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The conviction of Yasin Malik

Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes: As is often the case in Kashmir, one act of closure may open up new and even more ominous questions.

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta |
Updated: May 27, 2022 9:11:12 pm
Kashmiri separatist leader Yasin Malik is escorted by police officers to a court in New Delhi. (File/AP)

Yasin Malik’s conviction in a 2017 case on financing terrorism, was a foregone conclusion, especially after he pleaded guilty. There is a parallel case involving him in relation to the brutal killing of four Indian Air Force officers. That case will, in all likelihood, also come to fruition at a convenient moment. From a purely moral standpoint, it was always quite a travesty that Yasin Malik had been indulged for so long. But as is often the case in Kashmir, one act of closure may open up new and even more ominous questions.

Malik’s political career exemplified the politics of bad faith all around. He was always sympathetic to secession. His radicalisation preceded the rigged election of 1987. He was accused of killing four Air Force officers. It is difficult to imagine any country indulging such a killing. But such is the depth of grievance and violence in Kashmir that he managed to convert that act into a narrative of retaliation against prior violence by the Indian state. The Indian state then arrested him, and ended up with the worst of both worlds. It never seriously sought to fairly convict him for his crimes. But it tortured him and created a political martyr. Malik then ostensibly read Mandela and Gandhi and renounced violence, though there does not appear to be any evidence from his organisational activity that he did so. This fighter for Kashmiri self-determination was also a front for Pakistan. The Indian state, then, on occasion elevated him to great political stature and sustained him as if he were a key interlocutor. If this negotiation had produced a lasting settlement, this indulgence might have been excusable.

But as it turned out, all that we produced was a protracted stalemate that collapsed every so often. The Indian government had no new framework to offer or was unable to follow up on its own commitments. The JKLF’s own positions were a tactical retreat more than a serious and imaginative attempt to think of a future of Kashmir, or a transition path to peace. Both sides had no compunction in using the worst forms of violence, even as they resorted to the language of human rights. With Kashmir under years of siege and occupation-like conditions, Malik became a symbol of freedom, a cult figure with a love story to boot. But it was never clear that he could command broad-based political support. He seemed both indispensable but unable to advance the cause credibly. He was a morally disturbing figure made to look plausible by a horrible political context.

The BJP radically changed course in J&K. Its oppressive tactics had the one virtue of ending the charade of bad faith that had characterised politics in Kashmir. Securing the conviction of Malik is one more step in that agenda. It is hard to argue with the conviction on its own terms: Malik has pleaded guilty, his public statements would be enough to indict him on many counts. But as always, this moment of political triumph will turn more of the spotlight on the Indian state than it is prepared for in two respects.

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On its own terms, it is difficult to impugn the court’s findings in this case. But the challenge for the Indian state has not been partiality in particular cases; it is the perception of partiality of the justice system as a whole. In a context of immense legalised repression in Kashmir, where basic civil rights and democratic rights are not being protected by large sections of the judiciary, the case can easily be converted into a narrative of state partiality, rather than a victory for the rule of law. The conviction may be seen as an end of bad faith in Delhi. But we should be under no illusion that it will also be seen as an example of the Indian state’s bad faith in Kashmir. In some ways, the reaction of the so-called Gupkar group to this case was unfortunate: Rather than saying that injustice has been done in this case, its credibility would have been enhanced if it were to give a call to ensure that the civil and human rights of all Kashmiris, including the hundreds who are arrested and victims of violence, were protected by the judiciary.

Since the revocation of Article 370, this trend is evident. The previous governments may have engaged in a politics of bad faith, but at least there were some doors of political expression always open. Now Kashmir is politically suffocated, with mainstream politicians discredited and freedom of expression clamped down on to an unprecedented degree. India’s own democratic credentials are eroding. The net result is both a total political vacuum and an increasing sense of siege inside Kashmir.

In that context, the potential symbolic value of Malik’s martyrdom through imprisonment or possible death penalty in the killing of the Air Force officers is even greater. This is not good reason to refrain from pursuing justice in this case. But it would be politically myopic if we failed to understand that repression creates its own mythologies, as it did previously with Burhan Wani and Maqbool Bhat. The state will have to do a lot of political work to ensure that does not happen in this case. But all trends suggest it will be unable to do so.

We are now at a point where we refuse to even recognise Kashmir as a political problem. The problem is being framed as one that can be managed entirely by state repression or propaganda. This will not bring peace to Kashmir any more than it has brought security to Kashmiri Pandits. Malik’s case will become a reminder of the political vacuum in Kashmir, and the possibilities of greater radicalisation.

There is an aside in this case which might be of interest in the debate over the sedition law. Malik never renounced secession as an objective; he merely claimed to change tactics and become Gandhian. But the court found that his profession of Gandhism could not be taken with a straight face. But here is an interesting question. Should a sedition law cover ideologies that promote secession or only violence and conspiracy to violence? The judge seems to hint that advocacy of secessionism would be permissible, so long as it was done in a Gandhian way. But alas, politics — the activity of winning allegiance by persuasion and incentive — is the last thing we will see in Kashmir. Yasin Malik’s case might be a closure of sorts, but it is not moving past the tragedy that is Kashmir.

This column first appeared in the print edition on May 27, 2022, under the title ‘The conviction of Yasin Malik’. The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express.

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