New Delhi, Feb. 10: At four this morning, a police posse pulled up at a printing facility in Shalteng on Srinagar’s outskirts and confiscated hot-minted copies of Kashmir Images, one among a fair crop of the Valley’s English dailies.
There was nothing incendiary or provocative about the newspaper’s treatment of the day’s front page; it had led with a value-neutral headline: ‘Guru Hanged, Buried at Tihar’.
Yet, like all its competition, the newspaper was prohibited from getting to readers.
But that was probably the mildest of many curtailments decreed in the wake of Afzal’s speed-march to the gallows.
Panicked proscriptions have extended far beyond the media, mainstream or social. Truth to tell, there exists no formal ban or censorship, merely a polite advisory to media houses from the neighbourhood cop-station: it will be in your best interest not to publish for a few days, why waste resources, who will go about hawking your dailies in this curfew?
Telecommunication has been severely curtailed, cable-television has been allowed in windows preferential to government, all civilian transport has been banished off the streets, curfew is a regime extended to the doorsteps of homes.
From the air, the Valley might look like a de-peopled paradise trussed in concertina spools and khaki pickets marshalled to contain sentiment that will trespass the most formidable arrangements.
Kashmir’s civilian-security establishment stands taken by severe fright that Afzal’s unmarked Tihar grave could become the staging post of a new resurrection of mass upsurge. Semblances between Afzal’s creed and fate, and Maqbool Bhat’s, are already the febrile hubbub of the Valley, an angered cloud afloat above prohibitions on the ground.
What the state apprehends, the street is promising. “Afzal’s hanging is a cruel reminder that India will not treat Kashmiris any better,” said a prominent human rights activist who would not be named for fear of being slaked by the current simmer. “And the repression that has followed only confirms to us we cannot hope for any better. I cannot risk betting that what followed Maqbool Bhat’s hanging (the armed insurrection of 1989-90) will not be repeated after Guru. In fact, thanks to improved technology, the sense of hatred and vengefulness is deeper today, especially among the youth who are much better informed and connected. This is the eve of a very ominous time.”
By dint of the chair he occupies, chief minister Omar Abdullah must finesse his reaction with care and circumspection, but events he had no part in have driven him to consonance with those foretelling omens.
“Afzal Guru’s execution will breed alienation in the Valley,” he told CNN-IBN in Srinagar today. “Generations of Kashmiris will identify with him.”
His father Farooq Abdullah suffered dismissal, and worse, in the months and years following his signature on Maqbool Bhat’s death warrant in early 1984. Omar has been spared the obligations of the dotted line, but he is keenly, and frightfully, sensed of the perils another controversial execution of a Kashmiri protagonist can unlock.
“I never underestimate how bad things can get here,” he said, almost as if preparing himself for the worst.
Omar has come to understand, bitterly over the years, that Kashmir’s chief executive operates with one hand tied behind his back and the other restrained by any number of forces beginning with the compulsions of coalition politics to exigencies of managing a permanently indignant and averse constituency.
The army stymied his wish to give his people a realm free of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), even though there was a time Union home minister P. Chidambaram joined forces with him and pushed for it.
Red tape and bureaucrat foot-dragging have ensured he hasn’t lived up to his promise to abrogate cases against Kashmiri youngsters caught up in stone-pelting and other forms of violence. Neither have many of them been set free, as he had once vowed to do.
Afzal’s hanging, against Omar’s counsel and pleading, appears to have pushed the chief minister’s frustration so close to the gills he found it necessary to vent. “You (meaning India) will have to prove to the world that the death penalty is not used selectively,” he said today, adding a personalised lament to his political grumble. “I find it very difficult to reconcile the fact that we executed a man without his family members seeing him one last time… there must be something wrong in the system if we are sending information through speed-post in this era…. I wish we were the ones authorised to give the news to the family.”
For all his misgivings and foreboding, Omar has had to work that tied-up hand of his overtime, imposing a restriction regime that hasn’t been brought down on the Valley in a while.
It cannot be he is unaware of the Catch-22 he is having to operate under: he cannot allow free run to irate sentiment, and yet the more he curbs it, the more he might be inflaming it.
That it worked palpably ham-handed today made it no better. Cable television was suddenly resumed for a while today while Omar sat for back-to-back television interviews at his high-security Gupkar Road villa. Soon after they had been relayed, the cable switch went off again.
“This happens nowhere,” complained Naeem Akhtar, spokesman of the PDP, whose party boss, Mehbooba Mufti, finished her own round of interviews early evening. “Not even in the worst dictatorships would you find such fine-tuned and precise censorship. Omar is allowed to speak, nobody else is, that is outrageous to say the least.”
Basheer Manzar, the editor of Kashmir Images whose piled copies had been seized, had another facet to put on the hazards of an information blackout.
“The danger of such censorship cannot be overstated,” he said. “When information is stifled and a gag put on facts, rumours prosper. We are in an extremely fragile moment once again and the slightest spark, however untrue or inspired, can light fires. If what has transpired is due judicial process in Indian democracy, why such suppression in Kashmir? We are, of course, used to this in Kashmir but repeating it does not make it right. Is censorship and suppression that great gift of Indian democracy to us?”