Afzal Guru appeared in the Facebook profile pictures of thousands of Kashmiris the day he was hanged. It was one more addition to the burgeoning memory of trauma and humiliation. His hanging had a precedent. When Maqbool Bhat, founder of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, was hanged in 1984, I was nine years old. Not much happened that could have registered in my long-term memory. There was no curfew. Not even a strike. It was only on his first death anniversary that a few, largely insignificant demonstrations were organised.
In a staunchly pro-Pakistan mohalla of old Srinagar where I was born, my childhood friend’s father owned a garment shop. A black and white photograph of my friend hung on a wall of the shop. On the lower corner of the photo, my friend’s father had pasted Maqbool Bhat’s mugshot he had cut out from an Urdu daily. The litho print of the newspaper lent the photograph an ancient aura. It went on to become one of the iconic images of the Kashmiri revolt against India.
Years later, I asked him what made his father, a warm-blooded Pakistan supporter, keep a picture of this fiercely independent Kashmiri nationalist who sought independence for Kashmir as much from Pakistan as from India. On an ideological plane, it was like perpetually carrying an opponent and his vision on your shirtsleeve. My friend replied that perhaps his father did not like to make a distinction when it came to supporting pro-freedom people.
Three years later, Kashmiris opted for democratic means to overthrow a government they perceived had sold out to New Delhi. Pushed to the edge, 50,000 of its young men took up arms two years later (nearly 15,000 of them have died), necessitating the formation of an exclusive force, Rashtriya Rifles (RR), about 80,000 soldiers, the size of armies of many big nations, to counter this revolt. The RR men are still out there, in orchards, schools, offices.
When Afzal Guru was hanged at 8 am, the sleeping Valley had already been under curfew, executed by nearly half a million soldiers, paramilitary troopers and policemen. While the “collective conscience of the nation” had been satiated, another heavy load was added to the collective memory of the brutalised valley. A BJP leader said Kashmir of 1984 was not the Kashmir of 2013. Of course not. This time, a government riding on the success of 72 per cent voting and the arrival of a million tourists appeared more frightened and unconfident than in 1984.
Even though my friend has long left that old Srinagar mohalla, he still has a picture of Maqbool Bhat on the wall of his house. His five-year-old son had already begun to ask who Maqbool Bhat was. The child will now ask who Afzal Guru was. Several years from now, when he grows up and the memory of being shut up for seven days will come haunting, his protest might not just be a change of his Facebook profile picture. It may be something more concrete: a stone, or a gun.