The noise and the protests were expected. After all, this was Yasin Malik, long seen as the terrorist occupying a moral high ground since he ostensibly turned towards a peaceful path and endured long spells in detention. It’s a curious case. The accused pleaded guilty to all charges, and the court anxiously asked him if he was sure about the consequences. All this as authorities geared up for stone-throwing on the streets for a man whose group was founded in 1977.
It’s like a sepia-toned photograph from the past. But it could suddenly acquire colour if put in the wrong frame. That’s the problem.
JKLF and its bloody past
The Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) of which Yasin Malik became the chairman briefly, was formed in England and has a hugely colourful and well-funded past. It was founded by an Amanullah Khan, originally from Astore in Gilgit, and had offices in the more restful parts of the world including France, Denmark, two in Holland (The Hague and Amsterdam), two in Germany (West Berlin and Stuttgart) and even in New York, and a head office in Birmingham, London; all this while its members executed bloody vengeance against India.
That included two hijackings of Indian aircraft in 1971 and 1976, the killing of an Indian diplomat Ravindra Mhatre in London in 1984, and the kidnapping of Rubaiyya Saeed, daughter of then Home Minister Mufti Sayeed – she was released for five JKLF leaders. Worst of all was an attack against Indian Air Force personnel a day before the 1990 Republic Day, that left a Squadron Leader and three others dead and several injured. Witnesses recognised Malik as one of the perpetrators. All this for ‘independence’, which was what its nomenclature suggested.
The argument for the defence
Pakistan’s ISI begged to differ. It wanted accession. The JKLF was harried and pushed about until it split into factions. Its Kashmir chapter under Yasin Malik, called a ceasefire in 1994 declaring he would pursue the struggle by “Gandhian means”. A spitfire from Maisuma, Srinagar, Malik had long been active in fomenting trouble and was no blue-eyed boy lost in idealism. He had already been trained in Pakistan, and his decision to give up militancy came at a time when his group had already begun to be side-lined by the lot belonging to the Hizbul Mujahideen and later others, created in Pakistan for the explicit purpose of eroding the ‘secular’ JKLF. Besides, it was increasingly unsafe to be on the wrong side of the ISI in Kashmir.
Even while declaring a non-violent approach, JKLF remained part of the separatist Hurriyat Conference, which organised protests and certainly ensured funding for itself and its linesmen. On the other hand, Malik remained adamantly pro-independence. It is also true that he met with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and engaged with the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, when he went on a bus to Pakistan to give credence to the peace talks launched with General Pervez Musharraf. In 2001, Malik was given a passport to travel to the US for medical treatment. He is also one of the few who insisted that “Kashmir” includes all the territory held by Pakistan. In other words, any settlement needs to include the territory on the other side. That should have made him a valuable knight on the chessboard, as a ‘reformed’ man, and who ostensibly had no longer any connections with militancy. That was also what stayed cases against him for more than a decade. But his group’s other activities increased thereafter.
Even those who were clearly fond of him, observed how the local intelligence network of the JKLF operated, while other accounts talk of extortion and criminal activities. Meanwhile, the JKLF and other groups were banned by the Indian government shortly after the Pulwama attack that killed 40 security personnel in February 2019. The charges were many, and Malik was arrested in March. That was that. Once arrested, a trial would logically follow.
The charges against Yasin Malik and for which he has been convicted include that in 2016, he along with other Hurriyat leaders formed a self-styled group called ‘Joint Resistance Leadership’, began issuing ‘protest calendars’(for which the Hurriyat was well known), organising demonstrations, hartaals, shutdowns, road-blocks and “such other disruptive activities which would push the entire society into chaos and lawlessness”. The National Investigation Agency (NIA) also says he raised funds from LoC traders, and ‘various entities’ based abroad to use them for funding demonstrations.
Remember, this was just after the killing of Burhan Wani, a picture-perfect militant, with very little actual effectiveness. The Valley exploded, with 2,690 cases of stone throwing till the end of 2017, while the year witnessed a 166.66 per cent increase in civilian fatalities relative to 2016. Alongside this was the terrible use of pellet guns that maimed many, especially children who had no business being there at all. Someone has to answer for those deaths and violence. One of them is Malik.
Added to this are charges that he has amassed considerable property to the tune of Rs 12 crore, which seems to include properties of his entire family. The court doesn’t seem to have taken that up. It also refused any “Gandhian” theory, arguing that the chaos 2016 onwards was nothing like a peaceful struggle. But its most serious charge was unassailable, and this was under Section 121 of the Indian Penal Code – Malik had, by accepting Pakistani directions and assistance, ‘waged war against the State”. A serious charge that allows the death penalty. The court refused this, stating that it failed the test of “rarest of rare cases” refusing to consider NIA’s plea that he had also been responsible for the genocide of Hindu Pandits, saying that this case had not been made in the court at all. In short, the court has followed the letter of the law, taking into account the good record of the convict in prison and weighing and sifting the evidence.
It was no walkover for the prosecution, despite the fact that former Pakistan Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry and his kind were tweeting vigorously on his behalf. Chaudhry doesn’t care two pennies for Malik, but he would like to see him convicted, expecting that the Valley would erupt. It didn’t. And that says something about Malik and his men. The story is far from over. There is the final offence of killing the Indian Air Force men, whose families have yet to see justice done. That may see a death sentence about a decade too late.
Law of the land
There is that hoary old saying that one man’s militant is another man’s freedom fighter. But no court in the world lends an ear to that. Consider, for instance, the hundreds of men from the Irish Republican Army in a deadly religious war that continued for decades. It finally ended with the so-called ‘Good Friday Agreement’ in 1998 that brought peace, while throwing open the gates of prisons, releasing every one of those detained, whether for short or long periods, heinous or other crimes. That was a political decision. But here’s the thing. While the war continued, the courts decided cases in terms of the evidence that was placed before them, with resulting convictions placing Northern Ireland – with 3 per cent of the UK’s population – with about 40 per cent of its counterterror cases.
Was it all fair? Probably not.
The UK’s Foreign Minister Tariq Ahmad told parliament that they are monitoring the Yasin Malik trial in India closely. They should. It may bring back memories of their own troubles. In terrorism, the line between victim and perpetrator can get terribly thin. Now it’s conviction time in Kashmir, about a decade delayed, and should be completed for others involved as well. Whether a political agreement is made thereafter to soothe the waters is a decision to be taken, remembering that in such wars there are no winners or losers. There is however the law. And that should be followed for both. Once that is made clear on the ground, the war is virtually over.
The author is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. She tweets @kartha_tara. Views are personal.