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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 9, February 16, 2013

Importance of Listening to Afzal’s Story

Monday 18 February 2013, by Nandita Haksar


Afzal Guru was hanged on February 9, 2013, two days before the death anniversary of Maqbool Bhatt which is celebrated as Martrys’ Day in Kashmir. Both the Kashmiri men are now buried in unmarked graves in Tihar Jail, the biggest jail in South and South-East Asia.

I remember reading about Maqbool Bhatt’s hanging in the newspapers in 1984; I was then already a human rights lawyer but I had not understood the political significance of the hanging and like most patriotic Indians had not given a thought to the man who had died that day. I had thought of Maqbool Bhatt as a threat to my country and with his death I felt a little safer.

However, now thirty years later I have felt the death of Afzal as a personal loss. When I was woken up in the morning of the 9th by a phone call by a journalist asking my reaction to the hanging my stomach turned and I felt sudden nausea. I could not give the media bytes and “phonos”. Words failed me and all my thoughts were with Ghalib, Afzal’s son. He was six years old when I had walked into the Rashtrapati Bhawan with him and his mother and grandmother. They wanted to give a mercy petition to the President of India.

That was in October 2006, the first time a death warrant had been sent for Afzal.
The President had patiently heard Afzal’s wife’s appeal. She told him that she had found her son with a rope around his neck. When she asked Ghalib what he was doing he said he was just trying to imagine how much pain his father would have to feel when he was hanged. Now Ghalib would be a teenager. He will live with memories of visiting the jail to see his father, especially on Rakhi, the only day of the year that he could touch his father; feel the warmth of his embrace.

Afzal was a deeply caring person; that is why he had wanted to become a doctor. He even joined the MBBS course and finished the first year when he was caught in the tumultuous events in Kashmir of the late 1980s and 1990. The Kashmiri youth was fed up with the false political promises, rigged elections and weak leaders. They took to arms and went across to Pakistan to get training. Thousands of Kashmiri youth, fired with idealism, crossed the border, leaving the comfort of their homes and throwing their dreams of secure futures in middle-class jobs to the winds.

These young men and women were inspired by Maqbool Bhatt’s vision of a free Kashmir. There were many songs that fuelled their idealism. One song by Naaz Barelvi especially was a source of inspiration; so much so that the government banned the song. Obviously, governments have not learnt that banning songs makes their appeal even more. The first two lines of the song go like this:

Pyaari Maa mujhko teri dua chahiye
Bus shahaadart mile mujhko Kashmir mai aur kya chahiye?
(Dear mother I want your blessing
That I get martyred for Kashmir, what else could I want?)

The emotion of the song moved Afzal but he did not want to be a martyr. He wanted to live and save lives from disease and pain. He also wanted to see Ghalib grow up. Afzal was also inspired by a film called Lion of the Desert. He like others of his generation he saw the film many times. The story was about a school teacher who fights for the liberation of his country and is hanged. It could have been the story of Sheikh Abdullah, even though he was not hanged. The film too was banned but the youth crowded in small rooms and watched the videos and continued to dream of liberating Kashmir.

Afzal had gone with stars in his eyes but they died one by one and he came back from Pakistan deeply disillusioned. So deep was his disenchantment with Pakistan that he surrendered in 1993-94. The life of a surrendered militant in Kashmir is not easy. From being a hero of the movement he was derided. But Afzal decided to pick up the broken threads of his life; he got married to Tabassum and they had a son.
The intelligence agencies wanted Afzal to become an informer; this was a job that Afzal was not willing to do. He was a disillusioned Kashmiri nationalist, not a traitor to his cause. The intelligence picked him up, tried to break his will by brutal torture. But Afzal did not break. His wife sold all her jewellery to get money for his release and they decided to leave for Delhi where they thought they would be safer.
This was the time that he became a pawn in the hands of the agencies involved in the diabolical plan to attack the Indian Parliament. And he landed in Tihar Jail accused of being involved in the conspiracy to attack the Indian Parliament.
I saw Afzal in Patiala House and was moved by his quiet dignity. I saw that he alone was not represented by any lawyer. He had given the names of four lawyers but they had all refused to take up the case. The refusal was partly fear of defending a terrorist and facing the stigma both in the courts and at home; partly because they would have to commit themselves to being involved in a criminal trial which promised to consume a lot of time without any monetary compensation. Afzal’s family was too poor to afford to engage a lawyer.

It was only after Afzal was condemned to death and the conviction was confirmed by both the Delhi High Court and Supreme Court that I became involved with Afzal’s case. He sent a letter through Tabassum requesting me to help him and I helped to draft the mercy applications both by him and Tabassum.

Afzal would not sign the mercy petition without first reading it. He said he would take a week to go through it and then he suggested some changes and I incorporated them and sent them back. Afzal filed the petition through the jail, as per the procedures.

There were several unseemly controversies over the lack of fair trial for Afzal; in some even I was not spared. I told Afzal once: “Because of you I am attacked.”
And he replied with a smile and a twinkle in his eye: “If you take up my case you have to be prepared to face such controversies.”

Whenever we met we discussed political issues. On one occasion we were having a particularly animated political discussion when I realised that there was silence all around and everyone in the Jail Superintendent’s room was looking at us, the lawyers and their clients. They were surprised that it was possible to have a conversation with the top “terrorist” in the country.

My involvement with the defence of the accused in the Parliament attack case had given me rare insights into the history of Kahsmir and also of India. I wanted to share these with my fellow Indians and I poured out my heart and soul into my book which I called Framing Geelani, Hanging Afzal: Patriotism in the Time of Terror. It was published in 2007. I presented the book to Afzal and he said he was very moved by it and had written a 14 page letter but the person he gave it to did not give it to me. The book got glowing reviews in Jamaat e Islami publications but was totally ignored by the national media. It was voted as the best book of the year by Dawn of Pakistan but the ISI stopped an Urdu weekly in the UK from giving it a good review. My publisher said the distributors had told him that the bookshops were refusing to keep my book.

Then the mercy petition filed by Afzal was published, called The Afzal Petition. No one wanted to quote it, with the honourable exception of the Frontline which carried a review.

And now after Afzal was hanged the TV channels debated on various aspects of the hanging but still Afzal’s story was lost. No, not quite. There were many people in India who may not know Afzal but they were deeply concerned that death penalty was being used as a weapon in petty politics; they had realised that all is not well with our criminal justice system and even the Supreme Court has come under scrutiny. The question is: is this a reflection of maturing of Indian democracy or the breaking down of all institutions?

If we want to understand the strengths and faultlines of our democracy it is important we listen to Afzal’s story and the stories of others like him who are disillusioned with Indian democracy. Listen to the stories like a friend, without being judgmental. Listen, because in part it is a story about our country and ourselves. But more than anything else listen to the stories for you may make unexpected friends, like I did. *

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