Remembering the martyr of Kashmir


By: Syed Zafar Mehdi

His son Ghalib was barely two when Mohammad Afzal Guroo was picked up by the sleuths of Delhi Police from a bus terminal in Srinagar Kashmir as ‘prime’ accused in the Indian Parliament attack case, two days after the attack took place on December 13, 2001.

He had no inkling that his doting father had been implicated in a high-profile case of terrorism that was to change his and his family’s life forever. He was too little to understand the nitty-gritty of criminal laws, the art of hounding and persecuting innocents and making them pawns in utterly sinister games.

India was shaken and stunned. L K Advani, the then Home Minister of India, termed it an attack on the ‘sovereignty’ of India. Suspicion, as is the norm with mandarins in South Block, was pointed at shadowy forces across the border. Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan was called back in protest. Troops were dispatched to the border. Dogs of war on national television went into tizzy. A full-scale armed confrontation between the estranged neighours looked imminent. Even the possibility of a nuclear war could not be ruled out.


Amid all the perfunctory frenzy and wild speculations, Delhi Police was engaged in some serious business. Within no time, they zeroed in on the suspects. The four people were paraded before the agitated, breathless reporters of Indian media, and all of them Kashmiris. Kashmiris, in this part of the world, make for incredibly good scapegoats.

The ‘suspects’ became ‘dreaded terrorists’ even before the trail kicked off. The equation had conveniently tilted in favour of vengeful State and its collaborators. It was no more the question of innocent-until-proven-guilty, rather the other way round.

Besides Afzal Guroo, his cousin Shaukat Guroo, Shaukat’s wife Afshan Guroo, and Delhi University lecturer SAR Geelani were also arrested. Those who knew Afzal at a personal level were in utter disbelief. His family was shocked, even shattered. The foot soldiers of extremist right-wing outfits like Bajrang Dal, RSS, and Shiv Sena took to streets and demanded death to the ‘terrorists’.

Even before the trail commenced, Indian news channels were holding their own parallel trials in air-conditioned studios and pronouncing verdicts against those who they accused of ‘plotting terror against the greatest symbol of the largest democracy’.

Trial court sentenced Afzal, Geelani and Shaukat to death, while Afshan got five years of rigorous imprisonment. The High Court subsequently acquitted Geelani and Afshan, but upheld the death penalty of Afzal and Shaukat. Geelani’s acquittal, who was initially introduced as the ‘mastermind of attack’, blew a cavernous hole in the prosecution’s version.

Supreme Court came to the rescue of Shaukat, reducing his punishment to 10 years of rigorous imprisonment. Afzal, however, got no reprieve. He was served three life sentences and a double death sentence. In its order, the court said, “the collective conscience of society will be satisfied if the death sentence is given to the offender’. The court, however, observed that his involvement in the attack on Indian parliament could not be established ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. It was wholly based on circumstantial evidence, rather any direct evidence.

While his wife Afshan was exempted of all charges and acquitted, Shaukat Guroo’s sentence was relaxed. SAR Geelani was acquitted by Supreme Court. All three of them were represented by eminent lawyers. However, for Geelani, the ‘trail’ wasn’t over yet. His crime was perhaps that he was a bearded Muslim, a Kashmiri and an Arabic teacher. After failing to indict him in court, they wanted an out-of-court cold-blooded settlement with him.

He was attacked by the hired goons soon after his acquittal, outside his lawyer’s residence on the night of February 2008, 2005. Not less than five bullets pierced his torso. Displaying an exceptional fighter’s spirit, he crawled his way to hospital and survived to tell the tale.

While Geelani was battling for his life on a hospital bed, Afzal was waiting to embrace gallows inside jail.

He refused to seek presidential pardon, since he was not sure about his crime. His wife Tabassum Guroo filed a petition for clemency on his behalf. She, along with Guroo’s son and mother, even went to meet the then President of India APJ Kalam.

In her appeal for justice, she explained how Afzal was falsely implicated in the case by notorious Special Task Force in Kashmir. “You will think that Afzal must be involved in some militant activities, which is why the security forces were torturing him to extract information. But you must understand the situation in Kashmir, every man, woman and child has some information on the movement, even if they are not involved. By making people into informers, they turn brother against brother, wife against husband and children against parents. Afzal wanted to live quietly with his family but the STF would not allow him.”

The questions that remained unanswered even after his death are: Was it actually a case of ‘rarest of rare crimes’ that warrant capital punishment? Was the due process of law followed? Did he get a fair and just trail? Was he a dreaded terrorist or merely a pawn in a sinister game?

Afzal Guroo was sent to gallows on this day last year to ‘satisfy the collective conscience of society’. Death penalty is doled out only in ‘rarest of rare’ crimes, where crime is established beyond any iota of doubt, after a fair trial in accordance to the due process of law and international standards of human rights. But, not in this case. Guru’s death penalty violated Supreme Court’s own guidelines, which say that capital punishment should be awarded in ‘rarest of rare crimes’.

