A day after the fifth anniversary of Afzal Guru’s hanging in Tihar Jail, there was an audacious attack on a highly fortified Army camp in Sunjwan in Jammu. This had, according to the Army, the hand of Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), a militant organization that has “specialized” in Fidayeen (suicide) attacks since its inception in 2000. The squad that takes the plunge to sneak into Army installations has been named after Guru. Since his death, many attacks have been carried out by the “Afzal Guru Squad”.
Hitting targets on this day is symbolic but the way Afzal has been used as an “inspiration” to lure young Kashmiris to militant ranks merits debate. Though most of those who carry out these attacks have been foreigners in the past, it emerged in the last few years that local Kashmiris have been taking part in them. On December 31 last year, two Kashmiris, Fardeen Khandey and Manzoor Baba, were among two attackers who stormed into the Central Reserve Police Force training center in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district. And the responsibility was taken by JeM.
In Sunjwan camp the attackers inflicted a heavy loss on the Army and among the dead and injured were civilians too, since it housed family quarters as well. It is no coincidence that the attack was launched on February 10, which is sandwiched between two days on which Kashmir shuts down in protest. February 9 is Guru’s death anniversary, February 11 is the day Maqbool Butt, the founder of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, was hanged in 1984. He was also buried in Tihar jail. While Guru was hanged for his role in the December 2001 attack on Parliament, Butt’s hanging was prompted by the murder of Indian diplomat Ravindra Mhatre at the hands of Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front activists.
There was a mild protest at Butt’s hanging in 1984 itself, but his death is believed to be a motivating factor for the large-scale armed rebellion that broke out in Kashmir in the late eighties. The Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front pioneered the armed struggle to “free Jammu and Kashmir from Indian rule”. The outfit was initially supported by Pakistan, which slowly abandoned it for the pro-Pakistan Hizbul Mujahideen and many other outfits. Butt continues to be the undisputed leader of the idea of an independent Kashmir. Those who have worked on the subject believe that he became an inspiration for the revolt in Kashmir. That is why even today, over 30 years after Butt was executed, a shut-down call is given in the valley to commemorate his death, and a grave is still reserved for his mortal remains in Srinagar’s sprawling martyrs graveyard.
Likewise, Guru’s hanging too accentuated the anger in Kashmir against the Indian state. He was number 28 on death row. Plucking him from there to execute him was seen as a deliberate move by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government to push Kashmir to the wall.
Security experts are of the opinion that Guru’s hanging gave an impetus to local militancy, with anger among young Kashmiris spurring them to join militant ranks. This trend accelerated after 2016, when Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani, a Kashmiri, was killed in an encounter with security forces. The numbers speak for themselves. On February 6, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti told the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly that there was a 44% jump in locals joining militancy in 2017 (126) as compared to 2016 (88). According to the data provided in the Assembly, 54 Kashmiri youth joined militancy in 2010, 23 in 2011, 21 in 2012, 16 in 2013, 53 in 2014 and 66 in 2015.
Though in life both Butt and Guru did not get support or recognition, they are being used as “icons” in death
It seems that JeM capitalized on Guru’s hanging and devoted a squad in his name with its first strike on December 5, 2014 that coincided with the demolition of Babri Masjid. Six militants stormed the Mohra camp in Uri and killed 10 soldiers. This was followed by many. Using Afzal’s name might have helped JeM chief Masood Azhar to attract young and potential bombers who were ready to die for “Islam” and “Kashmir”. But his scheme seems to have been working as the squad picked it targets from Tangdhar (near the Line of Control in Kupwara) to Pathankot in Punjab and now Jammu. Earlier, in 2017, it was the Army, paramilitary and police installations in north Kashmir. Azhar himself was exchanged in the Kandahar hijack and soon after his release he broke away from his parent organization, Harkat ul Ansar, and founded JeM.
In the past few years, he has managed to change the complexion of his outfit and recruited local Kashmiris. I remember briefly interacting with Azhar in the Army headquarters in Srinagar in 1994 after his arrest when he introduced himself as a preacher.
Though in life both Butt and Guru did not get support or recognition, they are being used as “icons” in death. Slain Hurriyat leader Abdul Gani Lone, who was then in the mainstream camp was perhaps the lone politician who protested his hanging. According to Azam Inqillabi, the senior-most separatist leader, the Jamaat-e-Islami even expelled one of its senior members from Baramulla for protesting against Butt’s hanging. He was a strong advocate of a secular and independent Jammu and Kashmir that comes in strong conflict with Pakistan’s stated position on Kashmir as also of Islamist militant organisations. But in today’s Kashmir they are seen as the ones who sacrificed their lives for the cause. That is why they are seen as pioneers of the armed struggle even by Lashkar-e-Taiba. In a statement on Friday, the LeT spokesman called them “pioneers of Kashmir’s indigenous freedom struggle”.
Today both names are owned and respected by people in Kashmir. New Delhi rushed to hang these two Kashmiris but they turned out to be more dangerous dead than alive. While a political dialogue to resolve Kashmir has been stalled, the Government of India has itself created a situation where people such as Butt and Afzal have become an inspiration for the armed struggle rather than a political solution.
Continuous denials that this is political and avoiding a political approach in turn has compounded the problem and the result is that local militancy has grown and its complexion from foreign and local has reversed in the last five years. Even as whole India virtually celebrated Guru’s hanging, but he continues to be seen as a victim who paid the price for being a Kashmiri Muslim.
The writer is a senior journalist based in Srinagar (Kashmir) and can be reached at email@example.com