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Afzal Guru's hanging

After two quiet summers, season of discontent

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NEW WORRIES: Afzal Guru's hanging hasn't gone down too well in the Valley but the biggest fear is its effect on the Kashmiri youth.

The mishandling of his execution has earned Afzal Guru a place in the Kashmiri heart as a symbol of all that is wrong with the way New Delhi looks at the Valley.

It took just 48 hours for Afzal Guru, sentenced to death as the "mastermind" in the 2001 terror attack on Parliament, to be catapulted into the same bracket as Maqbool Bhat, revered as the icon of the separatist movement in Kashmir. Two days after he was executed in shabby secrecy in Delhi's Tihar Jail, denied a last wish and a final goodbye to his family, Guru was given the pride of place in Srinagar's martyrs' graveyard in downtown Iddgah. They dug a grave for him, if his remains ever reach the Valley, right next to Bhat's empty one which has been awaiting his body for 23 years after his execution, also in Tihar Jail. The epitaph on the two tombstones was the same, except for the name and date. Afzal Guru, small-time businessman, surrendered militant and suspected police informer, had become a martyr for the Kashmir cause.

If the Manmohan Singh government in its wisdom thought that Guru's execution would hardly create a ripple in the Valley, it could not have been more wrong. There are few outward signs of trouble at present (only three persons have died in protests so far) but then, in Kashmir, anger simmers never far from the surface and it doesn't take much to spark off a conflagration.

After two peaceful summers following a season of discontent in 2010 when stone pelters took over the Valley in large-scale protests, Kashmir is bracing for renewed violence when the snow melts later this year. And no less a person than former chief minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, patron of the People's Democratic Party, expressed this concern. "I hope it doesn't consume another generation of Kashmiri youth but one cannot wish away the apprehension, " he said, condemning the manner in which the execution was carried out.

With Guru being compared to Bhat, it is only natural that the Valley should apprehend a fresh upsurge of militancy. Commentators and analysts trace the history of militancy back to Bhat's execution in 1984. They believe that the hanging was the flashpoint although it took two years for the phenomenon to appear with the first bath of Kashmiri youths crossing over to Pakistan for training in 1986. The anti-India mood spiralled out of control following a blatantly rigged election in 1987 and by the 1990s, militancy had taken root in the Valley.

"Today, the youth are more aggressive and more impatient, " warns former RAW chief and Kashmir expert A S Dulat. "I will be very surprised if they let this (execution) pass without a reaction. I hope it doesn't happen but if we keep provoking the Kashmiris like this, we have to be prepared for a reaction. "

Analysts are unanimous that Guru's hanging has gone down very badly in the Valley. "There is acute anger and huge disappointment with the way Delhi has behaved, " points out Dulat.

Indeed, commentators in Srinagar are shocked by the central government's total disregard for Kashmiri sensitivities. They draw parallels with the Rajiv Gandhi and Beant Singh assassinations. In both cases, the killers were given enough leeway to file fresh appeals in court against their execution, even after the President had rejected their mercy petitions, because of concerns about the political fallout in the states of Tamil Nadu and Punjab. But Union home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde hinted at a certain implacability in the government's determination to hang Guru. He said the rejection of Guru's mercy petition had to be kept secret so that he could not go to court to stay his execution like the killers of Rajiv Gandhi and Beant Singh have done.

"It is difficult to shake off the feeling that there were political considerations behind the decision, " said Gul Mohd Wani, political science professor in the University of Kashmir. "Many people here believe that it was done for partisan reasons. " He hesitated to say more but others who spoke on the condition of anonymity saw a direct link between the decision to go ahead with the execution and BJP leader Narendra Modi's rise in national politics after his third comprehensive victory in Gujarat.

According to Wani, Guru's hanging has had a telling impact on the psyche of the average Kashmiri. "People are introspecting very seriously on the past, present and future of Kashmir. They are asking if Kashmir fits at all into the agenda of political parties in India. The sense of victimhood and alienation is back. Things were changing here after the panchayat elections but the execution has undone all the confidence-building measures that were initiated, " he says.

It is ironic that a party which is in coalition with Omar Abdullah's National Conference government in Jammu and Kashmir and a government that had appointed high-profile interlocutors to suggest solutions after the 2010 stone-pelting violence should turn its back so completely on the Valley and its people. There is obviously a belated recognition in the government it may have grievously miscalculated the post-execution fallout in Kashmir. But few commentators are ready to buy damage-control reports about Prime Minister Manmohan Singh pulling up Shinde for the mishandling of the execution and the shoddy treatment meted out to Guru's family. It is too late to turn back the clock with post-facto sentiments.

There are those who are keeping their fingers crossed that the Valley will stay peaceful. They feel that violence has taken its toll and Kashmiris are now a tired lot. They also believe that the turmoil in Pakistan is a big damper and the anti-India forces across the border are now too weak to sponsor trouble in Kashmir.

The summer months will tell us whether the optimists are right or the pessimists. But one thing is clear. From being a virtual unknown, Afzal Guru has earned himself a place in the Kashmiri heart as a symbol of all that is wrong with the way New Delhi looks at the Valley.

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