Liberal space shrinks, Bhat spectre looms

New Delhi, Feb. 9: Naeem Akhtar daren't go on television today.

As spokesperson for Kashmir's main Opposition, the People's Democratic Party (PDP), Akhtar is a familiar face and voice on the Valley's tricky socio-political discourse. His last intervention was last week's polite pooh-poohing of the fatwa of the girl-band Praagaash as frivolous and defamatory.

But this morning he begged off live cameras, intensely distressed by the causes and consequences of Afzal Guru's hanging, unable, yet, to get a measure of its future portents. "I don't want to be part of this discourse," he told The Telegraph on phone from Srinagar. "I am wondering if there is even place for me in this discourse, what has happened is a huge setback to voices of reason in Kashmir, it has dramatically narrowed the liberal space."

Almost morose of tone, he added: "I understand a crime and its legal implications, but there are also issues of evidence against a man and the morality of fair trial. Is it not true that mercy too is part of the legal framework of India? Could it be true that in trying to win another election this government may have lost another generation of Kashmiris?"

Sajjad Lone, former separatist who took a leap of faith to join the electoral mainstream in 2009, sounded similarly troubled.

Speaking in the echo of sporadic violence from scattered Valley corners and parts of Doda, Lone said: "This is going to feed into the mindset of alienation and set the clock back. I am not so worried with the immediate fallout, and God forbid if this violence spreads and people die. What worries me more is the long-term impact, this could expand and calcify radical opinion, the ultras will feed on it."

A defiant eruption against stringent Valley-wide curfew had just been stoppered by security forces in Lone's Burzalla-Baghat neighbourhood in Srinagar. An angered crowd had spilled onto the streets, insistent on observing a nimaz-e-janaza gaiebana, or a prayer for the departed in absentia, for Afzal, and they had to be beaten back indoors.

"This worries me," Lone said of the protest. "But my anxieties are really about the future, how this could serve to keep Kashmir a disrupted place."

Both men could well have had the unfading spectre of Maqbool Bhat in mind as they speculated Kashmir's future post Afzal Guru. Bhat was hanged in Tihar jail almost to the date 29 years ago ' on the sleety winter's morning of February 11, 1984 ' convicted of broadly the same crime as Afzal: waging war on the Indian state.

Bhat was already a fabled Kashmiri militant, founder of the National Liberation Front (NLF) and, later of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), who had killed a police officer and then hijacked an Indian Airlines craft to Lahore in 1971. He was fast-tracked to the gallows by distant events he was linked to.

On February 3, 1984, JKLF operatives kidnapped Ravindra Mhatre, a Birmingham-based Indian diplomat, and set ransom demands that included Bhat's release. Mhatre's murder in captivity three days later brought on Bhat's hanging.

Kashmir, though, barely stirred in the immediate aftermath of Bhat's fate. No shutdowns, no protests, no violence. But slowly, Bhat's exploits and his end fed into the militant-separatist narrative of Kashmir, and by the time of the armed insurrection of 1989-90, he had become a blazing icon on the Kashmiri struggle: Shaheed Maqbool Bhat.

Afzal's hanging, many apprehend ' or hope, depending on where they stand ' will become a re-run of the Bhat saga, a new lore for angry folk, a new chapter to their voluminous text of grievances.

"I cannot condone the attack on Parliament and those who conducted it," Lone said. "But I am not convinced this hanging is just. The evidence against Guru was flimsy, he was provided low-quality legal defence, he suffered a media trial and had been held guilty ahead of the judgment. That's the perception of many, and not only in Kashmir. It has become suddenly tougher for me to go out among people and seek votes."

It isn't the Kashmiri Opposition alone, though, that is gripped by foreboding. Omar Abdullah has displayed as much upset and panic as he can afford to as chief minister. He hastened early morning to Srinagar upon being told of the impending hanging last night in Delhi. About the first thing he said on arriving is that his government had not had to sign on the death sentence as Afzal's crime was not registered in Jammu and Kashmir. In short, he had been spared the ignominy and the peril of having Afzal's blood on his government's hands.

Omar is known to have been opposed to the hanging, he argued hard against it with bosses of the UPA, of which he is a part. To the people he governs, Omar has now taken another slap on his face from New Delhi. He made a breast-beating campaign of abrogating the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and failed to extract even an AFSPA-free inch in the Valley as concession. He lobbied to have Afzal's sentence commuted to life and failed.

There are renewed calls for him to "demonstrate solidarity" with his constituency, which he is hard put to answer. "It is time Omar showed some spine and spoke out. Why can he not pull out of the UPA government and show common cause with the sentiments of his people? There is anger over this and it is going to merge with the many other grouses people have, including the lack of electricity in winter months," said a top PDP leader. "He is in free-fall in Kashmiri eyes."

Omar, aides said, does feel locked between a rock and a hard place. "He must feel helpless and trapped in these circumstances," a colleague said on condition of anonymity. "If a chief minister cannot bring to his people what he promised them, how is he to feel? His position has been weakened, and he cannot even afford to complain too much."

Instead, he has been compelled, by the exigencies of circumstance and governance, to impose restrictions on his people rather than relieve them. The clampdown ordered ahead of the hanging was both preventive and pro-active.

In Delhi, leaders of both Hurriyat factions ' Mirwaiz Umer Farooq (moderate) and Syed Ali Shah Geelani (hardline) ' were put in incommunicado detention, their cellphones seized, their movement banned. Geelani complained of pain in the chest shortly after being sealed into his Malaviya Nagar camp address and had to be admitted to a high-end private hospital.

In the Valley itself, the cantonment regime returned to patrol curfew. Outbursts of protest, particularly in Afzal's native village of Doabgah in Sopore, met strong-arm subjugation.

"Repression has resumed everywhere," railed Geelani's press secretary, G.M. Ganai, from Srinagar, "people are being injured, arrested, hunted down, their voices are being muffled, this is a repeat of what we have seen so many times in the past. This is how Indian democracy treats us, are we not even allowed to mourn or protest?"

Kashmir has been through two seasons of surface calm and recovery, two autumns of tourist surfeit, two summers sans violence. Afzal's hanging has forced crossed fingers on whether tranquillity can renew its lease a third time when the Valley emerges from the winter's freeze.

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