A peace process gone missing
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On the day Afzal Guru was given the death penalty, TV talk shows were abuzz about whether the decision was political. Their assumption, clearly, was that it should not be. I accept the government's position that it was not. My point is that it should have been.
The politics most anchors have referred to are basic. Indeed, it is absurd to claim that the decision to hang was taken with elections in view, or to silence the BJP's disingenuous clamour over right-wing extremism. The larger political question is whether, and in what ways, the government factored in the impact that Afzal Guru's hanging was likely to have in Jammu and Kashmir. This question has different dimensions: first, how to handle the inevitable protests; second, how to deal with the longer term, and equally predictable, consequences.
The preventive steps the government took indicate that they were aware there would be protests. If so, they must have considered whether a clampdown would help. Certainly, they have plenty of evidence on how it has been counter-productive in all but the immediate term, both from the 1990s and from 2010-11. My conclusion is that they decided there was no other strategy — in other words, they made the decision first and then decided how best to mitigate its impact in J&K.
We can only speculate on what impact this decision would have had, had it been executed in the backdrop of a full-fledged peace process. It would most likely have caused a severe setback to talks with the Hurriyat and allied groups. More likely, though, the decision would not have been taken if there had been a full-fledged peace process, in order to avert a setback. Instead, Afzal Guru would have spent the rest of his life in jail.
For a man in his 30s, to spend 50 or more years on death row, is a considerable punishment. David Headley, whose crimes are similar to the ones Afzal was convicted for — perhaps even more heinous, given that he planned several terrorist attacks — was given 35 years under a plea bargain. Afzal gave the same type of information that Headley gave, without a plea bargain.