A peace process gone missing

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.

The fact that all the national political parties have welcomed the hanging indicates that somehow we have segued into a society that believes death is the only fitting punishment for heinous crimes. And yet, we are also a society in which heinous crimes are committed daily. Are we then a nation of blood and vengeance, as some suggest? That too is debatable, given that less than 20 per cent of Indians called for war against Pakistan following the Mumbai 26/11 attacks, in public polls conducted some weeks later.

Instead of playing to the less than 20 per cent who call for vengeance, we need to consider the 80 per cent who might prefer a peace based on prevention. Thankfully, incidents of terrorism have declined sharply in the past five years. While improved security mechanisms, and especially intelligence, can take much credit for this decline, the Muslim community's fatwas against terrorism, the government's focus on economy and opportunity and the public uniting against crimes of corruption and sexual violence, have all played a part.

J&K was moving in unusual sync with these developments in 2011-12. As the protests and clampdown indicate, the state has now suffered a setback. This brings me to my second point. The government can sit it out and hope the protests end within a few days. But is there a plan to prevent the longer-term impact from taking place?

As the 2010 tragedies showed, there are many who seek to exacerbate trouble in J&K, both across the border and within. This hanging gives them an opportunity to do so. Having now committed the deed, what can the government do to ensure the opportunity withers straightaway?

First and foremost, a publicly visible and credible peace process is essential. While Pakistan has shown some reluctance to engage with India over the past six to nine months, and this has had its own negative impact on J&K, it is also the case that we have seen a peace process vacuum over the past year. In the wake of Afzal Guru's hanging, this vacuum will cost us dearly, unless it is filled as a priority.

Second, a joint parliamentary delegation to J&K began the de-escalation of tensions in the autumn of 2010. The same delegation ought to have met annually, at the very least, to monitor progress and suggest further steps. Parliament will soon be in session again. Members of the joint parliamentary delegation could help government re-launch a visible, credible and sustained peace process, one that is geared towards a lasting resolution and not short-term management.

Third, all political parties need to unite with the government to show that they do not distinguish between types of terrorism or terrorists. The BJP, in particular, should desist from its current strategy on segregating right-wing extremism. We mourn the dead of the Samjhauta Express as much as we mourn the dead of the Parliament attack and Mumbai. And may I add, since the court has categorised the attack on Parliament as amongst the most heinous of heinous crimes, will parliamentarians live up to their institution by ceasing to paralyse it?

The writer is director-general, Delhi Policy Group. She was a member of the Group of Interlocutors for Jammu and Kashmir, appointed by the Central government

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