There were a lot of loopholes in the prosecution’s version about Afzal’s involvement in the case. Death sentence is doled out to accused only after strictest observance of free trail. Did he get a free trail? He was denied worthwhile legal assistance at trail court – a crucial stage where evidences are produced and examined, which later become basis for court’s verdict against the accused. Right to legal protection is an inherent right. It is clearly enshrined in UN Declaration of Human Rights. Constitution of India also entitles a citizen with right to be defended in court of law.

Prosecution had accused him for being a “facilitator”, and not directly involved in the crime. Its case stood wholly on “circumstantial evidence”, for which death penalty becomes grossly disproportionate. As his lawyer in High Court was to say later, his case rested on two grave infirmities. First was the media trail, which rendered doing justice impossible, and second was trail court, which had denied him a lawyer.

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Afzal’s case was based on unsubstantiated charges and fabricated evidence put together by investigating agencies. As per his own admission, Special task force personnel ruthlessly tormented him in Kashmir. Confessions were extracted from him under duress, after he was tortured and his family was threatened of dire consequences. In a letter to his lawyer from Tihar Jail, Afzal wrote in 2004, “Throughout the trial, I remained mute and helpless spectator as witnesses, police and even judge all became a single force against me. I remained bewildered and confused between the security and safety of myself and my family. I protected and saved my family. That is how I am lying in death row.”

The notorious Special cell of Delhi Police used media to brand him a ‘terrorist’, even before trail commenced. He was forced to confess his ‘imaginary’ crime before media. It followed the media trail in a rather brazen manner, including a film broadcasted on Zee TV, apparently previewed and approved by the then P.M Atal Bihari Vajpaaye himself. It was one of the prime factors in prejudicing the outcome of the trail.

Delhi High court acknowledged that investigating agencies had fabricated evidence against him, yet it went ahead to uphold the “unfair” verdict against him. Supreme Court admitted that his direct association with any terrorist outfit couldn’t be proved beyond reasonable doubt. His case did not meet international standards of a fair trial. Taking all the serious loopholes into account, it violated Article 7, 10, 14, 17 of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Before staging a judicial murder in a secretive manner, the State did not even deem it important to inform his family. It feared the public backlash, but the protests erupted anyway. Then, they cited jail manual to refuse the request of Guroo’s family to return his corpse for proper burial in Kashmir.

As activist and author Arundathi Roy wrote in her Outlook essay few years back, he was not the dragon, he was only dragon’s footprint, and if dragon’s footprint is made to ‘become extinct’, we will never know who the dragon was”.

Today, his son Ghalib is 15 years old. He has grown up fast. He knows life better now. He is a proud son of a martyr. Today, Afzal Guroo has become a symbol of resistance for new-generation freedom-lovers in Kashmir. He has become a rallying point. His martyrdom has infused a fresh lease of life in the movement against Indian occupation and repression in Kashmir.

It is sickening to see many pseudo-liberals in India now beating their chests and shedding crocodile tears over the miscarriage of justice. Their sudden change of heart is more preposterous than the frenzied celebrations of the blood-hungry right-wing fanatics. There have been reports in Indian press suggesting that he was ‘Indian nationalist’ who was ‘wronged by law’, and who wanted to ‘rid country of corruption’.

Guroo was a man of principles. He had strong principled political stand on Kashmir. It was evident when he turned down the offer of Ram Jethmalani to plead his case, who had put some conditions before him. The conditions put by the lawyer, who also defended co-accused SAR Geelani in the same case, were against the principles and political ideology of Guroo. He was unequivocal about Kashmir being a ‘disputed’ region, and not the ‘integral part’ or ‘jugular vein’ of any other outside entity. He was a staunch freedom-lover like any one of us. If that is a crime that warrants capital punishment, then we all deserve to be hanged and buried in Tihar jail.

Today, on his first death anniversary, Kashmir is under curfew, and I am far away from home. There is internet blockade, and various other arm-twisting methods are being used to crush the spirit of young Kashmiris who want to register their protest against the secretive, vengeful hanging of this martyr. But, nothing can beat this spirit, not even death.

A stone epitaph on his empty grave in Srinagar’s main martyr’s graveyard, right next to the empty grave of the founding father of Kashmir’ independence movement Maqbool Bhat, who was executed in the same jail 29 years ago, shines bright. The epitaph reads, “The martyr of the nation, whose mortal remains are lying in the custody of the Government of India. The nation is awaiting its return.”

I do not hate people, nor do I encroach. But if I become hungry, the usurper’s flesh will be my food. Beware… Beware… of my hunger, and my anger! ~ Mahmoud Darwish (Palestinian poet and author; 1941-2008)


About Zafar Mehdi
Maverick journalist, irreverent rebel, travel freak, cricket junkie, reluctant fundamentalist, student of life, dreamer, believer.

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