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Face the ghost of Afzal Guru when you #StandwithJNU




There has been too much of commotion around. Too much of anger, too much of betrayal, too much of love. Perhaps now is not the right time to make a point. Several points have already been made. How about a little point about a man who is dead, the man who started it all? I want to make a point about Afzal Guru.

Here is Macbeth in Act 3 Scene 4, sitting at the dinner table, asking: “Which of you have done this?”, when he sees Banquo’s ghost. Now, this is the same question the Indian government is asking: “Which of you have done this?” The answer for now: Kanhaiya Kumar. A better answer is trending: Umar Khalid. This ghost is the ghost of Afzal Guru. Again, too much of commotion on who this Afzal Guru is.

A good theatre actor in Shakespeare’s Globe requires a loud voice. Arnob Goswami certainly has a gifted voice for the Globe theatre. The only problem is that he, by some sure lack of judgement, is inside a newsroom called Times Now. He is playing the role of the angry nationalist to perfection. Angry nationalists have the clearest answers, so he can help us here: Afzal Guru is a terrorist. Full stop. Ishan, Lenin, and Umar are wrong: for them, Afzal Guru is central to what they sometimes call “culture” or sometimes call “freedom of expression”.

Surely, this is absurd. This is too dramatic for my taste. So who do we hear? I need to rest my ears and eyes after I have known for certain what the nation wants to know. How about we listen to Afzal Guru himself? In an interview with Vinod K Jose almost a decade ago, he tells us who he is:

Afzal as a young, enthusiastic, intelligent, idealistic young man. Afzal, a Kashmiri influenced, like many thousands in the Kashmir Valley, in the political climate of early 1990s. Who was a JKLF member and crossed over to the other side of Kashmir,but in a matter of weeks got disillusioned and came back and tried to live a normal life, but was never allowed to do so by the security agencies, who inordinate times picked him up, tortured the pulp out of him, electrocuted, frozen in cold water, dipped in petrol, smoked in chillies you name it. And falsely implicated in a case, with no lawyer, no fair trial, finally condemned to death. The lies the police told was propagated by you in media. And that perhaps created what the Supreme Court referred to as “collective conscience of the nation”. And to satisfy that “collective conscience”, I’m condemned to death. That is the Mohammad Afzal you are meeting.

I like Guru’s self portrait, not only because he is clear in his choice of words, but because he seems calm even in moments when he shouldn’t be. “Afzal narrated the torture details with a disturbing calmness on his face”, says his interviewer Jose. Maybe this is because the “collective conscience of the nation” had already known what they wanted to know about him when he gave this interview. The verdict was out: he was in fact a terrorist. Macbeth killed Banquo. The collective conscience killed Guru. But there is a problem with such people: they come back to our conscience like a bad memory even after they are dead. So this is what the nation effectively wants to know: how can we deal with the ghost of Afzal Guru?Kanhaiya Shillong

There is a simple solution: forget him. Even upholders of Freedom of Expression of strong condemnation of Kanhaiya Kumar, or have verged on distancing from the cultural evening remembering Guru. The Vice Chancellor of JNU has called it the work of “‘fringe sections’ who ‘misused’ the freedom.” Sania Hashmi’s passionate plea too makes a point about the incident in question:

As someone who was present at Sabarmati Dhaba on the 9th of February when the alleged incident took place, let me assure you that not one student from JNU was part of the anti-India sloganeering. If you would even look closely at the video that is being        circulated, you will only see a group of Kashmiri students from across Delhi who had formed a circle in the centre of the gathering, not one of whom was from JNU. If would believe me even for a second, would you not consider it a legitimate concern as to what this crackdown   on JNU’s famously democratic space is all about?

Legitimate questions, and we are all shocked and appalled by the arbitrary nature of the sedition charge on Kumar. But consider this: how would we have reacted had the police filed sedition charges on this “group of Kashmiri students”. Hashmi is exasperated at the sheer illogicality of Kumar’s arrest. We all are. But would the sedition charge validate itself if they were slapped against the Kashmiri students? Of course, I’m writing this just a few days after two civilians were killed in Kashmir’s Pulwana district after government forced opened fire on protestors. Meanwhile, Kanhaiya Kumar’s passionate speech on nationalism has resurfaced. Every defence of the incident is an attempt to prove how nationalist you really are. So, are these Kashmiri students, by default, not nationalist enough? And if they are not, should they, at least, be apologetic?

