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Haunted by dad’s sign, Omar clears air

Srinagar, Feb. 9: Chief minister Omar Abdullah today took pains to washed his hands of Afzal Guru’s execution and said the death warrant was not signed by his government.

Omar also took care to draw a distinction with the death warrant of J&K Liberation Front (JKLF) founder Mohammad Maqbool Bhat, the chief minister unwittingly betraying fears that he is bracing for a fallout that followed the execution nearly three decades ago.

Bhat, on the death row for eight years, was hanged on February 11, 1984, in Tihar jail for killing an intelligence officer. His petition for clemency was rejected after JKLF members — seeking Bhat’s release — abducted and later murdered Indian diplomat Ravinder Mahatra in England.

Afzal became the second Kashmiri to hang today and apparently by sheer coincidence only two days before the 29th death anniversary of Bhat — a date marked by a shutdown every year.

Separatists blame Omar’s father Farooq Abdullah partly for Bhat’s death as he signed his death warrant and Omar today had to address a media conference to say that he had no role this time.

“It is important at this point of time that I clarify that unlike in the case of the execution of Maqbool Bhat, there was no case against Afzal Guru in Jammu and Kashmir. The state government was not required to sign the warrant of execution or death warrant against Afzal Guru in this matter,” Omar said.

“The state government has been repeatedly and constantly making concerns known to government of India about the possible ramifications and fallout of the execution of Guru,” he added.

Separatist and some mainstream political parties have long been cautioning that Afzal’s death, like that of Bhat, could trigger another bout of unrest in Kashmir. In 2006, Farooq, while in Opposition, reportedly told a television channel that “India can go up in flames” if Afzal was hanged, although only last year he said that Afzal should “pay a price for waging a war” with the country.

Kashmir was peaceful when Bhat was hanged. Over two decades of “freedom struggle” headed by Kashmir’s “tallest leader” Sheikh Abdullah had ended years earlier. In 1975, Sheikh, a peacenik, was given the reins of the government. The armed struggle had few takers here, although a handful of men like Bhat were keen on such a course.

Former militant commanders recalled how Bhat’s execution became a rallying point for militants, some four to five years after his death. “His death was certainly not the trigger (for militancy) but many of us later saw him as our hero, the father of our freedom struggle,” a former militant commander said.

Unlike today, the authorities had no need to impose a curfew in the Valley in 1984. “I am sure many people might have been saddened by his hanging but there was no shutdown. When some days later, Abdul Ghani Lone (then a mainstream leader) called for a shutdown, only a few people heeded his call. His anniversaries continued to be ignored for some more years,” he said.

But Bhat’s colleagues based in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, including Amanullah Khan, Raja Muzaffar, Farooq Haider, Rasheed Hasrat and others, strove hard to start the armed insurgency here.

“It was they (the JKLF leaders who favour an independent Kashmir) who agreed to take Pakistan’s help to start militancy here. It was how gun was introduced here,” the former militant commander said.

“Several youths who picked up guns (in 1988), including Ishfaq Majeed, Yaseen Malik, Abdul Hameed Shiekh and others, were staunch supporters of Pakistan, despite being part of the JKLF. But coming to know about Bhat and for other reasons, they became die-hard supporters of Azaadi cause,” he said.

By 1989, hundreds had gone across to take up arms and Bhat began to be viewed as “father” of Kashmir’s separatist struggle.

A former police officer said there had been worries that Afzal’s death might motivate some youths to take up arms. “It has always been the fear. I don’t think there are immediate fears but the situation as you know is changing in Afghanistan and there are already fears that militancy may again raise its head here. The Afzal factor may help them,” the officer said.

In 1988, Pakistan was bolstered by the success of Afghan resistance against Russia, after which the neighbour began concentrating on Kashmir. There are fears in security agencies here that forces in Pakistan may again stoke trouble in Kashmir.