With every passing day, the UPA government’s schizophrenic mindset in addressing the issues surrounding the hanging of Afzal Guru, the convicted facilitator of the 2001 attack on Parliament, is showing up in its inability to take charge of the political narrative in Kashmir, with potentially grave consequences for the troubled State.
The latest move of the Central government to block 55 Facebook pages that evidently valorise Afzal Guru and call for “avenging” his death is a manifestation of the cowardliness that has characterised the government’s every action, and its own lack of political conviction about hanging Guru.
As this report notes, on the same day that the Department of Telecom issued a notice directing Internet Service Providers to block web pages with content relating to the Indian Institute of Planning and Management (IIPM), the government also issued notice to block 55 Facebook pages on Guru. That notice, the report adds, was not made public by the DoT.
That shows up pusillanimity on two counts. It’s bad enough when a private institution such as IIPM, which deservedly gets a bad press for the manner in which it has played the business education game, gets courts to block adverse reports against it. But it’s doubly bad when the state invokes its powers and resorts to kneejerk blocking of online content. Resort to censorship and bans is the surest sign that you’re losing the debate, and with this weak-kneed move, the government has merely validated its utter lack of imagination in setting the tone for the political discourse on Kashmir.
The sneaky manner in which it operationalised the blocking of the Facebook pages on Guru is entirely of a piece with the way it has dealt with every aspect of his hanging – from the secrecy surrounding the President’s rejection of his mercy petition to the manner in which it delayed informing Guru’s family of the date of the hanging, and cynically invoked jail manual rules to bury his body in Tihar jail on the ground that no claim had been made on it by his family (how could they when they didn’t know of his hanging until after the event).
Even those who don’t quite oppose the death penalty have reason to feel queasy about the optics of the government’s handling of the hanging. All of these details, taken together, show up a government that, for all the time that it had over the years since Guru was sentenced to death, took that final decision without adequate application of mind on its many ramifications – or preparing for them . It reinforces the suspicion that the decision was motivated purely to project an image that, contrary to Opposition criticism of it, the government was not soft in handling terrorism.
But having surrendered to that impulse to project a muscular image of itself, the schizoid UPA government is resorting to sneaky skulduggery – on everything from handling Guru’s family’s request for handover of his body to, now, blocking online content that valorises him.
If the government really has the courage of conviction that it did the right thing by hanging Afzal Guru, it can influence the narrative in Kashmir by presenting its side of the matter, rather than blocking social media sites. In fact, for all the sense of silent resentment that Guru’s hanging has engendered in the Kashmir valley, the government has a persuasive case to make: that Guru, who was once a victim of the Pakistan-sponsored false narrative in Kashmir, saw up-close the cynical “money-making” business that underlies the militant movement, and walked away from it. He was given a second shot at a normal life, but blew that by slipping back – on his own admission – into the orbit of Pakistani mischief and collaborated and facilitated the attack on Parliament.
If it had applied its mind strategically in the run-up to Guru’s hanging, it could have, as Dileep Padgaonkar (who was one of the government-appointed interlocutors on Jammu and Kashmir) argues here, converted the crisis into an opportunity to re-engage with the people of the State. It could have, for instance, initiated an effort similar to the one in 2010, when after a violent summer in the Valley, an all-party delegation visited Srinagar and applied balm to Kashmir’s bruised soul.
Additionally, and more substantively, follow-up action on the recommendations of the Group of Interlocutors (of which Padgaonkar was a member) could have been initiated. Many of them are easily implementable, even if the more sensitive ones require a bit more deliberation.
The government could also have signalled a willingness to deliberate on the long-pending demands, from the people of Kashmir (and other conflict zones), for a review of the provisions of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. Without prejudice to the difficult conditions in which armed forces operate in border areas and conflict zones, the demand for a review of AFSPA has acquired resonance even in the middle ground of public opinion: even the Justice JS Verma committee that went into the Delhi gang-rape case recommended its review and possible repeal. Given the difficulty that the Army faces in fighting insurgency in areas where the people feel alienated from the state owing to their experience of living under AFSPA, it is in the Army’s own interest to begin to acknowledge the disaffection that such draconian provisions cause.
The government did none of this: in fact, since the hanging, it has withdrawn into itself, a victim of its own schizophrenia that inhibits it from doing anything on any front. It has thus allowed a vacuum to build up in the political discourse, which the separatists and hardliners have been quick to fill - with demands for the return of Guru’s body, and to revive the armed militancy to “avenge” his death. And with unimaginative rearguard action, the government is now looking to block social media platforms when instead it should be challenging the hardline narrative.
It is still not too late for the government to get its act together. For the moment, however, it has lost the plot on Kashmir, and risks squandering the wages of relative normalcy that has prevailed in the State for the past three years.