Kashmir's 6 million residents faced their seventh straight day of confinement and curfew today, the result of an order by New Delhi after the government's secret hanging of Mohammad Afzal Guru, a local Muslim convicted for his role in a deadly attack on India’s parliament in 2001.
Mr. Guru’s execution, after a controversial trial and death sentence, and his burial inside the high-security Tihar jail in New Delhi on Feb. 9, have left the mostly Muslim residents in the Srinigar Valley region seething in anger. Nearly all local politicians, including chief minister Omar Abdullah, expressed dismay, with Mr. Abdullah saying "there was no case against him [Guru] in the [Jammu and Kashmir] state."
Guru’s execution came as the region was experiencing a period of tentative calm after three consecutive summers of mass protests against Indian rule that left 180 people dead. Now, as political activists are detained and the curfew continues, talk is rising again of a renewed atmosphere of confrontation from years back.
The general opinion in the valley is that Guru did not receive a fair trial and that Indian political and judicial institutions "colluded" in his verdict. The hanging was also criticized amid a renewed debate about capital punishment.
“If circumstantial evidence is enough to send a man to the gallows, what about [Narinder] Modi, who supervised a pogrom against Muslims in [the Indian state of] Gujarat?” asked a local resident, peering through a window in Srinagar, the region’s summer capital. He declined to give his name.
Fearing further protest, the government has detained more than 100 political activists, including all those identified as separatist leaders. Three persons died during protests over the hanging, including a teenage boy killed when Indian security forces fired at protesters near Guru’s village.
Two leading Kashmiri separatists, Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, in New Delhi at the time of Guru’s hanging, were detained and their phones confiscated by authorities.
“The Indian state in Kashmir has dropped its mask. I am waiting for a call for a protest march and I am going to go out and join it,” said Siddiq Wahid, a historian and former vice-chancellor of the Islamic University of Science and Technology here. “I fear this can take the situation back to collective confrontation.”
Severe media restrictions
Amid severe restrictions on the media – newspapers could not publish for four days – mobile Internet services were withdrawn without notice and cable TV pulled off indefinitely, prompting many Kashmiri people to feel pushed to the wall without avenues to express themselves. A Kashmiri lawmaker in the region was also detained after he tried to lead a protest demonstration against the hanging.
“No Kashmiri leader is able to do anything. I am helpless and personally want to quit this dirty [pro-India] politics,” the lawmaker, Abdul Rasheed, said over the phone from a police barracks where he is being kept under detention. “I will go to my supporters and explain myself as soon as I am released.”
The anger and hurt is so deep that many who had started veering toward a politics of reconciliation have begun to change course.
Raja Muzaffar Bhat, a young anticorruption activist who had joined the pro-India Peoples Democratic Party, resigned from the group, saying on Facebook, "...I feel that there is no space for working democratically within the Indian state.”
Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, former Interior minister of India, also criticized the hanging, saying he regretted that Delhi would not allow the family a last meeting, or possession of the body. Mr. Sayeed, at one point Indian Kashmir’s chief minister, said in a statement: “This reduces Mahatama Gandhi’s country, the world’s largest democracy and a genuine candidate for superpower status, to a banana republic.”
The latest unrest in Kashmir comes after renewed India-Pakistan bonhomie that withstood the recent flare-up along the heavily militarized line of control, or LoC, that divides the region between the nuclear-armed South Asian neighbors. The skirmishes, the worst since the two countries signed a cease-fire in 2003, led to the killing of three Pakistani and two Indian soldiers.
Separatist leader Abdul Gani Bhat, recently criticized here for advocating "reconciliation" and forging a common agenda with pro-India Kashmiri groups to find a solution to the Kashmir dispute, said New Delhi’s policy in Kashmir was eroding India’s “democratic institutions.”
“If India doesn’t recognize its mistakes in Kashmir soon and sincerely correct them, a process of Balkanization will ensue,” Professor Bhat said.