance in May of 1994).  Similarly, while the violence of the last seventeen years is, in some sense, the legacy of Bhat’s 1966 call to armed resistance, he, having been killed almost six years before Rubaiya Sayeed’s kidnapping (the incident generally viewed as the beginning of the Tahrik), can in no way be held responsible. 

Afzal Guru is also a symbol for Kashmiris, but he is neither the martyr nor the Hero that Bhat was.  Guru is symbolic of contemporary Kashmiris, a people without hope for a liberated or even stable Kashmir, a people who have lost faith in themselves and in each other, a people overwhelmed and utterly compromised by their current circumstance, despised and living in constant fear, persecuted and paralyzed.  Guru’s version of the contemporary Kashmiri story, which has a few million iterations but the same essential plot, goes something like this: In 1990, Guru, a young MBBS student, like thousands of Kashmiri youth, saw in the Tahrik an opportunity to participate in the liberation of Kashmir and the betterment of his people.  He crossed over to Pakistan-Administered Kashmir in order to be trained as a Kashmiri freedom fighter, but, after three months, he became disillusioned with the antagonism and divisiveness already evident among the various militant groups and returned to the Valley of Kashmir.  In order to have a normal life without fear of further persecution or reprisal, Guru surrendered to the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) (the Indian military maintains, as part of its counterterrorism efforts, a program intended to encourage militants to give up armed struggle and return to society).  After meeting certain demands of BSF officials, Guru was granted a certificate stating that he was, officially, a surrendered militant.  The history of the Tahrik has shown that the common experience of surrendered militants is that they become the willing or unwilling agents of Indian military personnel, resulting in their being hated and feared by other Kashmiris for being traitors, informants and promoters of all kinds of black market trades and vices, and, as totally compromised individuals, they live in constant fear of being killed by militants (as traitors) while under the unsympathetic and exploitative protection of the Indian military.  Guru tried to make good on his youthful aspirations by establishing a medical supplies business and marrying Tabassum in 1997.  Guru was, like so many other surrendered militants, constantly harassed, detained and tortured by the Special Task Force (the STF is a particularly infamous, brutal and hated counterterrorism organization in Kashmir) and other Indian military personnel who demanded that he act as an informant and that his family pay such personnel large sums of money in order to save him from further detention and torture.  Incidentally, Tabassum and Guru have made public statements detailing the names of particular Indian military officers who tortured Guru at various times, the locations at which he was detained and the ways in which he was tortured.  Guru finally escaped from the Kashmir Valley and his tormentors and attempted to settle with his family in Delhi.  The STF, however, apparently tracked him down.  A man named Tariq, whom Guru had previously met in an STF camp, contacted Guru and asked him to bring a man named “Mohammed” from Kashmir to Delhi.  Guru was told that “Mohammed” would be traveling abroad from Delhi.  Guru did as he was ordered.  “Mohammed” turned out, at least according to the police, to be one of the Parliament attackers.  That single act seems to be the nominal justification for Guru to hang.

In killing Afzal Guru or, perhaps, imprisoning him for life, Indian authorities continue to manifest their disdain for Kashmiris and to demonstrate their willingness to act brutally, partially and without concern for the principles of democracy, justice, secularism that they flaunt internationally.  This is, sadly, nothing new or exceptional.  Neither is the torture, scapegoating and killing of a Kashmiri man.  I am reminded of a statement that Bhat is reported to have made while facing a special Pakistani tribunal trying him for various offences – “At present I have no other choice but to give myself to the merciless hands of time and to wait for the day when the darkness of discrimination and malice, cruelty and exploitation will be replaced by the light of justice.  That day I will ask for justice.”

Guru is no Maqbool Bhat.  I do not celebrate Guru as a hero or a martyr.  I pity him for his compromised, brutal life and for his sufferings, as I pity his son, his wife, his mother and, ultimately, all Kashmiris, including myself.  I am a child of the Kashmiri diaspora, as confused, hopeless and, given the resources available to me, even more useless than many of my relatives and friends who remain in the Valley of Kashmir.  Recognizing the futility of the present, but acting with the benefit of hindsight, we, Kashmiris and any who are distressed by Kashmir’s contemporary reality and desirous of a peaceful, productive future for Kashmir, should take Afzal Guru’s public misery as an opportunity to commiserate, to remember a faith and hope that Maqbool Bhat reminds us we once knew and to reaffirm our commitment to Kashmir and to each other.  We can recognize in each other’s eyes our hatred for an oppressive sovereign, but we should also be true enough to recognize our hatred for ourselves.  There is a way forward.  It is not, in my estimation, a path of armed struggle, civil strikes or unsubstantiated rhetoric.  It seems that we must forge a new way, a way based on honest self-assessment, social commitment, due consideration of historical experience and the remembrance of the sacrifices of our forefathers and our friends.  As Maqbool Bhat, waiting to be executed, reminded his colleagues in letters from Tihar Jail, those who love their goals and are committed to achieving them know that success requires patient perseverance and that history is made by people who challenge established thinking, directing their ideas and their actions toward discovering new methods.  He said:

Those who respond to their conscience and identify themselves with the standard bearers of truth covet no rewards and desire no praise.  This long and trying struggle sees many crests and troughs.  The passage of time and unfavorable circumstance may affect its intensity but cannot put and end to it.  It is the greatest duty of every upholder of truth to continue this struggle in all intensity.  Negligence can only lead to a state where humanity loses the purpose and meaning of existence and the current of noble deeds that has sustained prophets and revolutionized human life is slowed….As long as the gloomy night of oppression hovers over us, we have to go on illuminating the scaffolds and gallows with our heads.