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Umong Sethi

Feb 11, 2013

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Afzal Guru Execution: Perspectives and Trends Ahead

Execution of Afzal Guru has been a matter of both debate and speculation.  It is only natural considering perceived vacillation on part of the government in finally deciding the case, differing views expressed by various political formulations and sections of the intelligentsia as well as secrecy that shrouded the execution itself. On the one hand, the argument dwelt on human aspects of next of kin not being given an opportunity to meet Afzal Guru before the hanging. On the other, there was a talk of sense of closure for those who survived the security staff martyred protecting the Parliament. The secrecy maintained prior to the hanging and restrictions imposed in J&K underpins the reality that it is likely to impact Kashmir. Estimation of impact of this episode both in the short and long term calls for some analysis and is being covered in detail herein.

Perception and the impact of events overtime under goes vast change. The current case is instructive; time has paled the gravity and import of the attack on Indian democracy in December 2002.The immense indignation as well humiliation caused by the attack on Indian Parliament almost took India and Pakistan to the brink of war has not been reflected as intensely in the present discourse. Time casts influence on philosophy and opinions in a moderating way. While it may be imperative not to lose the perspective while taking a stance on the future course of action, it would be prudent to do so without being constrained and overtly influenced by the past.

The timing of the execution of the death sentence has been debated. Without getting into the politics of the issue, it can be said that the timing has been very appropriate. The situation in the valley has been publicized as being the best in almost two decades. There has been considerable choking of funds to the terror outfits by way of initiatives taken by the Union Government leading to drop in number of active terrorists. The Panchayats elected with overwhelming mandate have ushered in grass-root democracy albeit not without imperfections. Panchayats were perceived as a threat to the separatist movement because they actually eroded their mass base. The people at the grass root are making an attempt to move on in life away from the slogans and so called ‘aspirational politics’ advocated by the separatists.

The attempts by terror groups to disrupt functioning of Panchayats by coercing Sarpanches to resign has been stemmed by adopting a return to the strategy of effective visible domination of the rural areas by the Army.  2012 saw a massive increase in the number of tourists visiting the State. It is reported that a total of 95, 19,710 tourists including 54,460 foreigners visited J&K. This has boosted not only the economy but has enhanced interaction between the State and rest of the country. The Police and the CRPF having been provided non-lethal weapons now exude confidence of tackling any agitation. The separatist leadership has not had many successes with agitational politics in the recent past and find it increasingly challenging to project Pakistan as a reliable ally and supporter due to prevailing internal situation within Pakistan.The main stream parties had made impressive gains by a series of measures like the Panchayat elections and initiatives to make the youth employable etc. The ruling political alliance has papered over differences and the incumbent Chief Minister has been assured of full term in office.

For the first time emotional connect between the youth of the Valley and rest of the country was witnessed in the aftermath of ‘Delhi gang rape’ and ostracising of all girls band in Kashmir by way of issue of ‘fatwa’ by the Grand Mufti of Kashmir. With number of Kashmiri youth studying and working in various parts of the country this connect has ushered in both moderation in attitudes of all and somewhat strengthened ‘the bond’.    The present youth have grown up in the shadow of the gun and appreciate the new found somewhat freedom from fear born out of reduction in visibility of the SF. The all-girls band ‘Pargaash’ was in a way also perceived a threat because they personified the desire to break-free from the persecution syndrome repetitively hammered down by the Separatist leadership.

The fairness of the judicial process has been somewhat marred by the way execution was handled. Had the next of kin been allowed to meet the accused one last time, it would have made the argument undisputable. Omar Abdullah’s comment that a country that could fool the world by concealing the nuclear explosion could not have pulled this one off holds water.

From the newspaper reports it appears that the shaping of the environment had commenced from December onwards. It would be reasonable to assume that necessary precautions and ‘sounding off’ would have been done.The possible fallout of the hanging seems to have been assessed by the governments both at the Centre and the State and precautionary measures taken by way of imposing certain restrictions for the time being. Once the restrictions ease, there is likely to be protests in towns along the National Highway. These could be either spontaneous or incited by inimical elements within the Valley to gain lost ground. Efforts are likely to be made to turn protest violent. This will be a test for the Police and the CRPF. The challenge will be to prevent a vicious cycle of violent protest being contended by lethal weapons resulting in killings and these leading to more protests and more killings as was witnessed during 2010 agitations. Hopefully, lessons have been learnt and the situation will be handled with great sensitivity and care. The Police and the CRPF though equipped with non-lethal accouterments and trained to handle such contingencies, have however, not been subjected to any major test since 2010. This time their handling will have great bearing on the long term impact of Afzal Guru’s hanging. This time around, unlike the earlier protests the inimical elements do not hold all the cards. Much work has been done by the SF in reaching out to the youth. An insight has been gained into the psychology of agitation and the role of social media and SMSs in coordinating violence. The Police are likely to be better prepared to respond and create conditions for the leadership to influence situation. The reduced ability of the terrorists to impel violence is also restricted.

However, if the situation gets out of control and spiral of violence and casualties sets in the situation can turn ugly. From the signs that are visible by way of press reports carrying views of the Chief Minister and the Leader of the opposition in the State, it is apparent that they are concerned of the possibilities of negative fallout. The Political leadership will have to show statesmanship and sagacity to pre-empt escalation. In fact, to some observers, it is the manifestation yet again of the oft repeated game by the local leadership to raise concerns to seek a bargain from the center. The Central Government on its part will have to make political moves to strengthen the hands of the local leadership. For starters, the short-term imperative of not letting the situation in the valley to get out of control should be given the fullest attention. An all of Government approach to get on top of the situation by synchronizing actions of various organs of the state should be adopted. The onus of tackling the political fallout should be shared by local and national political leadership across the political spectrum. This will require some doing.  Direct communication with the youth of the valley to explain the rationale of the decision and fairness of the trial would prove valuable. A well-conceived and efficiently executed perception management initiative would be critical for the success in the short term.

The deed is now done. An argument has been put forth by some quarters that the execution will increase the alienation of the valley. The argument is of course based on the past experiences. The current case is the only one in which the accused has been convicted for a crime not directly related to the so called ‘Kashmir Cause’. What is required is to ensure that that the short-term effects are contained by handling the inevitable protests that will erupt once the restrictions ease out. If the short-term issues are handled well the long term effects are likely to be minimal. Depending upon the situation, allowing Afzal Guru’s mortal remains to be sent to the family could be considered. The consequences could be limited by reaching an understanding. Long-term political fallout will demand political sagacity in taking some visible concrete political initiatives. In any case they should have come as the next logical step in any case.

Major General (Retd) Umong Sethi is a distinguished veteran of the Indian Army with very wide exposure and experience in Jammu and Kashmir for the past four decades.

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