Why Do Memories of Afzal Guru Still Haunt India's Conscience?

On the anniversary of Afzal Guru's hanging return questions that have remained unanswered, questions that we refuse to face.

Afzal Guru

Afzal Guru

Shoaib aspires to be a Bollywood singer and it becomes a story for newspapers. Why? Because Shoaib is a Muslim. Not just any Muslim, but also the nephew of Afzal Guru. The newspapers cannot hide their astonishment.

A similar vein of astonishment ran through the newspapers two years ago when it was reported that Ghalib, another Kashmiri Muslim, had passed the class ten board exams with flying colours. It was news because Ghalib is the son of Guru.

On February 9, 2013, Afzal Guru was hanged. But his connection with India remains alive. What is this connection that refuses to die? Why does Guru’s memory still haunt the nation when the very reason the apex court decided to hang him was to satisfy “the collective conscience of its society”?

On this day, it has become a tradition to commemorate Guru each year. It is like a cry that has been muffled for fear or lack of hope that it will be heard or answered. It has turned into a deep hidden wound that has healed externally but hurts when the wind changes as winters recede.

On this day in 2013, Guru was finally hanged and newspapers got their fodder for several days. It was done very secretively. Not only was Guru’s family kept in the dark about it, but Guru himself was informed only two hours before his hanging. Only the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir was notified, presumably so that the state could be prepared for any untoward reaction from the Valley after the news comes out.

Guru was buried inside Tihar Jail. The government did not want the people in the Valley to have another martyr figure. Anti-India sentiment was put under check. Internet and mobile services were blocked in Kashmir. After all, the government was aware of the tension the news had caused in the region. Links were cut off so that the anger remained isolated and did not take the form of organised or public agitation.

But why was there such outburst over the punishment of a ‘terrorist’ who participated in an attack on parliament, the symbol of India’s democracy and sovereignty? One hanging caused so much agony – what about the policemen who were killed in the parliament attack, it was asked.

Tension was quickly building up after the hanging. A few Kashmiri students gathered at Jantar Mantar to protest against it. But they were attacked and their faces were blackened. How some people just love humiliating others in this country!

News studios were running their own debates with at least one Muslim face in each frame – a Congress member, a BJP member, another a lawyer or a former deputy chairman of the Rajya Sabha who by chance was a Muslim too. There was a national consensus that hanging Guru was the right decision. The Congress applauded itself for taking the step. The BJP commended itself for pressurising the government to act. The delayed hanging, however, displayed hesitation on the part of the Congress when it came to national security, it said.

In the discussion, no objection was raised against the decision but perhaps there had been one human failing – Guru’s family should have been allowed to visit him one last time.

The person to whom this question is put was me and I replied that this is not about sympathy but about justice. And the question we should discuss is this: Should Guru have been hanged at all? In the studio, this question is met with the loudest uproar. The BJP Muslim member shouts in an angry tone, “You must be an ISI agent. This is a Pakistani channel. I cannot be a part of it any more.” The Congress Muslim member warns the questioner, “You are able to ask such a question because India is a democracy.”

It was obvious from the Congress’s reaction that the core of India’s politics was slipping away from its hands, which is why it leapt on another’s ideology of nationalism and was trying hard to portray it as its own.

Is, then, democracy in India dependent upon the government and political parties? Do they fix its duration and amount too? Before one consents to the execution, is it wrong to ask that if Guru was a citizen of India, was he awarded all his rights? He was hanged only on the basis of his statement to the police. Why was he not provided a good lawyer?

Guru did not attack parliament. Those who did were killed. Guru was the only one arrested among those who were named as being part of the conspiracy. Do we know the whole truth behind the attack, the identity of the others involved? Why does the government seem less interested in unravelling all the details? It is noteworthy that the attack took place at a time when a strong government led by the nationalist BJP was in power.

Guru was a surrendered militant, under constant vigilance of the police and the army. How did he manage to reach Delhi? If he was not involved in the attack but merely took part in plotting it, why was he hanged when those who had plotted Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination were only jailed? Was it merely a decision by the apex court to satisfy the “collective conscience of the society”, to calm the disturbed heart of the nation?

With the Supreme Court’s ruling, the country gave its verdict on Kashmir too – that Kashmir does not register a beat in that chest of the nation, that it is not an integral part of India as it is often claimed. Yet when Guru’s son, Ghalib, the son of a man hanged as a traitor, does well in the examination, it becomes national news.

The government must have thought that the matter will die down with the hanging. Governments can hang a person but they cannot bury questions. These will still be asked. Last year, the debate was revived at Jawaharlal Nehru University once again. It is not only Kashmiri youth who ask these questions, but it concerns the youth in general. Is there a short cut to justice? Can it be ignored in certain cases?

Then came Yakub Memon’s hanging and the debate resurfaced with a fresh fervour. When a Dalit student raised this question in Hyderabad, he was labelled anti-national. In JNU, there were attacks on students for raising this question. They were beaten, jailed and a vile campaign against them was started. It was an attempt to destroy the very essence of the university. It did not stop at JNU.

At an event in the Press Club, anti-India slogans were raised and press club officials filed a complaint with the police. The event was organised by a professor, slogans were raised by members of the audience but the organisers were blamed. The Parliament Street police station in-charge told the detained group of teachers that it was his dominion and he could keep them there as long as he wanted. Whether it is a crime story or farce, is difficult to say.

One day, six young men in a dishevelled state were brought into the police station. Unshaved beards, tangled hair and careless in appearance. They had come to the Indira Gandhi Cultural Centre to listen to Gulzar, who was speaking at an event celebrating Urdu, when the police nabbed them because, according to the police, they looked like ‘JNU-type’ people, those who talk about democracy. “Why don’t you comb your hair or take a bath?” the policeman asked them in the manner of a strict parent. One of the men turned out to be a Muslim and was carrying the flag of the Students’ Federation of India. “Today, he is carrying a flag. Tomorrow, it will be a gun,” the policeman mocked.

Kashmiri, terrorist, leftist, JNU, JNU-type, nationalist – it is all messed up. It is like a rambling madman refusing to come to his senses. A driver in Mehsana, far away from Delhi, asks, “Is the full form of JNU Jinnah National University? Are those boys living on taxpayers’ money involved in anti-national activities?” Officials in universities of Haryana, Ranchi, Udaipur, and Jodhpur warn that they will not let another JNU rise. A student organisation raises slogans, the police files a complaint and warns that no anti-national speech will be tolerated.

Seventy years have passed since India won its independence. Should a lack of nationalism still disturb us? Are we a sick nation, wandering in search of an energy that will boost our nationalism?

And then February 9 returns, along with the questions that have remained unanswered, questions that we refuse to face, questions of humanity, sympathy and justice.

Let us raise our hands then and pray. Pray for those who have wrongfully suffered injustice because of our nationalistic haste. And pray for ourselves too. That a time will come when we will rise from our nationalistic intoxication. That our souls have not become so wounded by then that they are beyond repair. That it is not too late by then for us to seek salvation.

Apoorvanand teaches at Delhi University.

Translated from Hindi by Naushin Rehman.