Transfigured by a kiss from the angel of death, the frog returned as a prince: Mohammad Yasin Malik rode down his city’s streets that morning in 1994, laying claim to the kingdom. Thousands had lined up on the streets of Srinagar, showering rose petals. Four years earlier, Malik had been sent to prison, accused of the murders of Indian Air Force officers, and the kidnapping Rubaiyya Sayeed, daughter of then-Home Minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed. Till then an obscure figure born to modest circumstances, Malik became Kashmir’s most important secessionist leader.
For months before Malik’s release, Indian intelligence officials Amarjit Singh Dulat and Asif Ibrahim had plotted his coronation—among their arsenal, gifts of suit fabric purchased from a store in Connaught Place, the odd bottle of Black Label and guile.
This week, when a New Delhi court gave Malik a life sentence for financing terrorism, the prison door also slammed shut on India’s decades-old effort to bring peace to Kashmir—by handing power to secessionists. Now the Narendra Modi government has a new road-map for Kashmir. Like the old one, though, this route is littered with landmines.
Talking to the enemy
Engaging enemies is the stuff of Indian counterinsurgency: Telangana, Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland and Punjab all saw efforts to bribe, inveigle or ideologically co-opt enemies of the State. Kashmir’s secessionists, India knew, had been enmeshed in the political system. Top secessionists, such as Syed Ali Shah Geelani, had fought multiple elections. In the notorious rigged election of 1987, Malik had been a poll agent for the Muslim United Front candidate, Muhammad Yusuf Shah—who, in turn, went on to head the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen.
The core idea of the peace initiative was simple: To lock terrorist commanders into electoral democracy again.
Following his release from prison in 1994, Malik declared a ceasefire—a move greeted with some wry smiles in the intelligence community. The Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) had been decimated by attacks both by the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen and the India-backed militia. Malik’s turn to non-violence was underpinned as much by necessity as principle.
As Indian forces slowly degraded the Kashmir insurgency through the 1990s, the secret peace effort grew. Former Jamaat-e-Islami chief Ghulam Mohammad Bhat emerged from prison in 1997 and called for “a political dialogue.” Two years later, Abdul Gani Butt, a key leader of the secessionist All Parties Hurriyat Conference coalition, called for dialogue with pro-India political parties.
Then, in 2000, dissident Hizb-ul-Mujahideen commander Abdul Majid Dar began negotiations with the Indian government. Fazl-ul-Haq Qureshi, the secessionist politician who served as his informal envoy, proposed a solution involving “semi-sovereign status for Jammu and Kashmir, and joint control exercised by both India and Pakistan”.
Even Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) service became involved. In 2002, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) helped broker a meeting between the Hurriyat’s Abdul Gani Lone and ISI chief Lt Gen. Ehsan-ul-Haq. Lone, officials familiar with the dialogue say, unsuccessfully lobbied the ISI to support the peace negotiations—and was assassinated soon after.
Turning to Pakistan
Led by Dulat, New Delhi’s negotiators scrambled to protect the dialogue from this jihadist assault. In January 2004, then-Deputy Prime Minister LK Advani met with the Hurriyat leadership, led by the cleric Mirwaiz Umar Farooq. There were more talks in March. Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh held two more rounds of talks in 2005. The former secessionist Sajjad Lone also met with Manmohan Singh soon afterwards. Later, in February 2006, Malik himself held a one-on-one secret meeting with the former prime minister.
Terrified of both the jihadists and their own political constituencies, though, the secessionist leadership held off on bringing a formal agenda to the table—let alone committing to electoral democracy.
Frustrated, New Delhi turned to Islamabad. Following the India-Pakistan crisis of 2002, military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf had initiated a ceasefire on the Line of Control (LoC), and scaled back support for Kashmir jihadists. General Musharraf understood that war would destroy his hopes of reviving Pakistan’s economy.
In 2005, Indian diplomats SK Lambah and Tariq Aziz began secret talks, hammering out a deal involving Pakistan accepting the Line of Control as a border, and wide-ranging autonomy for both sides of Kashmir.
The imprimatur from Islamabad seemed to persuade the secessionists. “The agenda is pretty much set,” the cleric and secessionist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq proclaimed. Six decades after Pakistani irregulars had first swept down the road to Srinagar, the curtain was about to fall on the long, grim war over Kashmir. “It is September 2007,” he went on,“that India and Pakistan are looking at, in terms of announcing something on Kashmir.” He was right—but the deal had already begun to fall apart.
Former CM Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) appropriated much of the secessionist platform, and deepened its links with the Jamaat-e-Islami and other jihadist supporters. The National Conference, cornered, also began courting the religious Right-wing. Then, in 2008, Pakistan’s new army chief Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani delivered the death blow—quietly killing the secret peace plan, for fear it would empower jihadists fighting his forces.
Inside Kashmir, strains grew. For years, Islamist patriarch Syed Ali Shah Geelani had been using ethnic-religious issues to mobilise against what he described as a sellout. He warned at a rally in Baramulla that India was seeking to change “the Muslim majority into a minority by settling troops along with their families”. Then, he claimed, “they will either massacre Muslims as they did in Jammu in 1947, or carry out a genocide as was done in Gujarat.”
Late that summer, the breaking point came. Large-scale violence broke out, led by a new Islamist cohort convinced that India was a threat to their ethnic identity and faith. Competing for the Islamist political constituency in Kashmir, both the major parties and the secessionists had ceded their own ground to Geelani.
The end of the road?
Three men, holding the keys to history in their hands, met in the parking lot in New Delhi’s Khan Market in 2009, for a last-ditch effort at reviving the dying peace process. Mirwaiz Farooq, along with his Hurriyat colleagues Bilal Lone and Abdul Gani Butt, were driven to a nearby Intelligence Bureau-run safehouse to meet with then-home minister P. Chidambaram. There was little at the meeting, though, but recrimination: Nothing remained of the peace process begun in 1994 but ruins.
In May 2014, Manmohan Singh quietly handed over the files containing the unsigned minutes of his secret envoy’s talks with Pakistan to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In an effort, as the new prime minister put it, “to turn the course of history,” Modi reached out to his counterpart, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Even band, baaja, baraat, though, didn’t cut it with Pakistan’s Generals: Modi developed a close relationship with Sharif, even showing up impromptu for a family wedding, but the ISI delivered attacks across Punjab and Kashmir in return. In 2019 came the Pulwama crisis—and the revocation of Kashmir’s special status.
Is this the end of the road to peace? Efforts to engage secessionism are over: Malik’s story makes this clear. Mirwaiz Farooq makes no political statements; his former Hurriyat colleagues are silent. Even in 2008, they had little ability to influence events on ground. Today, their power has diminished to vanishing point. Those who still wield influence are those who embraced electoral politics, like Sajjad Lone.
Elections in Kashmir are expected in the coming months, on the back of a controversial delimitation of constituencies. New Delhi will need legislators who do not undermine the constitutional changes brought since 2019, or seek to disrupt stability. And that will need political dialogue with the Kashmir Valley’s major political parties.
India’s National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, and Pakistan’s army chief, Qamar Javed Bajwa, are known to maintain back-channel contact. ThePrint had revealed in March that Bajwa was pushing for India to restore some legal protections against the sale of land in Kashmir to non-residents, in return for keeping jihadists reined in. How far the outgoing army chief can go, though, and how durable his commitments will be, is unclear.
Facing intense military pressure on the Line of Actual Control with China, India needs peace with Pakistan—and Pakistan, fighting bankruptcy, needs peace with India. For both, it’s vital the road doesn’t again lead to that ugly place called impasse.
The author is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)