Five years after Afzal Guru’s hanging in New Delhi’s Tihar Jail, Kashmir Narrator gathers previously unpublished details about his life and events leading to his execution
By Bilal Handoo
At the dawn of 9 February 2013, as he was escorted out of his cell in the ‘high-risk’ ward of Tihar’s jail 3, Mohammad Afzal Guru knew the day had come. “Kya warrant aagaya hai, Sir,” (Has the death warrant arrived), he asked prison officials, who only nodded their heads.
Afzal took a bath and offered his final namaz. His last wish to call home turned down, Afzal made another request: “Can I, at least, speak to Tariq Ahmed Dar?”
Dar, a successful marketing executive for Johnson and Johnson in Kashmir, had been jailed at Tihar after he was arrested on 10 November 2005 on charges of funding the October 2005 Delhi serial blasts. After 55 days of ruthless torture at the hands of Delhi police’s Special Cell, Dar’s Tihar ordeal had begun. He was terribly disturbed, until a smuggled letter was delivered to him inside a police jeep taking him for a court hearing, some 15 days after his jail arrival.
“I consider you a part of my body,” the letter read. “So I understand the pain you’ve gone through. Do not consider yourself alone. I’m with you.” Dar’s eyes lit up as he read the name of the sender at the bottom of the letter — Mohammad Afzal Guru.
Dar lives in Solina, a quintessential Srinagar neighbourhood, shadowed by a military installation. As he speaks of the 12 years he spent in Tihar (five of them with Guru), Dar is full of reverence for “the sensational” man from Sopore who made the nerve-jangling period in his life bearable.
“When I received his letter, I thought here was someone who I can look up to in my testing times in Tihar,” Dar, now a greying man in his late 40s, recalls. “That letter gave me hope and courage.”
Guru and Dar would both read each other’s letters in their respective cells where sunlight would hardly enter. On most of the issues — Kashmir’s azadi movement, Pakistan, Hurriyat, the Muslim world, and others — they would often find themselves on the same page.
Tabassum saw her husband crying after o ering evening prayers at their rented accommodation in Srinagar. When she asked him why he was crying, he told her: ‘Pyaari [Afzal would fondly call her so] do you know what day is it today?’ Before she could even hazard a guess, he continued, ‘It’s 11 February — the day of martyrdom of Shaheed Maqbool Butt. I was imploring Allah to also bestow me with such a death’.
Back in the day when Guru was indicted in the 2001 Parliament attack case, Dar had felt terrible. But now, when he began receiving letters from the man himself, he realised why Guru had stirred up Indian politics, even in the jail, with the rightwing BJP leaders shouting at the top of their voice: “Desh abhi sharminda hai, Afzal abhi bhi zinda hai,” (Our nation is ashamed because Afzal is still alive).
Two years later, when they finally bumped into each other inside the ‘high-risk’ ward of Tihar’s jail 1, Dar was pleased to see how Guru commanded respect from other inmates for his scholarly tastes, strong opinion, and Samaritan nature.
“Once we met, I told him he must write. ‘Because your writings will be our legacy tomorrow’,” Dar recalls his conversation with Guru. “He agreed, but said, ‘who’ll publish my writings’?” Dar suggested him names of some Srinagar-based publications, which shortly began receiving letters from Guru.
In one such letter sent in May 2010 to Conveyor, a Srinagar-based magazine, Guru wrote that as long as “there’s state terrorism, active resistance would emerge from unknown and unexpected corners like the martyr Manzoor Bhat,” who was killed in Lal Chowk fidayeen attack in February 2010. “Occupation is the most dangerous and worst terrorism on the earth,” Guru wrote, before quoting a hadith of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH): ‘Allah has created nothing better than emancipation of slaves.’
“It’s better to die for freedom,” Guru wrote, “than to live under the shadow of submission.”
It makes complete sense if Kobad Ghandy tries to project Afzal Sahab as ‘anti-Pakistan’ because that Maoist leader was one of those persons who would always tell Afzal Sahab to ‘seek Kashmir solution within the Indian constitutional framework’
Such letters would regularly come from Tihar and give away the mindset of a man being projected as “double agent” by some Indian writers. Much of that impression came from his 2004 letter addressed to his lawyer Sushil Kumar, where he spoke about being “trapped by the DSP Davinder Singh-led Special Task Force for forcing him to take one of the Parliament attackers to Delhi.”
