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International Socialist Review Issue 37, September–October 2004

Fighting for an Independent Kashmir


Yasin Malik is chairman of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, the largest pro-independence, secular mass organization in Jammu and Kashmir. The ISR’s Ganesh Lal interviewed Malik in his home in Srinagar, Kashmir in January 2004.

SURROUNDED BY snow-capped peaks, Srinagar’s famous Dal Lake was once the favored tourist destination for South Asians and international tourists. Numerous Bollywood musicals were filmed here in the 1970s, with Dal Lake serving as a backdrop for the sugary romances that are the staple of Bollywood. The lake itself, its perimeter ringed by hundreds of houseboats that serve as hotels for tourists, became an icon of Jammu and Kashmir’s breathtaking natural scenery. With names like "Hollywood Star" and "LA Beauty," the houseboats harken back to the days when American and European tourists frequented Srinagar, the capital of Jammu and Kashmir.

Today, Dal Lake is a shadow of its former self. The houseboats are empty; their peeling paint and threadbare carpets a faint reminder of their past glory. For Srinagar today is unmistakably a city under military occupation. Amidst boarded-up storefronts and crumbling buildings, the symbols of the Indian occupation are ubiquitous. Sandbags and barbed-wire of Indian military bunkers and outposts dot the landscape. Slogans like "mera bharat mahaan" ("My India, the Greatest") and images of the Indian flag adorn the concrete walls surrounding army bases. Heavily armed troops patrol the streets, semi-automatic weapons at the ready. Since the popular uprising against Indian occupation began in the late 1980s, an estimated eighty thousand Kashmiris have been killed by Indian "security forces." Today, the Indian military maintains a force of nearly half a million across the valley of Kashmir.

The Indian and Pakistani governments view Jammu and Kashmir as a "disputed territory." While the Indian government has tried to maintain its control over the region through sheer military force, Pakistan has armed and trained militant Islamist groups to fight the Indian forces in the name of "liberating" Kashmir. Most of the militant groups, however, favor Kashmir’s accession to Pakistan. On the other hand, the vast majority of Kashmiris themselves, particularly those who live in and around Srinagar, favor independence from both India and Pakistan.

The struggle for self-determination in Jammu and Kashmir has its roots in the partition of the subcontinent at the time of its liberation from British colonial rule. The province was one of 565 "princely states" that were to be given the option of joining India or the newly-formed state of Pakistan. An Instrument of Accession was negotiated between the Indian government and the ruler of Jammu and Kashmir, Maharaja Hari Singh. This agreement made the province a part of India, but with a caveat: The Kashmiri people would be allowed to have their own voices heard in a referendum to be conducted as soon as law and order was restored. The referendum never materialized, and the Indian government has since held onto Jammu and Kashmir with little regard for the sentiments of the Kashmiris themselves.

A popular uprising against Indian rule erupted across the valley in the late 1980s, calling for self-determination and independence. At the heart of this struggle was a newly-formed organization, the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF). The JKLF originated in the student movement that spearheaded this uprising, and demanded the establishment of a secular, democratic and independent Jammu and Kashmir. Its initial strategy of armed struggle ran headlong into the brutal repression meted out by the Indian military forces. Then, in 1994, the JKLF renounced armed struggle and began to focus on tactics of nonviolent civil disobedience and grassroots organizing.

Yasin Malik, chairman of the JKLF and one of its founding members, has come to represent the aspirations of the Kashmiris for self-determination. Despite the Indian media’s attempts to portray him as a militant fundamentalist, Malik stresses his organization’s commitment to a secular and democratic Jammu and Kashmir, where Hindus and Muslims can live side by side, as they had done for centuries before.

In January 2004, thanks to the efforts of California-based researcher and activist Akhila Raman, I was granted an interview with Yasin. He graciously invited us to dinner at his home in Srinagar, saying that he would drive us back to our hotel, the Houseboat Chicago, after the interview. It was nearly midnight as we got up to leave, and Yasin reminded us that there was a "curfew-like situation" in the streets that late at night. Worried that I might be putting Yasin at risk (he has been arrested hundreds of times by the Indian authorities), I apologized and suggested that we might call the hotel for a cab. "This is my city," he replied. "I will move around as I please." And he drove us back to our hotel through the deserted streets under the intermittent glare of military searchlights that picked up our tiny car every so often.