No. If JNU stands with their President, they will also have to stand with Kashmir, with Umar Khalid – the organiser of the February 9th event. In brief, they will have to face the ghost of Afzal Guru if they truly want to be considered a democratic space. If you wish to #StandWithJNU, #StandWithAllofJNU. I know you are with Kanhaiya Kumar, but are you with Umar Khalid as well? If standing with the former is easier because his passionate speech on nationalism has resurfaced, is it more difficult to stand with Umar because an event around the self-determination of Kashmir is not exactly national? Worse, rumours of his links with the Jaish–e–Mohammed is spreading like wildfire in the television media. Or maybe it’ll be easier to manage some solidarity with him because there are others rumours of a possible BJP–PDP alliance in Jammu and Kashmir which is keeping the Delhi police from arresting all Kashmiri students in the capital?


Cut–to another scene. 14th February. JNU. Administrative Block. Like always, it is slightly colder than the rest of Delhi. Shehla Rashid – the Vice President of the JNUSU, who was underground for three days – addresses the crowd of almost three thousand students, faculty members, media, and supporters. She delivers a remarkable speech. But I am drawn to a rather innocuous moment in her otherwise fiery speech: “These people are against us because they do not want us to have subsidised education; they do not want a Muslim woman to be a part of the students’ union”.

Shehla Rashid is a Kashmiri. I first met her in person when she made some time for an interview. She came directly from the #OccupyUGC protest site and we offered her something to eat. I had met her first in the video of police lathicharge; all her limbs were held by four policewomen and she was being dragged across the road. To my surprise, she was very quiet in our office. Visibly tired, she stared at the ceiling, let out a deep sigh and began to look at different parts of her hands and limbs. “They hit me here, here, and here”, she said, pointing out the bruises. “God, I’m so tired.” Her face was stoic. There was no glimpse of anger or resentment. It seemed she just wanted to fall asleep. At one point, we also spoke about Kashmir. I explained how my maiden visit to Kashmir University for a seminar on Agha Shahid Ali, remained cancelled because of bad weather. “Yes, it’s very beautiful”, she smiled, but didn’t seem too interested in carrying the conversation forward.

For me, to relate to the two Shehla Rashids was deeply disturbing – one screaming in the video, dragged by the police on YouTube; another, quietly recounting the experience retrospectively. Now, she is someone else. She is completely in charge of the assembled crowd, informing them of the next course of action. She is without a microphone, but the entire congregation is hushed; they are listening attentively to the sheer force of her bare voice. It is a moment of complete solidarity; it is a solidarity that can be felt; it is a kind of solidarity that pricks your skin like the evening dew.

But let me go back to that statement: “They do not want a Muslim woman to be a part of the students’ union”. It is important because it can help us analyse how identities can be used in popular discourses. She is not just a good orator, she is also a clever orator. She uses her identity in a certain moment, in a particular way. We would like to believe that a Kashmiri Muslim woman inside the students’ union is a progressive step. It makes us take pride in our nation. This discourse will certainly not be seditious; in fact, it is nationalist. But does this talk about Kashmir or Muslims in any way that is intent on arriving at a political solution for Kashmir? No.


Here comes Umar Khalid and the organisation he belongs to – the Democratic Students’ Union (DSU) – who organised the event commemorating Afzal Guru’s the 9th. He comes as a rupture, he takes a faded blot and makes it prominent, so prominent that it hurts our eyes too much. This time, he has done the worst. He has called for an event which commemorates the death anniversary of Afzal Guru. He wants to bring Guru back to our “collective conscience”, and we react like Macbeth, asking desperately, “Which of you have done this?”

The reaction to Kanhaiya Kumar’s protest has brought the dent out of our progressive, radical spaces as well. Each of these protests and statements have completely sidelined the question of Kashmir. In fact, quite surprisingly, the majority of the protesters inside JNU treat 9th February as an embarrassment caused by a “fringe group”. A solidarity statement from teachers of 40 central universities said the same: it is an act of indiscipline and not sedition. Are we not seeing a glaring mistake made by the progressives here? How can any event that speaks of Kashmiri self–determination in a conclusive way be an act of indiscipline? This has spread even to the rallies organised by student communities in other cities in solidarity. Let us read a rather apologetic Press Statement by the organisers of the Torch Rally in Jadavpur University in Calcutta,

However, a section of media is trying to portray today’s rally as a ‘pro-Afzal’ one. This press statement univocally condemns this mal-effort of the media as the sole purpose of the rally was to condemn the police crackdown at JNU. There may be possibility of ‘anti-India’ sloganeering by some fringe elements in the gathering. But, we want to declare that these slogans don’t depict the spirit of the rally at all. If any such incident happened in the gathering violating the common minimum program of the rally, we strongly condemn that.

