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The long shadow of Afzal Guru

When Afzal Guru was hanged secretly last month in Tihar Jail, Indian officials claimed that it was a simple case of the law taking its course and that politics had nothing to do with it. That is of course not true. The execution was a political move with an eye on the parliamentary elections due in India next year and was designed to blunt criticism from the BJP that the Congress-led government has not been sufficiently firm in stamping out “cross-border terrorism” from an unloved neighbour.

We do not know how the execution will impact on the Indian elections but it is safe to say that the consequences for the future of Kashmir will be far-reaching and long-lasting. By sending him to the gallows, the Indians made Afzal Guru another martyr for freedom from Indian rule. He has already become a source of inspiration for a new generation of Kashmiris who were either not born when Maqbool Butt was hanged in the same prison in 1984, or were too young to remember it. Both Butt and Afzal were buried within the walls of the Tihar jail and the demand for the return of their bodies to Kashmir for reburial has become a new rallying call for the Kashmiris.

Kashmir has been in a state of continuous turmoil since Afzal Guru’s hanging. According to a report in an Indian newspaper (DNA) last Tuesday, there had by then been more than 24 days of curfew and shutdown in Kashmir after the hanging on 9 February. The Indian occupation forces remain on high alert to crack down on any sign of public protest.

It is remarkable that the National Conference (NC) and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) which consistently toe the Indian line on Kashmir have also sought to distance themselves from the execution of Afzal Guru. Both these parties have separately called for the return of Afzal’s body. In a letter to Manmohan Singh, Omar Abdullah, the puppet chief minister, has also requested for the return of Maqbool Butt’s body to Kashmir.

The Pakistan government’s reaction to the execution of Afzal Guru was expressed in a mildly worded statement issued by the Foreign Ministry. It reaffirmed solidarity with the people of Kashmir but carefully refrained from any comment on the execution itself. Nearly a month after the hanging, while enraged Kashmiris were protesting en masse against Indian repression and demanding the return of Guru’s body, our prime minister decided to pay pilgrimage to Ajmer on a ‘private visit’, no doubt adding insult to the injury of the Kashmiris.

In keeping with the policy of ‘restraint’ followed by the government, our parliament also remained silent for more than a month on the anti-India agitation going on in Kashmir. It was only on its last working day and almost as an afterthought that the National Assembly, quietly and without any debate, passed a hastily drafted resolution expressing solidarity with the people of Kashmir in the wake of Afzal Guru’s hanging and restating Pakistan’s traditional stand on the Kashmir issue.

During its five-year term, this National Assembly earlier passed two other resolutions on Kashmir condemning the use of force by the Indian occupation forces and calling for a solution of the Kashmir issue in accordance with UN Security Council resolutions. The Indian parliament did not react to any of these resolutions. The first one was passed in August 2008 after Indian paramilitary forces killed Sheikh Abdul Aziz, a prominent APHC leader, while he was leading a peaceful demonstration against Indian occupation of Kashmir. The second resolution was passed in September 2010 to condemn the killing of more than a hundred persons, mostly teenage boys and young men, during a wave of pro-azadi rallies that summer.

The resolution passed on 14 March is almost identical with that of September 2010. There are only two changes. First, there is a sentence at the beginning expressing deep concern at the situation created by the hanging of Afzal Guru, but there is no condemnation of the hanging itself. Second, there is a demand that his body be delivered to his family, a demand which has been made also by the NC and PDP.

Yet the reaction of the Indian parliament to the National Assembly’s resolution was furious. Amid some fiery speeches, both houses unanimously passed identical resolutions the very next day rejecting “interference” by Pakistan and calling upon the National Assembly to desist from “such acts of support for extremist and terrorist elements”. The Indian Foreign Ministry followed up by cancelling a hockey series between the two countries set for April and May. India has also put on hold the proposed group tourist visa facility for Pakistani nationals.

There are two explanations for Delhi’s hysterical reaction. Neither of them has anything to do directly with the National Assembly’s resolution.

First, India has been rattled by the depth of the popular anger in Kashmir over the execution and by the scale of the anti-India protests it has unleashed and is clueless how to stamp down on this agitation without triggering more turmoil. In these circumstances, Pakistan provides an easy scapegoat.

Second, the National Assembly resolution was passed while India was still smarting at the killing of two Indian soldiers on the Line of Control last January and only a day after five soldiers of the CRPF were killed in Srinagar in a bomb attack.

Not surprisingly, India immediately blamed “militants from Pakistan” for the “terrorist” attack on the CRPF. Surprisingly, however, our Foreign Ministry also issued a statement on the day of the attack condemning “such actions of terrorism”. The statement also called upon the government of India to carry out a thorough investigation into the incident.

The Foreign Ministry’s statement is amazing for two reasons. First, the CRPF is certainly not on a picnic in Kashmir. We should not pre-judge whether an attack on it is an act of terrorism or a legitimate act of self-defence against Indian state terrorism. It is primarily for the Kashmiris to answer that question.

Second, the call by the Foreign Ministry that India should investigate the incident implies also that Pakistan would accept the results of that investigation. Now that India claims to have found evidence of the LeT’s hand in the attack on the CRPF, the question arises whether we are going to accept the finding.

This is only one instance of the confusion and absence of direction that plagued the India policy of the Zardari government. In her many and long farewell press appearances during her last week in office to tout the achievements of this government, Hina Rabbani Khar fell back on such well-worn phrases as overcoming the “trust deficit”, changing the “mindset” and finding “out-of-the-box” solutions, to describe the policy towards India. But none of these catchphrases can conceal the fact that Pakistan has little to show for the unilateral concessions it has made to India, such as downgrading support for Kashmir, relegating the issue to the backburner and granting MFN status to India.

The chances of the Zardari government making a comeback in the next elections are slim. The problem with the PML-N is that its leader has become fixated on what he sees as the unfulfilled promise of his summit meeting with Vajpayee in of 1999. Ahsan Iqbal, the party’s deputy secretary general, told US journalists last Monday that if the PML-N came into power, it would continue its 1998 policy on relations with India and seek a resolution of bilateral disputes according to the roadmap agreed in the Lahore Declaration.

Nawaz Sharif does not seem to realise that even if there had been no Kargil and no military coup in 1999, there were never any realistic prospects of India making concessions on Kashmir or even on Siachen. Since the US decision in 2005 to make India a global power, those chances have receded even further.

The writer is a former member of the Pakistan Foreign Service. Email: asifezdi@yahoo.com

Asif Ezdi, "The long shadow of Afzal Guru," The News. 2013-03-25.