SRINAGAR: In the backdrop of the unprecedented police crackdown in the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), it is quite a challenging task for anyone to write a piece on right to free speech iIiiiand student activism from a heavily militarised region which a delegation of the European Union once referred to as a “beautiful prison”; where spaces for intellectual debate and democratic dissent stand choked; a complete ban exists on student union politics in all academic institutions since the last two-and-a-half decades, and protesters are often fired upon on either head or chest without much regret over the loss of human lives.

Yes, Kashmir.

What prompts me though to write this piece on the JNU row is because of an obvious Kashmir connection. Whatever happened inside the JNU campus and in the aftermath of solidarity marches in Delhi and Jadavpur University in West Bengal raises serious questions about free speech and the right to dissent in a supposedly democratic set-up.

Simultaneously, the relentless protests from the student community also hint towards a visible change in India. A change that the sections of India’s young brigade have chosen to speak up against all kinds of atrocities without relying on what the TRP-driven corporate media feeds to them on a daily basis.

It is no secret that major sections of India’s corporate media are brought up on a certain diet of anti-Pakistan and anti-Kashmir rhetoric, but the manner in which some liberal and saner voices in the Indian media have risen to the occasion also offers a lot of hope.

The disproportionate use of state power makes one ponder over the project of Indianisation unleashed by the BJP, which believes in a nation devoid of diversity and differing viewpoints.

On Afzal Guru’s third death anniversary, a group of students in JNU had organised a meeting that seems to have been based on the questions that have been raised several times before, about why Afzal Guru was hung without being allowed to his family, and the fact that the then government did not return his mortal remains to his family. It is a question that all mainstream political parties, even media and others have asked with the hanging, of course becoming a huge emotive issue in Kashmir.

So why this overreaction by the Delhi police? Why the kangaroo-style media trial to declare people guilty without giving them a chance to defend themselves? Why this media frenzy? Why dub young students as “terrorist sympathisers”, “anti-nationals” and a threat to India’s sovereignty, integrity and national security?

Is it seditious to hold debates on death penalty in the 21st century?

Is it seditious in modern India that aspires to be a world leader to ask whether a person got a fair trial or not?

Is it seditious to demand the mortal remains of Afzal Guru and Maqbool Butt? Also can a law enacted by the British be used to stifle and criminalise dissent?

Let me briefly talk through the Kashmir connection with the JNU crisis.

Shehla Rashid, vice president of the JNUSU, is a Kashmiri girl from downtown Srinagar who after studying engineering in Srinagar got involved in social activism and campaigns related to gender sensitivity. Known for her views on gender issues, Shehla Rashid is seen as an orator who raises her voice against social inequality, the widening gap between the rich and poor, caste system, gender inequality, etc.

Secondly, the second man arrested on charges of sedition after Kanhaiya Kumar, president of the JNUSU, is Delhi University’s former lecturer, SAR Geelani. He is also a Kashmiri and was acquitted of all charges by the Supreme Court of India in connection with the Parliament attack case. This time, the accusation against Geelani is that he organised a programme on Guru and Butt in Delhi’s Press Club.

What does Kashmir think about the Delhi Police crackdown on students and the alleged harassment of Kashmiri students in New Delhi and elsewhere?

Major sections of the people in Kashmir — including politicians, academics, journalists, lawyers, entrepreneurs and students — have been closely monitoring the JNU controversy, the police crackdown on student community, assault on journalists and Kanhaiya Kumar inside the Patiala House Court at by a group of lawyers considered close to the ruling BJP, etc.

Also, many tech-savvy Kashmiris active on social media spaces are giving a vent to their feelings by commenting on the latest developments on Facebook and Twitter. They are also keenly following the primetime television debates.

While Afzal Guru may be a figure to loathe for many Indians as a Parliament attack ‘convict’, he remains a ‘hero’ for most Kashmiris.

There is a reason.

Before Afzal Guru, the founder of pro-independence Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front Maqbool Butt was hanged inside Tihar jail on February 11, 1984. His mortal remains were denied to Butt’s family.

Twenty nine years later, Afzal Guru was secretly hanged till death in Tihar. His mortal remains were denied to his family as well. Both incidents fed into the narrative of injustice, with the insensitive handling by the governments of the day making permanent martyrs of both Guru and Butt in the Valley.

Kashmir religiously observes complete shutdowns on the death anniversaries of Guru and Butt (Feb 9, and Feb 11), each year. Protest and solidarity rallies are held in which the people demand that the mortal remains of both be returned to their families. This is a regular fixture.

Guru was hanged when the United Progressive Alliance (UPA-II) was in power and it wanted to send a strong message to the voters that the Congress was not soft-pedalling on “terror”. Guru,many believe, was hanged to counter the BJP’s anti-Congress campaign and allegations that Congress was soft on terror.

Meanwhile, even the pro-India political parties in Kashmir have made such demands on the floor of the J&K Legislative Assembly. Mehbooba Mufti led Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) had also taken a stand on the issue by terming Guru’s hanging as “miscarriage of justice” while MLA Langate and chief of the Awami Ittehad Party reiterates his stand that Guru’s hanging was a “judicial murder”.

It is equally important to know what the prominent human rights defenders, noted lawyers and people who had inside information about Guru’s case, clemency appeals and hanging.

Nandita Haksar, distinguished HR lawyer and author, in her book ‘The Many Faces of Kashmiri Nationalism’ gives a detailed account of how Guru was treated inside the notorious torture centres and jails, and how he was made a ‘victim’.

“After all, in order to understand Afzal’s story, one would have to practically know the history of insurgency and counterinsurgency in Kashmir. And history cannot be presented as evidence in a court of law. Afzal was a victim of history,” Haksar writes.

She further argues that a police officer, DSP Davinder Singh, ordered Guru to confess to being in touch with militants and havingweapons. When Guru denied possessing any weapons, the author says that “he was stripped naked and put in freezing water and given electric shocks.”

“…Afzal was forcibly made to drink water and given electric shocks for three hours by an inspector called Shanti Singh, while the officer[DSP Davinder Singh] watched. Petrol was poured into his anus and chillies stuffed into it and he was kept in that state the whole day,”

And Gautam Navlakha, another prominent HR defender and activist, has also said on record that “when you don’t allow a person a fair trial and a chance to defend himself, you are actually being unfair. In a way, it was a judicial murder.”

It is important to encourage spaces for debate and dissent and resist all temptations of distributing ‘anti-national’ certificates. There can be no one view.