The execution of Afzal Guru may prove politically beneficial to the Congress in the long run. But in Kashmir its ally, the National Conference will find the going tough. Even as Chief Minister Omar Abdullah was at pains to explain that his government or party had no role in the execution, the dominant feeling among the Kashmiris was that the father (Farooq Abdullah) hanged Maqbool Butt (founder of Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front) and now the son has hanged Afzal Guru. (Butt was hanged in Tihar jail in 1984 when Farooq was chief minister in J&K.) As the news of Afzal's hanging became public, Facebook and Twitter were abuzz with comments, mostly from Kashmiri youth. “India's collective consciousness has been satisfied. Finally!” read one comment, a reference to the Supreme Court judgment against Afzal that said, “the collective conscience of society will be satisfied only if capital punishment is [awarded] to the offender”.
A visibly nervous Omar told the media that he was informed of the decision to execute Afzal only the night before and expressed sadness that Afzal's family was not informed or allowed to meet him before the hanging. As he warned of long-term consequences of the execution, the chief minister demanded that New Delhi should take similar action against Rajiv Gandhi's and Beant Singh's killers, who are in the death row. “Prove that Afzal's case was not a selective decision,” Omar said, in an effort to assuage a seemingly enraged Kashmir. But his words were far from comforting to the Kashmiris.
The opposition People's Democratic Party has already started to corner the National Conference and more so Omar. PDP president Mehbooba Mufti told THE WEEK that Afzal's execution was a case of quid pro quo. Alluding to National Conference worker Haji Mohammad Yusuf's mysterious death in 2011, after he was questioned at the chief minister's office, Mehbooba said, “It is like you help now [Yusuf's death] I will help you later [Afzal's hanging].” A magisterial probe found that Yusuf had died of a heart attack and absolved Omar in the case last December.
The hanging may have far-reaching consequences for the Congress. The party would, however, strengthen its position in Jammu in the Assembly elections in 2014. The National Conference would have to work very hard to erase the impression that it was party to the hanging, which could become a rallying point for the PDP against it. The Congress could rescue the National Conference by forging an alliance with it for the next elections.
Afzal's hanging could, however, boomerang on the Centre. Four years after Indira Gandhi-led Congress government hanged Butt, his supporters launched an armed struggle in Kashmir in which more than one lakh people and 6,000 security personnel perished. A generation of Kashmiris has been raised in the long-drawn-out conflict. Here lies the danger. This generation, unlike those who took up guns in 1989, is well aware of Kashmir's checkered past. They may not take the failed track of militancy, but may react politically and intellectually. They were the mainstay of the previous two separatist agitations in 2008 and 2010 in which more than 200 people were killed.
“We are beyond victimhood now. Emotions are important,” Uzama, a journalism student in Delhi, told THE WEEK. “India cannot hurt us beyond this.”
Insha Malik, a PhD student at Jawaharlal Nehru University, said the timing of Afzal's hanging had a message for the Kashmiris: “They hanged him on February 9, two days before Butt's death anniversary. The whole question of justice has been compromised by the Indian state. We don't trust India anymore. Kashmir will have a different history from now.”
Political commentator Sheikh Showkat Hussain said India hanged two Kashmiris whose party, the JKLF, believed in Gandhism. “It will reinforce alienation and hurt in Kashmir. Remember this hanging has come in the wake of two major separatist agitations in Kashmir in 2008 and 2010,” he said.
Psychologist Towseef Rizvi said Afzal's hanging would have serious psychological effects. “It has reinforced humiliation,” she said. “People judge you by your deeds. And this case is very serious.”
The execution has shrunk political space for the moderates. Already Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, considered a moderate, has reached out to hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani. That may have been a stunt by Mirwaiz, but the radicals in Kashmir will be strengthened for sure. “We have been in talks with New Delhi, but now we feel betrayed,” said a moderate separatist leader. “All this talk of talks with India seems useless now.”