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BEING TABASSUM GURU

The wife of Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru says she had suspected her husband’s involvement

A small cluster of houses stand hidden behind Gulnarg Park, Sopore. The last house, a quaint brick house, stands alone, overlooking a meadow. A quiet stream flows along the side and a metal bunker with security forces inside keep a constant watch on Afzal Guru’s house.

As I enter, Tabassum Guru, Afzal Guru’s wife, is making tea.

Mohammad Afzal Guru and three others – SAR Geelani, Showkat Hussain Guru and Afshan Guru (Hussain’s wife) – were arrested for being the masterminds behind the December 2001 attack on Parliament. Subsequently, the High Court acquitted the other three, while Afzal was handed three life sentences and double death sentence.

In 2005, the Supreme Court in its judgement said the evidence against Afzal was circumstantial: “As is the case with most conspiracies, there is and could be no evidence amounting to criminal conspiracy.” The judgement continued to read: “The incident, which resulted in heavy casualties, had shaken the entire nation, and the collective conscience of society will only be satisfied if capital punishment is awarded to the offender.”

In the wee hours of February 9, 2013, after 12 years of solitary confinement, Afzal was hanged.

Five years later

It has now been five long years since the hanging of Tabassum’s husband. Like every year, last month on February 9, Kashmir observed a complete shutdown.

Sitting amid her husband’s photographs and love letters, Tabbassum, recited a couplet that Afzal used to recite to her:

Woh kehte the [he used to say]:

Khaak ho jayenge hum,

Tumko khabar ho ne tak.

[I would have turned into soil,

By the time the news reaches you].”

She paused, looked up and said, “Aur phir aisa hi hua [and that is what happened].”

Afzal, 10 years older to her, was Tabassum’s cousin. Growing up in Kashmir, Afzal like many young boys, went to Pakistan for arms training. He returned, decided not to continue as a militant and moved to Delhi, where he did his Masters in Arts.

Returning to Kashmir during the late 90s, Afzal first ‘met’ his wife at a relative’s wedding. “Afzal had been singing ghazals and I was playing with the other kids. After our marriage when we used to look at the pictures of that wedding, he used to spot me and jokingly ask: ‘Who is that girl?’ It used to make us laugh so much,” she said.

Ever since their son Ghalib was born she suspected her husband’s involvement in something he wasn’t letting her in on. It is clear that Tabassum doesn’t discount Afzal’s involvement in the attack on Parliament. “I won’t lie. I suspected, but I never checked, asked or stopped him,” she said. If she knew, why didn’t she ever question him? Why didn’t she stop him? Was she an accomplice? These are questions that anyone would ask. If silence is compliance, then Tabassum is guilty of her lack of discouragement.

When I asked her this, she said, “The way we all grew up, the things we saw, I knew that he was bound to do something. Trying to talk him out of anything would have been pointless,” she said, with no further explanation to offer. After a long pause, she added that punishment would have been fair, it would have been something she could make peace with. “I agree, he was not fully innocent, but did he really deserve the death sentence? What about those who actually shot those people? They walk away free?” she asked.

Afzal’s anger, Tabassum said, rose from a lot of shame. Just days after their marriage, an incident took place. One that Tabassum believes affected her husband beyond repair. “We were walking back home, crossing an Army camp where the men in uniform were playing their evening games. When we walked past, they pelted stones at me, calling me names. Afzal did not say a word and neither did I expect him to. When we got home, he swallowed two painkillers. I asked him why and he said: ‘Look at me, he threw stones at you and I couldn’t say or do anything. What a coward I have become? How long should I keep quiet?’”

On December 15, two days after the attack the special cell of the Delhi Police arrested Afzal from Srinagar. It took Tabassum one year to gather courage and visit her husband after his arrest.

“When I walked into that courtroom, all I could think of was his beard. He looked like Amir Khan from Mangal Pandey with all those chains on him,” she said. From the very first meeting, Afzal told Tabassum that he was in for a long stay in prison.

The media had duly responded to their own conscience’s call and splashed the latter image on all our TV screens day and night.

The “inadmissible” interview

In 2001, Afzal had given an interview to Aaj Tak correspondent Shams Tahir. In the controversial interview he ‘confessed’ about his involvement in the attack. Later, Afzal disowned the confession stating that he was forced by the Indian Special Forces to say what he did. Eventually, the Supreme Court also set aside this valuable piece of evidence stating that it was “inadmissible”.

On the morning of the interview, Afzal had spoken to his wife. Tabassum had picked up his call thinking he had been released. “I was stupid. How was I to know these things don’t work like that?” she said.

She recounted that that particular day he sounded different and “distant”. “I asked him what was wrong and he asked me to watch his interview in the evening. I was excited. I asked when he was coming home. He kept quiet for a long time and finally said: ‘Everyone else will be going home Tabassum, not me. You watch the interview.’ That was all he said before hanging up,” said Tabassum. 

What does Tabassum – a young woman, an ex-militant’s wife, the widow of a man who was involved in a terror activity, a mother, a daughter; what does she think of Kashmir?

“When I was 13, I too used to go out to protest. We used to walk, cry and scream ‘go India go back’,” she said giggling and raising her arm to show me how she protested. At the age of 13, is it really possible to internalise a resistance movement so complex?

“When I was around 12, my 14-year-old cousin was shot dead. He used to play with us under the tree outside our house. The security forces suspected him of being a militant and shot him in his head,” Tabassum claimed. Eventually, Tabassum said she stopped protesting.

What about when her husband was hanged, I ask her. Did it spark a fresh splurge of rage? Did she go out to protest? Pelt stones?

Yes, it did splurge a fresh rage. Yes, she protested. Tabassum switched off her phone the moment SAR Geelani confirmed the news of Afzal’s death.

“Initially, my silence to the media was my protest,” she said. Her phone remained unreachable for the next 15 days. As a mourning wife, Tabassum said she did not want media organisations capitalising on her tears.

Once she had taken control of her grief, Tabassum decided not to hide her anger. Eventually, she came out, not merely as a grieving wife but as an enraged woman. “When Aaj Tak reporters came home to me with their cameras and questions, instead of them asking me, I had questions for them. Why didn’t Shams Tahir come to interview me? Why did they do that interview with Afzal? I asked every media house who came, why they did what they did at all?” she said.

Tabassum today

Tabassum never remarried. In 2005, Afzal wrote to Tabassum’s father asking him to find his daughter another husband. “I was so angry. Who was he to say that to me? I hadn’t ever asked for a divorce,” she said.

As she shuts her photo albums and puts away the bunch of letters that Afzal wrote to her from Tihar jail, I couldn’t help but ask her – “In all these years, didn’t you ever miss having a man close to you? Didn’t you miss the intimacy?”

She paused and began, “When I used to meet Afzal in jail he would sit opposite me and hold my hand. Few times, I even put my head on his shoulders. We asked each other for patience,” she said.

As an afterthought, Tabassum giggled and said: “Sometimes when I visited him, Afzal would open his arms for a hug and I really wanted to hug him. But there were too many people around and I was so shy.”

Today, Tabassum lives by herself. Her son, Ghalib studies in Srinagar and visits her every weekend. Almost every week security forces visit her house for checking. “They walk around with their dirty boots all over my carpet. Nowadays, I laugh and tell them ‘Please come in, this is your own house’,” she said.

This article was first published in Newslaundry.