The Indian military may have destroyed the infrastructure of Srinagar, and the storefronts and houseboats of the tourist industry might be crumbling, but the Kashmiris’ aspirations for self-determination remain unshaken.

COULD YOU tell us about the origins of the struggle for self-determination in Kashmir?

IN 1947, India achieved its freedom from British rule and Pakistan came into existence. At this time, Kashmir was an independent country until October 27 of that year. Since 1931, there had been a powerful civil liberties movement against Maharaja Hari Singh, led by Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, a popular Kashmiri leader.

In October 1947, raiders from the NWFP [the North Western Frontier Province] attacked Kashmir. The Maharaja approached India for military assistance. In return, Lord Mountbatten [the last viceroy of British-occupied India] agreed to the request for military assistance, provided Hari Singh signed an Instrument of Accession to India. Ultimately, the Maharaja made up his mind and agreed to sign the Instrument of Accession. This Instrument of Accession was supposed to be a temporary document; when law and order was restored in Kashmir, the people of Kashmir would be given the choice to decide their own future.

Sheikh Abdullah, who was in prison at the time, was released on condition that he also approved of this deal. [Indian Prime Minister] Jawaharlal Nehru came to Kashmir, and spoke in front of thousands of people, pledging that the people of Kashmir would be given the right to decide their own future. "I would be pained if Kashmiris were to decide against us," he said, "but regardless of your decision, we will abide by it."

Nehru approached the UN and a ceasefire was imposed. Subsequently, the UN passed a number of resolutions accepting the principle of self-determination of Kashmir.

In 1953, Sheikh Abdullah was arrested for raising the question of self-determination. He was thrown into prison for eleven years. In response, the people launched a nonviolent struggle for self-determination. From 1953 to 1988 it was a purely nonviolent struggle. Unfortunately, the government of India used every method of suppression to curb the nonviolent struggle. Ultimately, in 1988, Kashmiris launched an armed struggle for self-determination.

TELL US about yourself–how did you get involved in the struggle?

BEFORE STARTING the armed struggle, I had been involved in the nonviolent civil disobedience movement, from 1983—1988. I was nineteen years old in 1985, when I was arrested. The charge against us was that we published speeches calling for the independence of Kashmir. I was sent to the "Red 16" interrogation center for sixteen days. Then I spent three months in jail.

In 1985, the Muslim United Front (MUF) came into existence–a political forum of different political, social, and religious organizations–with a platform of self-determination. In 1986, we launched a student organization, of which I was the general secretary. This was the most powerful student organization in the valley.

In March 1987, assembly [i.e., state government] elections were due. The MUF insisted on participating in the elections, although we told them that the government of India would not allow them to win. We told them there would be no candidates from our side [the student movement], but we would support them.

Ultimately, as we had predicted, the government of India manipulated the elections. Winners were declared losers and losers were declared winners. All the members of our student organization were arrested and sent back to the interrogation center. There, because of food poisoning, I lost one of my heart valves. I spent two months in a hospital and then was sent back to prison. All of 1987 was spent in prison.

In 1988, we decided that there was no space left for nonviolent struggle. It is unfortunate: The people who gave the concept of nonviolence to the world, the people who teach the philosophies of the Buddha, those very people curbed our nonviolent movement.

So we started an armed struggle by forming the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front. In 1990, they tried to arrest me. I jumped out of a fifth-floor window, went into a coma, and was taken to a hospital and left there, as the security forces didn’t know who I was. A doctor recognized me, and I was able to escape. They imposed a fifteen-day curfew throughout the city. I was declared dead by the international media, but I survived, with a fractured collarbone and partial facial paralysis.

Five months later, I was arrested as the commander-in-chief of the JKLF, put in a "death cell," then in another jail for one year. The death cell was a place where they held mentally retarded prisoners, naked. The conditions were brutal. I fell ill, and became weak. My body weight was down to 42 kilograms (92 pounds). I was moved to the All India Medical Institute, where I was operated on, and my heart valve was replaced.