But seven days before his execution, Guru provided new insights about that letter. In a letter to Javaid Ahmed Munshi, aka Bill Papa, Guru wrote: “The letter to my lawyer in 2004 was written at the behest of my innocent friends and family members who desperately wanted to see me out of Tihar.” He said he regretted having written it.
Munshi had run into Guru at Tihar, two years after Delhi Police’s Special Cell arrested him from Nepal on 3 February 1999. He cherishes his four-year Tihar period spent with Guru. Even after he was shifted to Central Jail, Srinagar in 2005, the two stayed in touch through letters. Later, when Munshi would be named as the “mastermind” in assassination of Maulana Showkat Shah, president of the Jamiat Ahlihadith in 2011, he received scores of ‘solidarity letters’ from Guru, vouching for his innocence and asking him to stay patient.
In most of his letters, Guru would share his concern regarding Kashmir. “De-occupation must be the first step in every roadmap,” Guru wrote in a letter dated 22 December 2012 to Munshi. “And we need to support that with our blood, patience and toil.”
Before the exchange of letters could even begin, Munshi had witnessed a menacing change sweeping across Tihar in wake of the 2001 Parliament attack. Pakistani and Kashmiri inmates became “traitors”, faced attacks and were packed in Tihar’s security wards. Amid tensions, Munshi wanted to meet the skinny man from Sopore taken inside Tihar following the rattle in India’s capital.
“I found him to be a cheerful man without any remorse from the word go,” Munshi recalls his jail-time interactions with Guru. “Later as Afzal Sahab became my cellmate, he told me how he had turned down the government lawyer offer in POTA trial court.” But after Supreme Court in its 5 August 2005 judgment upheld his death sentence, Guru would be asked by his Kashmiri and Pakistani inmates — and even some visiting sleuths — to seek President of India’s clemency. “But that was out of question for the man who always dismissed the Indian state as an occupier,” Munshi says.
Instead he shortly sent a word for his better half Tabassum Guru back home, asking her to bring some Khan dresses without collars during her next Tihar trip. “It took me a while to understand how he was preparing himself for that hanging knot by sporting those round-collared dresses,” she says, smiling. “What a great man!”
Then inside Tihar, Munshi would spot soft-spoken Guru preaching “Islam’s beautiful message” to many non-Muslim inmates including the likes of Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar — a senior member of Khalistan Liberation Force and a convict in 1993 Delhi bomb blast case. But after Munshi left Tihar in 2005, Guru got a new jail-mate in the form of Tariq Dar the same year. Later as they were shifted to Tihar’s jail 3, Guru met his ‘lost part’ there.
Just opposite to that jail was the Phasi Koti and towards its left corner stood the grave of JKLF founder, Mohammad Maqbool Butt. As Guru remained in cell 1 of that jail till his hanging, Dar would often spot him gazing at Butt’s grave at length. “I could realise then and there only that the two shared some umbilical cord,” Dar says. “Otherwise why would destiny bring him so close to his ‘idol’ Shaheed Maqbool Butt,” who languished, and was later executed in the same jail on 11 February 1984.
When the gates of the same jail would be thrown open for checking at around 5:30 am daily, Guru and others would offer prayers outside their cells before taking tea together. One Maoist leader Kobad Ghandy was also with them. “He [Ghandy] would collect some pudina leaves during his morning strolls, which we would put in tea to enhance its taste,” Dar says, smiling.
Ghandy was brought to Tihar’s jail 3 on 21 September 2009, where he saw Guru welcoming him with a huge smile. “I found Afzal a very humane person, warm-hearted and simple,” Ghandy writes in a letter reproduced by journalist Sunetra Choudhury in her book Behind Bars. “He was exactly the opposite of what the media has portrayed him as — a fundamentalist fanatic.”
