In mourning and under siege – A despatch from Srinagar: Saadut Hussain
Guest post by SAADUT HUSSAIN
The evening prior to Afzal Guru’s hanging, Kashmir was being prepared for a siege. The state had already started working towards barricading the entire population of Kashmir and enforcing curfew. A backlash in Kashmir was already anticipated, not only because Afzal was a Kashmiri but also because in Kashmir he is perceived to being an innocent man, used as a pawn by New Delhi in the larger political theatre of mainland India.
Even though Chief Minister Omar Abdullah on Saturday claimed that he “was informed at 8 pm on Friday night that Afzal Guru would be executed this morning” other media sources claimed that “Omar was informed about the decision when he was in New Delhi on January 31 where he met several leaders, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and United Progressive Alliance (UPA) chairperson Sonia Gandhi.” Clearly the differing reports on claims (or denial) of his knowledge about the hanging had more political reasons to it.
Afzal’s trial has itself left many unanswered questions, which India has been evading. Why did Afzal not have any lawyer from the moment of his arrest (the date of his arrest on 15th Dec 2001) to the filing of the charge-sheet on 14th May 2005? Did the trial by media, which had started immediately after his arrest, create a pre-trial mindset to adversely affect the trial? The weak defense provided to Afzal and the methods Delhi Police Special Cell has been known to use against Kashmiris, also created a general distrust about Afzal’s trial. The number of loop holes that were ignored in the Afzal investigation and the weak defence provided to counter the prosecution, were simply astounding. Was the system fast forwarding the case in a rush to achieve results, norms of justice kept aside?
In its August 2005 judgment, the Supreme Court admitted that, “The conviction under section 3 (5) of POTA is also set aside because there is no evidence that he is a member of a terrorist organisation, once the confessional statement is excluded. Incidentally, we may mention that even going by confessional statement, it is doubtful whether the membership of a terrorist gang or organisation is established.” But the court also concluded, “The incident, which resulted in heavy casualties, had shaken the entire nation and the collective conscience of the society will only be satisfied if capital punishment is awarded to the offender.” Satisfying this ‘collective conscience’ was seen in Kashmir as using Kashmiris as a scapegoat; in doing so, India couldn’t care less about a Kashmiri’s life.
The political strings in Afzal’s hanging are evident. One news report says, “Even Sonia discussed the issue with Omar on the same day. Though Omar had some reservation about the consequences on the streets in the Valley, the central leadership convinced him that there was no way out but to hang Guru to silence the right-wing BJP leadership.” The family of Afzal had not been informed about his hanging, denying them even the basic right of meeting him one last time. On Thursday 7 February, the Union Home Secretary of India, R K Singh said that a communication about the hanging had been sent to the family of Afzal Guru, through Speed Post. Till Sunday no Speed Post communication had been received by Afzal’s family while they already knew about the hanging through TV news. On Monday morning the Speed Post was delivered by the local postal department, while surprisingly the head of the Kashmir circle of India Post claimed that the letter had been dispatched (from New Delhi) on Friday (8th Feb). This admission by postal authorities put in the dock Union Home Secretary of India, who had on Thursday (7th Feb) already claimed about the dispatch of this communication. Surely, New Delhi was playing dirty political games with this hanging.
While Kashmir saw this trial and the hanging as a serious miscarriage of justice, the state laid its own siege to the Valley Saturday morning. By daybreak, curfew had been put in place, all public utility services had been halted, communications blocked out, mobile internet shut and neighbourhoods barricaded by force. Columns of armed personnel were already on the streets enforcing a calm. They knew Kashmir was simmering beneath, seething with anger.
Curfews and Kashmir have had a long relationship; the state uses this tool with impunity whenever it has no answers to our questions. Curfew is the first and last resort to contain public resentment, to muzzle our voice. But curfews where communications systems, internet and TV channels are all blocked and shut out, stand oddly out from the countless curfews Kashmir has earlier experienced. The state here not only ensured that people were caged in their homes, it also ensured that access to information was tailored as per state convenience. News channels were blocked on all cable networks, working in tandem with a mobile internet ban and newspaper stoppages, thereby ensuring a total news blackout. Was the state here afraid of letting the truth be known to common people, or was it afraid of letting the truth of the common people out to the world? Both.
The Indian media in Kashmir invariably resorts to convenient half-truths, often censoring their stories in the larger interests of New Delhi, sacrificing truth-telling at the alter of Indian nationalism. Today, again, the Indian media’s foot-soldiers were seen scurrying around to report between pro-Delhi political residences and obscure roads outside their secure hotels. None of these reporters went down to the common people under siege, to report about life behind the state’s barricades.
