“The matter is simple, there are cases against me pending in court, but now 11 years have passed and Government of India has not even started the trial,” Yasin Malik said in 2001 in an interview to the BBC, when asked how many killings he had ordered and would take responsibility for as the leader of the Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front.
A trial did take place, even if 20 years later — in a case that in 2001 was yet to come.
The life term given to Malik on Wednesday after conviction on charges of conspiracy between Kashmiri separatists and the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba and its leader Hafiz Saeed, for raising and accepting funds for carrying out terrorist and secessionist acts in 2016-17 — more than three decades after he picked up the gun and 28 years after he declared he was renouncing violence — traces the long arc of militancy in Kashmir, a problem that carries Pakistan’s shadow, and refuses to go away despite India employing both force and statecraft to deal with it.
The wheels have also started to turn in the earlier cases against Malik — the ones to which he was referring in the interview.
One pertains to the abduction of Rubaiya Sayeed, daughter of India’s then Home Minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, in 1989; another to the killing of four IAF personnel, including a Squadron Leader, in Srinagar in 1990. Since 2020, charges have been framed in both cases. Malik was arrested in 2019, when the JKLF was banned in the wake of the Pulwama CRPF bus bombing.
But there was a time when the Indian establishment believed Malik would be more useful as a free man. He had been arrested soon after the killings of the IAF personnel and shifted to Mehrauli sub-jail — and his release a few years later was overseen by former R&AW chief A S Dulat, who was then on the Kashmir desk of the IB.
In his 2015 book Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years, Dulat wrote about the turning of Malik from a militant who told him at their first meeting that there was nothing to talk about except “azaadi”, to a self-proclaimed believer in Gandhi’s methods.
Malik, who said in interviews that he had been driven to “armed struggle” because the Indian state did not offer space for non-violent protest in J&K, “mellowed down” between 1991-94, the period he spent in Mehrauli jail. Two people Dulat cited as being important influences in this decision were Farooq Abdullah, who did some “plain talking” with him on the lawns of the jail, and Dr Upendra Kaul, a cardiac surgeon then at AIIMS, who performed a heart valve surgery on Malik.
Dr Kaul told The Indian Express on Thursday that Dulat had approached him with a request that he examine Malik as the Government of India was planning to release him. “He (Malik) had a leaking heart valve. It needed treatment, and he was operated upon,” Dr Kaul said.
The doctor and the militant conversed in Kashmiri. “He was a good and obedient patient. We never discussed politics. He had his convictions. What was the point?” Dr Kaul said. In later years, Malik would drop by at the doctor’s home when he visited Delhi, and he flew down for Dr Kaul’s mother’s funeral in 2011. “He was a free man, he would just come and sit and talk for a while,” Dr Kaul said.
Malik and another separatist leader, Shabir Shah, were released in 1994, at a time when the Indian state was casting around for a way out of the Kashmir quicksand. By 1991, Pakistan had entered the fray with the Hizbul Mujahideen. Shah was persuaded to believe Delhi had big things in store for him. Malik, with his “achievements” as a militant, had a cult following — he was once described as Kashmir’s Che Guevara — among the youth, and it was hoped he would calm them down.
According to Dulat, Malik was “great friends” with A K Doval, who is now India’s National Security Adviser, and J&K cadre IAS officer Wajahat Habibullah.
Delhi’s accommodative approach of turning rebels into stakeholders had been used earlier in the Northeast, and continues to underpin its engagement in Nagaland. India even exported the model to Sri Lanka, where every Tamil militant group bar the LTTE was mainstreamed by the end of 1987.
However, neither Malik nor Shah went fully on board. Both Shah, the “headmaster” of militants, and Malik, the “head boy”, turned out to be huge disappointments for Delhi, Dulat wrote. Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao announced that in talks with Kashmiris, “the sky is the limit” — but from the point of view of Malik and Shah, it wasn’t quite clear exactly what Delhi was offering.
Also, Pakistan-backed Hizbul had by then hacked into a lot of Malik’s following, and his new non-violent positioning was getting little traction in the Valley. He did make a point to Pakistan by staying out of the Hurriyat, but his demands of India too remained unchanged. He boycotted elections, and told people the government would use the turnout to tell the world that Kashmir had returned to normal. He said the “self determination” of Kashmiris had to be addressed first, and through negotiations between India, Pakistan, and Kashmiris.
In 2003, as India and Pakistan took halting steps towards a dialogue after several years of backchannel contact, Malik began a campaign for Kashmiris to be included in the process. In 2006-7, with speculation high that India and Pakistan had settled on Kashmir, he started a “Safar-e-Azadi” to press for the inclusion of Kashmiris in the process.
Around this time, Delhi held a series of talks with mainstream Kashmiri parties called the Kashmir Round Table Conference. The separatists stayed away, but had back channels open with the PMO. But Pervez Musharraf’s long-drawn out exit, beginning in 2007, and the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks killed all prospects of an India-Pakistan settlement.
Malik, who met with Prime Ministers Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh, President Musharraf and other Pakistani leaders, warned anyone who would listen that there was anger and impatience on the ground, and that a process was no substitute for a resolution.
After several visits to Pakistan, Malik married Mushaal Hussein, a Pakistani artist half his age. After a few visits to Kashmir in the early days, she has continued to live with her mother in Bahria Town outside Islamabad. Her brother is a US citizen and a strategic studies academic, said to be a protege of David Petraeus, who was CIA chief during the Obama presidency.
In the 2001 BBC interview, Malik said: “When people look at Yasin Malik, they have to look at three Yasin Maliks — one from ’84 to ’88 [student activist], second from ’88 till 1994 [militant], and third from ’94 till onward [Gandhian]”. Clearly, he did not foresee a fourth phase then, in which the embittered Gandhian would join hands with the Hurriyat. Some would say this is a commentary on India’s failures in Kashmir.
When Afzal Guru was hanged in 2013, Malik, who was on a visit to Pakistan, went on a 24-hour hunger strike outside the Islamabad Press Club. He warned that Guru’s hanging was a turning point akin to the execution of Maqbool Butt, and would trigger a spike in militancy. Among those who visited him at the hunger strike was Hafiz Saeed, whom the Pakistani establishment was then mainstreaming.
The growing irritation with Malik on the Indian side was evident, but the definitive break came when he joined hands with Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Mirwaiz Omar Farooq to form the Joint Resistance Leadership (JRL) in 2016, after the killing of Hizb commander Burhan Wani that year. Wani had become the face of Kashmir’s new militancy, and as his death sparked spontaneous protests across Kashmir, the separatists moved to claim their leadership. The JRL’s “hartal calendars” prolonged the crisis in the Valley for more than six months, during which stone-throwing young men battled pellet gun-wielding security forces.