Guru would regularly compare the life of Kashmiris to that of the Palestinians, Ghandy says. “He was under the opinion that the Pakistanis were doing more harm to the Kashmiris’ struggle than assisting it…”
Dar, however, dismisses Ghandy’s “cherry-pick remark” on Guru’s idea of Pakistan. “Although Afzal Sahab was in favour of Kashmir’s independence, he was never an anti-Pakistani despite being a vocal opponent of Pakistan state’s policies, as he believed that only army can fight army in Kashmir,” Dar says. “But it makes complete sense if Ghandy tries to project him as ‘anti-Pak’ because that Maoist leader was one of those persons who would always tell Afzal Sahab to ‘seek Kashmir solution within the Indian constitutional framework’.” Later in his letter from Tihar to Srinagar-based Urdu daily Kashmir Uzma, Dar would deride such attempts as a malicious propaganda “to deny Kashmir another hero after Maqbool Butt, despite their glorious end speaking for themselves.” In that letter, Dar also countered a ‘flurry of myths’ that cropped up in the name of obituaries, commentaries, analysis and reportage after Guru’s hanging.
Perhaps much of that came from Guru’s gullible nature that made him vulnerable for exploitation, believes Gulzar Wani, one of the first Kashmiris who met Guru in Tihar in 2001.
At his countryside home vicinity in Tapper Pattan, Wani — the Kashmiri Aligarh Muslim University scholar framed in the Sabarmati Express train-blasts case in 2001, only to be declared innocent 16 years later in May 2017 for lack of evidence — recalls how in 2009, veteran Indian lawyer and politician Ram Jethmalani sent Guru a message through his representative.
“He wanted Afzal Sahab to write a letter to the lawyer for shifting him to Srinagar Central Jail,” recalls Wani. “But Afzal Sahab turned down his advice.” Even his lawyer ND Pancholi and the deep state would visit him in Tihar for grinding their own axe, he says. “But Afzal Sahab was ready for gallows than any compromises.”
Guru would even provoke the then Home Minister LK Advani through his writings, daring him to clear the decks for his execution. “But he would get disheartened the way India’s leftist-liberal lobby pleaded his case,” Wani recalls. “With a sense of hurt, he would often return to his cell, to either read or pray. He was a voracious reader, who would read and discuss Sayyid Qutb and Sartre in one go, over his much-loved tea.”
Some days before the Parliament attack, Guru stunned Tabassum, saying that Delhi police might raid their rented accommodation anytime soon. “I cried and asked him to take me home. Then he dropped me back to Kashmir and left for Delhi again in another two days.” Then the attack happened
He even followed works of Arundhati Roy, who would later come up with her book, The Hanging of Afzal Guru and the Strange Case of the Attack on the Indian Parliament. The book examines the implications of Guru’s hanging and what it says about New Delhi’s relationship with Kashmir.
At his Solina residence thick with reminiscence, Dar talks about the persons whom Guru respected for their conviction. “Although he respected Syed Ali Geelani, Dr Mohammad Qasim Faktoo and Asiya Andrabi,” he says, “but he was a bigger supporter of the supreme commander and spiritual leader of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammad Omar.”
Back home in April 1996, Guru keenly followed the rise of Mullah Omar, a former Afghan war fighter, to Amir al-Mu’minin — “Commander of the Faithful” — and would later describe the Taliban as “a ray of light in darkness.”
Most of his views in shape of letters took a book form six months after his hanging in September 2013, when Ahle Imaan Ke Naam Shaheed Mohammad Afzal Guru Ka Aakhri Paigam was released in Srinagar. Edited by the incarcerated Persian professor and Syed Ali Geelani’s biographer, Dr Shafi Shariati (currently serving lifer in the 1992 killing of trade union leader HN Wanchoo), the 94-page book was sent as “a message for Kashmiri people from Tihar.”
“For Muslims,” Guru writes in the book, “there are only two options: jihad or migration.” Migration, he argues, is not possible “because there is not Madinah here”. Islam, he says, was the basic motivation for the likes of Maqbool Butt, Ashfaq Majid Wani, Gazi Baba, and others.
Wani terms Gazi Baba — the mastermind of Parliament attack — as Guru’s only link to Jaish-e-Mohammad, the militant outfit specialised in mounting fidayeen attacks. “He (Guru) had joined Jaish in 1998 through Gazi Baba,” Wani says. Even Maulana Masood Azhar’s outfit talks about Guru’s interactions with Gazi Baba in his book Aina (Mirror) that Jaish published ten months after his hanging.
In that 240-page book published by Lahore’s Maktab-e-Irfan in December 2013, the Jaish chief writes how India ran a malicious campaign to defame and stifle Guru’s public support. “Afzal Guru’s projected image,” Masood Azhar writes in his tribute to Guru, “showed him as an unemployed, smoking young man whose militant-supporting services could be hired for peanuts.”