Curfew means life at a standstill, denying us the right to exist. Reports of denied milk deliveries, stopped by state forces, soon began pouring in from Srinagar and other towns of Kashmir. Day One passed on the previous day’s essentials. The curfew started to bite from Day Two and well into Day Three. With essentials running out and a total blockade of these services by the state, people were down to rationing. Children without milk, the ill without medicine. Helplessness. The state often points to economic losses due to general strikes called by pro-freedom politicians, while refusing to even acknowledge the miseries such curfews bring to the people. During strikes, unskilled labour and the non-salaried class at least walk to their work-places to earn for the day, and essential supplies work within the internal arteries of the city. In curfews everything is locked down by the state, the daily-wage earners and the poor are put to extreme hardships by these curfews.
The cover of an information blackout
A communication blackout by the state not only means that people are denied access to news, but also that the ‘security’ forces can do anything without the fear of the world getting to know. A communication blockade ensures that an unaccountable state can get away with brute force without the fear of facing immediate public wrath. But such blockades often backfire for iron-fisted states in the long run, breeding a deeper sense of alienation between the ruling state and the denied subjects. Such alienation has been ever widening in Kashmir. The state is not bothered about the welfare of common people, perching itself far above the ground.
In a world as inter-connected as ours, where physical distances have shrunk and information travels with or without such blockades, such acts of the state are futile. Sooner or later, the truths return to hound the state and hold it responsible for using brute force against a civilian population and subject them to collective punishment. People in Kashmir have already begun to compare 2013 to 2010, when more than a 120 people, many of them minors, were killed by ‘security’ forces. In 2010, the powers that be had given up their control to the ‘security’ forces. It had openly become a state v/s people war. Comparing today’s situation with 2010 may not be out of place, keeping in view that the sparks of 2010 mayhem were similar to what the state is doing right now. As I write, 3 protesting youths have already been killed, including a 13 year old, a 9th class student who was shot at by the Central Reserve Paramilitary Force in Wattergam (north Kashmir). Scores are reportedly injured, many of them seriously. Two of the dead had drowned in Sumbal (near Ganderbal) when the CRPF were chasing them.
An additional 10 BSF and 14 CRPF companies were flown in from Jammu to Kashmir, today, a clear indication that the state was inclined to use all possible force in Kashmir. Did that indicate that the government was pushing to extend the siege for long and enforce it harsh? Media on Sunday had already reported (quoting official sources) that curfew and curbs on local media were likely to continue in Kashmir till Friday. And as if curfew and services blockade were not enough many areas reported that armed forces were resorting to vandalism of homes in order to terrify the population. There are reports of deliberate damage to civilian property and beating of civilians inside their homes (including women and a children). Such situations can’t merely be seen as state attempts at containment of anger. This is a situation where armed forces assume greater powers than the governing state. The governing state with its elected head turns a blind eye to the acts of the security forces, for simply wanting to survive in power at the pleasure of New Delhi.
Unending blockades, denial of essential services to the needy, locking down entire populations and wielding of the state barrel on unarmed populations creates a psyche within the common people who see the state as their biggest enemy. When the state treats common people as aliens and uses force to control them, the people also see the state as a draconian one, which has to be rejected and fought back. This makes any rapprochement between the governing state and the people nearly impossible.
It is this ‘pushed to the wall’ psyche that has been moulding young minds in Kashmir for decades, portraying the state as a perennial enemy, and reoccurrence of such events (2008, 2009, 2010) has only reinforced such feelings. The feeling of denial of justice and alienation in Kashmir is also reinforced when Kashmiris compare ‘water cannon’ actions against protestors in India Gate against the above-the-waist firing in Kashmir. The discriminatory bullet that kills Kashmiris when we protest exacerbates the divisions between mainland India and what it calls its ‘atoot ang’, Kashmir.
When young children watch their elders abused and beaten by security forces for no reason, when they experience the denial of even basic human rights to them in barricaded curfews, an idea of India in created in their minds. When a trail of dead and injured is seen to fall to the brute force of the state’s armed forces, the young begin to identity these forces (and the state) as their primary enemy. This new generation that did not experience the pre-1989 denial of political rightsin Kashmir, or the brutality of the 1990’s, are experiencing more state brutality today.
Kashmiris have been experiencing the persistent recurrence of such crimes without any remorse or responsibility by the culprits. While the brokers of power in Srinagar conveniently blame New Delhi for denial of justice in crimes like Machil and Pathribal, it has itself stalled systems of justice in far more crimes here like the 2010 killings, the Shopian double rape and murder case and countless more. These incidents responsible for prolonging the conflict. The state fails to learn from the past. The implications of Afzal Guru’s hanging and the brute enforced by the state in Kashmir are going to be long-term, with most Kashmiris relinquishing any hopes with India. The state, rather than providing succour to the common population, has been pushing brutal armed force against genuine grievances of alienation, and the denial of political rights and justice to Kashmir. New Delhi (and their arms in the state) may use brutal force to contain these sparks for the short term, but these cinders will flare from beneath this enforced calm and take its toll.
(Saadut Hussain is a writer in Srinagar. These are his personal views.)