This shows the amount of tokenism that the progressive sections feel on the issue of Kashmir. The university came into the spotlight last year after they successfully campaigned against police action inside the campus over a case of sexual assault, eventually forcing the Vice Chancellor to step down. Isn’t it shocking that such a radical space would feel apologetic over pro–azaadi slogans? Even our progressive voices have come of think of the freedom of speech through the lowest common denominator. Forget about being outraged, we seem to accept the self–censorship towards Kashmir, Is this the case elsewhere? SA Aiyar writes,

In Canada, the Parti Québécois has long demanded independence for Quebec province, and this is treated not as sedition but a legitimate democratic demand. In Spain, the state of Catalonia has long had powerful secessionist parties, which in the 2015 state election won 47.8 per cent of the vote. The Spanish government strongly opposes Catalan independence, but doesn’t jail dissenters. France does not jail Corsican secessionists. The list goes on and on. Free societies do not jail non-violent secessionists. India does. And that raises the question whether India wants to be a free society. And if not, why not.

Khalid_2749527f (1)Umar Khalid calls for easy profiling as an “anti–national”, but he proves difficult even then. He is born into a Muslim family, but is an atheist; he is not a Kashmiri, but is from Nagpur. In a crucial aspectof his speech, he uses a strategy that is the opposite of Rashid’s: he refuses to be identified as a Muslim. It is not just a question of being a Muslim or not being one, but a larger challenge to identity that has been so central to the voting in India. It is interesting that his stand finds a resonance in Rohith Vemula’s suicide letter:

The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of star dust. In every field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living.

This is distance from the “immediate identity” is a crucial leap for the manner in which identities operate in Indian politics. It makes the case for an identity of the “mind”. This identity is fluid, not a simplistic formulation of identity that we have been associated with so far in Indian politics.

So what do we do with Umar Khalid? Since all our efforts at profiling Kanhaiya as an “anti–national” have failed, we can shift our “collective conscience” to him. So we hear his father on television:

A student who has spent his entire life for his country, how can you call him nati–national?   For someone who has spent all his time talking about dalits, and is currently pursuing a PhD on tribals, how can you call him a terrorist?

The anchor asks, but what about the slogans? Slogans – an act of speech, a performance of language. Our collective conscience cannot accept certain kinds of speeches. We love to hear Shehla Rashid’s assimilation into the mainstream. We love to hear Kanhaiya’s passionate speech on nationalism. They bode well with our conscience. But we can’t hear Afzal Guru. We can’t hear azaadi. We become like Macbeth, dishevelled, mad, asking everyone, “Which of you have done this?”


Finally, a word about Afzal Guru. Words by Afzal Guru:

With the meagre income, I even bought a scooter and also got married. But never a day passed by without the scare of Rashtriya Rifles and STF men harassing me. If there was a militant attack somewhere in Kashmir, they would round up civilians, torture them to pulp. The situation was even worse for a surrendered militant like me. They detained us for several weeks, and threatened to implicate in false cases and we were let free only if we paid huge bribes. Many times I had to go through this. Major Ram Mohan Roy of 22 Rashtriya Rifles gave electric shock to my private parts. Many times I was made to clean their toilets and sweep their camps. Once, I had to bribe the security men with all that I had to escape from the Humhama STF torture camp. DSP Vinay Gupta and DSP Davinder Singh supervised the torture. One of their torture experts, Inspector Shanti Singh, electrocuted me for three hours until I agreed to pay Rs 1 lakh as bribe. My wife sold her jewelry and for the remaining amount, they sold my scooter.

This disturbs me. I want to ask who DSP Vinay Gupta and DSP Davinder Singh: “Which of you have done this?” but there is a tall order here. It’s much easier for our collective conscience to forget this completely, treat it as if it hasn’t happened at all. Guru’s interviewee too, we are told, wants to forget this:

Afzal narrated the torture details with a disturbing calmness on his face. He seemed to have lot of details to tell me about the torture he faced. But, unable to hear the horror stories of security forces that operate with my tax money, I cut him short and asked . . .

I can empathise with him. When Rashid showed me her bruises, I was afraid. There was something deeply disturbing about her calmness. I want to ask every police officer standing at the UGC site who hit so many students and researchers: “Which of you have done this?”


I did not want to write this at all when I began writing this piece. On 17th February, I was present for the protest in solidarity with JNU at the Faculty of Arts. As it got over, a member of the ABVP grabbed my kurta and said “Bharat mata ki jai bol” (Say all hail Bharat Mata!). The police intervened but he didn’t let go of me immediately. He kept saying “Bharat mata ki jai bol”. Perhaps now the time has come when we will be accosted like this for what we think and what we do. Perhaps the day is not far away when the government will asks journalists, “Which of you have written this?” But perhaps, we will also say, that we have written this. And we will continue to write this because we believe Kashmir deserves a fair amount of debate. And we do not quite mind that you don’t find us to be nationalists.

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