Later when Zakir Musa also made mention of Guru’s Aina and “his idea of jihad” upon floating his new militant outfit supporting Al-Qaeda in May 2017, Srinagar police circles saw it an attempt to rebrand Guru as some insurgent ‘spiritual leader’. “Some serious attempts are underway to resurrect Guru’s name,” says a senior police officer whose brushes with Guru are well-known. “Already with Taliban’s support, Guru has become a part of Jaish’s larger Jihad project.”
The officer’s remarks come at a time when Jaish’s ‘Afzal Guru Squad’ is intermittently rattling military landscape of Kashmir through fidayeen strikes, forcing the counter-insurgency apparatus to come up with a defensive cover around its military installations.
Floated a month before Guru’s first death anniversary, the ‘Afzal Guru Squad’ has already carried out several high-profile attacks, including January 2016 attack on the Pathankot airbase, September 2016 Uri, August 2017 Pulwama, and October 2017 Srinagar airport attack. The squad even rattled Indian mission in Afghanistan’s Mazar-e-Sharif and left glaring blood imprints on the wall: “Afzal Guru shaheed kay jaanisar tumko miltay rahega, insha-Allah,” (Afzal Guru’s admirers will keep coming after you).
On 31 December 2017, Tral teen fidayeen, Fardeen Khandey, eulogised Guru in a video — first of its kind in Kashmir’s insurgent history — shot moments before storming CRPF training camp at Lethpora along with his two associates. Even Guru’s better half is aware how her departed husband has “returned from his grave” to mount insurgent strikes done in his name.
At her residence in old town Baramulla, Tabassum Guru takes a break from celebrations in wake of her son Ghalib Afzal Guru’s outstanding performance in Class 12 examination to narrate how a year before his arrest, she saw her husband crying after offering evening prayers at their rented accommodation in Srinagar. “When I asked him why he was crying, he told me: ‘Pyaari [Afzal would fondly call her so] do you know what day is it today?’ Before I could even hazard a guess, he continued, ‘It’s 11 February — the day of martyrdom of Shaheed Maqbool Butt. I was imploring Allah to also bestow me with such a death’.”
Recalling those least spoken moments, Tabassum says, “Afzal Sahab would often say that Allah never turns down the evening prayers. But I never knew his wish would be granted so soon!”
It was two months after their son Ghalib (named after Afzal Guru’s favourite poet) was born when he told her to move on with her life as “he’s wedded to the cause”. As she persisted to stay put, she shortly noticed how he would use their son’s toys for carrying small firearms. At times he would suddenly disappear from home for days all together.
“One day when he returned home after 15 days of disappearance, I overheard him telling his relative inside his room that Jaish was planning some strikes on Delhi airport and Parliament,” she says. Tabassum also recalls how suddenly some strangers would walk inside their rented accommodation in Srinagar. It did not take her much time to realise how those “travel-weary acquaintances” of her husband were actually Jaish militants. “You could tell it from their lingo,” she says.
Even when Guru took her to Delhi some three months before the Parliament attack, his routine kept disturbing her. “He would return home by 3 in the morning,” she says. During daytime, he would show her places and ask her to remember them. Later when she began frequenting Delhi on legal and jail trips, “I was reminded of those days when he would even tell me to travel by 883 bus to reach home. He had been actually preparing me for the tough phase in my life when I would have to travel all alone to Delhi to visit him in jail.”
Some days before the attack, Guru stunned Tabassum, saying that Delhi police might raid their rented accommodation anytime soon now, and could possibly detain her for questioning. “I cried and asked him to take me home,” she recalls. “Then he dropped me back to Kashmir and left for Delhi again in another two days.” Then the attack happened, and shortly, he was arrested from Srinagar. “And rest,” she says, “is history.”
When Tariq Dar returned to Tihar from Srinagar’s Central Jail, where he had been shifted for a few days for appearing before a local court, a head warden told him how Guru wanted to speak to him in his last hour. Some New Delhi-based Hindi dailies had also carried reports on 10 February 2013, quoting official sources, about how Guru wanted to speak to Dar one last time. What was it that Guru wanted to tell him, Dar could never know.
But on his return to Tihar, he right away sought details of the day from his inmates, warden Arun and head warden Surjeet Singh. They pieced the details together to recreate what had happened on the day of Guru’s hanging.
