Three young men have died during violent clashes in Kashmir organized against the hanging of Mohammad Afzal Guru in Delhi's Tihar jail on February 9th, soon after India’s President Pranab Mukherjee rejected his clemency plea.
On Monday, a 12-year-old boy died in a hospital in Watergam village, near Guru's hometown Sopore, from injuries caused by tear gas shells and bullets used by police to disperse an angry crowd. This tragic incident followed the death of two other young men, who drowned in a river on Sunday, while trying to escape police during a demonstration in the village of Sumbal. Apart from the three deaths, 30 other people were wounded in clashes with government forces, while around 45 police and paramilitary soldiers were also injured.
Guru, a Kashmiri Muslim, had been placed on the death row in 2002 for allegedly being involved in organizing an attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001, when five militants stormed inside the official building, killing a gardener and eight policemen before being themselves shot dead by security forces. The Indian Supreme Court sentenced Guru to death for preparing weapons for the attackers and for being a member of the Jaish-e-Mohammed militant group. Guru denied both allegations. His family, who had not been informed about the decision to execute him, has rejected the Indian government's offer to visit his grave in the Delhi jail.
Reactions to Guru’s hanging remain divided. Many in India, including politicians from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS), have not only applauded the decision, but questioned why his execution had taken so long. In turn, other politicians, such as Kashmir's Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, have also strongly criticized Guru's execution, by emphasizing that it would deepen the sense of frustration and alienation in India's only Muslim-majority state. Similarly, human rights activists, such as Gautam Navlakha, have contested the fairness of Guru’s trial and called into question the death penalty in general. In an interview, Navlakha emphasized: “We are against the death penalty. It has been our demand since day one that the capital punishment should be abolished in India. In a way, the decision to hang Afzal Guru, I think, is a ‘judicial murder.” He further stated: “When you don’t allow a person a fair trial and a chance to defend himself, you are being unfair.”
Fearing a backlash in Kashmir, which for the past two decades has been struggling for independence, Indian authorities have imposed a strict curfew. Its harshness also stems from an effort to prevent widespread protests to commemorate the 29th death anniversary of Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front’s founder Mohammad Maqbool Bhat, usually marked by large rallies held on February 11th. Sentenced to death for killing a police officer, Bhat was hanged in 1984 in the same Delhi jail as Guru.
In addition to the curfew, cable television, mobile and internet services have been blocked in most parts of Kashmir, while authorities have banned travel to Guru’s hometown of Sopore after separatist groups announced their intention to march there to commemorate his death. Only today did the Indian authorities relax the curfew in certain parts of Kashmir, so that residents could buy food and other supplies. In some towns, people were allowed to be outside their homes for only two hours. At the same time, local journalists have had a difficult time in reporting the situation, given that they were not granted special curfew passes. In fact, most of the around 60 regional newspapers remained closed until today, when they started publishing again.
Kashmir is claimed by both India and Pakistan, which has led to constant tensions over the last 60 years and sparked two wars between the two neighboring countries in 1965 and 1971. The anger stirred by Guru’s hanging has raised concerns that Kashmir might once again descend into violence after two years of relative stability and determine separatist politicians and militants to intensify their calls for the region’s independence. On Monday, during the funeral procession for the two young men who drowned, thousands of participants shouted slogans such as: "We want freedom,” while, in Pakistan, around 1,500 activists from various political groups, including the main ruling Pakistan People's Party, also took to the streets to demonstrate against Guru’s execution.