For Ghalib Guru, the turning point in his life came when he met his father Afzal for the last time.
Afzal Guru went to the gallows several months later for his alleged part in a deadly attack on the Indian parliament in 2001, but that final encounter between father and son inspired Ghalib to strive for a dignified existence.
“It was a very brief meeting in August 2012 inside Delhi’s Tihar Jail. It lasted no more than 20 minutes,” recalled Ghalib, now 16, while speaking to BenarNews at his home in Sopore, a town in Indian-controlled Kashmir.
“I remember he kept repeating over and over that I must study hard to shape my career, and that if I am unable to, I must at least grow up to be a good human being. I can never forget his words,” Ghalib said.
Almost three years after Afzal Guru was hanged on Feb. 9, 2013, Ghalib says he’s a step closer to fulfilling his father’s dream.
This month, Ghalib, a student at the S.R.M. Welkin Higher Secondary School, scored an impressive 474 marks out of 500 in the 10th grade Jammu and Kashmir Board of School Examination, ranking 19th in the state.
In India, these exams are roughly equivalent to a General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) in the United Kingdom or a high school diploma in the United States. They are important for admission to university or professional programs.
Ghalib aspires to be a doctor. He credits his mother, 38-year-old Tabasum, for keeping him focused on his studies even under the most trying circumstances.
“My father wanted to be a doctor. He was preparing for medical school when circumstances forced him to give up on his dream. I want to fulfil that dream for him,” he said.
Ghalib was 2 years old in 2002 when Afzal Guru was convicted of playing a central role in the Dec. 13, 2001 attack by suspected Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) militants on the parliamentary complex in New Delhi.
Guru, accused of providing logistics and hideouts to the suspected terrorists, was sentenced to death for the attack that resulted in the deaths of 14 people, including eight security personnel and all five attackers.
Guru’s controversial conviction and subsequent execution more than 10 years later triggered widespread debate across the country. Human rights groups blamed his conviction on an unfair trial. India’s Supreme Court admitted that the trial had relied on circumstantial evidence.
In a 2006 interview with Indian journalist Vinod Jose, Guru claimed he was forced into signing a confession after being subjected to torture, which included being beaten for hours and jolted with electric shocks. He told the journalist that police had threatened to hurt his family if he didn’t confess.
Ghulam Mohammad Bohru, 73, Ghalib’s maternal grandfather, believes Guru was innocent but was executed “only to satisfy the collective consciousness of the nation.”
“Afzal’s execution was very hard on our family. But we have somehow been able to let go of the past and move on, with the only hope that we are able to provide his son with a good education so that Afzal’s desire to see him grow up to be a doctor is realized,” Bohru told BenarNews.
Ghalib’s mother, Tabasum, said her son was attached to his father even though all their interactions took place inside the prison’s meeting room.
“Many times, I would find Ghalib extremely disturbed when TV news reports referred to his father as a traitor or a terrorist. But I always tried to urge him to stay brave and focus on his studies, reminding him of his father’s last words to him,” she told BenarNews.
In response to questions about his father’s conviction and execution, Ghalib said, “There’s no point delving in the past. What’s happened has happened. I must look ahead.”
From his study, the teenager then took out a letter that was written in Urdu and neatly preserved in an envelope.
“This is my father’s letter to me. I received it in the post four days after he was gone. Even today, these words help me find courage,” Ghalib said, as he began to read from it.
“By the time this letter reaches you, I may not be around. Please do not mourn my death. Continue to live with respect and dignity.
“Please remember what I said to you when we last met, my brave son. I want to see you become a good doctor, and more importantly, a good human being. I am sure you will fulfil my desire one day.
“Take good care of yourself and your mother, and never let her feel my absence in life.”