Two days before the hanging, the jail inmates were told to immediately move to the block at the back on the pretext of whitewashing. “But we soon gathered that hectic work was going on in the Phasi Koti,” Kobad Ghandy writes in his letter to the journalist Sunetra Choudhury. “All sorts of rumours were spread by the staff that a foreign delegation was visiting; may be Bhullar (who was by now shifted to the mental hospital) was to be hanged.”
That evening, Guru seemed as cheerful as ever, Ghandy writes. As he sat with other inmates to eat home-cooked food brought by a Kashmiri inmate Mohammad Rafiq Shah’s mother, Guru would say, “If anyone was to be hanged, it was not Bhullar but himself.” He was right.
By the morning of 9 February 2013, the staff turned up half an hour late at 6 for routine checking. They let Afzal out, locked his cell and did not open any other inmate.
For Muslims, there are only two options: jihad or migration. Migration is not possible because there is not Madinah here… Islam was the basic motivation for the likes of Maqbool Butt, Ashfaq Majid Wani, Gazi Baba, and others —Afzal writes in the book Ahle Imaan Ke Naam Shaheed Mohammad Afzal Guru Ka Aakhri Paigam
“It was then,” Ghandy writes, “that he and we too realised what was to happen.” He was led away to his original cell in A Block where the law officer met him and told him that the hanging was to take place at 8:00 am. “He requested to speak to his family and son on the phone, which was refused,” the Maoist leader reveals. “That all other legal norms had already been flouted by the Congress government are already known. He had a bath and did his final namaz.”
Arun, the warden, told Dar how Guru had sought his treasured tea during his final hour: “Arun, jaw ek akhiri chai pilau yaar,” (One last tea, dear).
At 5 minutes to 8, Guru was led across the same ground that he walked every day, wishing all the staff present, asking the authorities to treat them well, Ghandy writes. “We were told later much of the staff had tears in their eyes as he wished them all well and fearlessly walked to the gallows.”
Surjeet Singh, the head warden, would later tell Dar: “We had seen how even the hardcore criminals and terrorists would wet their pants on their way to gallows. But that man walked cheerfully, as if he was finally going to his long-awaited home.” That morning, his fearless walk to gallows had bearings with his ‘Trehgam idol’, Maqbool Butt, who had taken the similar walk towards Phasi Koti on 11 February 1984.
On the gallows, Guru had requested that his arms should not be tied; his glasses not removed and head not masked. “But everything was denied on official grounds,” Singh told Dar. “Before his hanging, Guru pleasantly told the officers: ‘There is another world hereafter and I’ll meet you all there, Insha-Allah!’ With that, the hangman tightened the noose, and within 20 seconds, he passed away.” Dar met a convicted plumber from Uttar Pradesh in Tihar who told him how he was asked to dig up a pit in the name of Guru’s grave that morning. He was hurriedly buried two feet away from his hero, Maqbool Butt. As the news of his hanging spread, the Kashmiri inmates broke into tears and wails. Out of that jail uproar, came the first slogan for Guru: “Tum kitnay Afzal marogay, ghar ghar say Afzal niklayga.”
On that foggy Delhi day, as the slogans reverberated inside the Tihar, the officials walked away after offering one minute silence to the dead man.
“And with this ended my association with the most humane, honest, straightforward and simple person I met during my seven years of incarceration in Tihar,” Ghandy writes. “He was a staunch believer in Islam and had great faith in the other world – jannat – which gave him his enormous courage to go to the gallows with his head held high and apparently without an iota of fear. The prison authorities, at the behest of the government, refused to hand over his belongings, diary or even body to his family.”
On 24 February 2017, as Dar finally took a long walk to freedom, he sought permission from Tihar authorities to pay one last visit to his companion, now resting in a prohibited area of South Asia’s largest jail. “That day, the air around me turned mournful,” Dar says. “It was the same month — February of 2013 — when I had last seen him in Tihar. And it was the same month, February, again, when I was leaving him with memories of past five years rushing through: his childlike laughter, scholarly temperament and insurgent resolve.”
After offering prayers at his grave, Dar took away heavy steps, only to be first received back home by Guru’s better half and their son.
The cover story was published in February issue of Kashmir Narrator. For subscribing to print edition, contact [email protected]