Soon after, I was put back in prison, and until 1994, I was kept in solitary confinement.

During this period a number of Indian intellectuals came to see me in prison. They all had one question for me: For the last five thousand years, the Kashmiri people never engaged in violence–what happened to that? So I told them about my own experiences. They responded by saying, "If the Kashmiris gave nonviolent struggle another chance, we will help you." So when I was released, I declared a unilateral ceasefire, and started a nonviolent Gandhian movement in Kashmir.

Unfortunately, since 1994 there have more than half a dozen attempts on my life. I have been arrested over one hundred times, sometimes for two days, sometimes for two months.

I’ve been detained twice under the Public Safety Act. In 1999, I was sent to Jodhpur for eight months; last year I spent nine months in jail in Jammu. During this ceasefire, six hundred of my colleagues have been killed by Indian security forces.

The media represent the pro-independence section of Kashmiri society as a small minority. How much popular support do you and the JKLF have?

YOU CAN go and ask the people. Look, in June 2003, we started a signature campaign. The campaign’s premise was this: Kashmir is not simply a dispute between India and Pakistan, and if there is a "peace process" between India and Pakistan, the Kashmiri people must be part of the peace talks. The government of India is misleading the international community by claiming that the recent polls here have shown the Kashmiri people’s allegiance to India.

So I went to the people with a transparent signature campaign. The current chief minister, Mufti Muhammad Sayeed, won 281,000 votes in Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh. So far, in just two districts and two other constituencies more than eight hundred thousand signatures, which were then presented at a press conference in December. The journalists were shown the evidence, and asked to go and verify the authenticity of the signatures.

This is an ongoing campaign, which will take a few more months, and then all the signatures, along with photographs and videos, will be presented in exhibitions across cities in India, Pakistan, and America. So how much support do we have among the people? You can see for yourself.

Some say that an independent Kashmir would not be a viable state. They refer to the question of the military, of defense, and so on. They also refer to the fact that Jammu and Ladakh, for instance, might want to stay with India. What do you say to that?

PEOPLE SAY we cannot be a viable state. We are a region that is rich in culture, in natural beauty. Why do we need a military? We want no quarrel with our neighbors. The goal of our struggle is an independent, secular, democratic country, which is the only viable, honorable solution. We want to assure the people of India and Pakistan, who I know are sentimentally and romantically involved with Kashmir, that they will be able to see an independent Kashmir as their own home.

It is in the national interests of India to prevent a partition of Jammu and Kashmir. Now, the people of Jammu and Ladakh might want to separate or might want to join with India, but we cannot force them either way. They have to be able to make a free decision.

What is the connection between communalism1 in India and Kashmir?

THE KASHMIRIS have no history of communalism. Kashmiriyat, the culture of the Kashmiris, is founded in a spirituality that stems from the story of two saints: one a Hindu woman poet, the other was a Muslim saint. This is the pillar of Kashmiri spiritual foundation: Kashmiriyat.

There are also historical accounts of Muslim kings in Kashmir banning the eating of beef in order to build harmony with the Hindus.

In Amarnath, one of the most important spiritual places for Hindus, you’ll be surprised to know that there are no Hindus living there. Hindus have never lived there! The custodians of this major Hindu place of pilgrimage are Muslims.

Even in 1947, when the whole subcontinent was involved in a bloodbath, even in Jammu, where thousands of Muslims were killed by Hindu chauvinists, not a single Hindu was killed in Kashmir, where Muslims are a majority.

Even Mahatma Gandhi recognized this when he said that he saw a ray of hope in Kashmir.

But the government of India has used communalism to try to spread dissension in Jammu and Kashmir. They should realize that this is very dangerous for them as well. It is not in the interests of India or of Pakistan that Jammu and Kashmir become communalized.

We have not received much help or support from the Indian progressives. Many Indian intellectuals are guided by blind nationalism when it comes to Kashmir. Privately, some of them have even told me that condemning the security forces in Kashmir would result in a loss of morale among the troops.

Intellectuals, as George Bernard Shaw has said, are conformists, because they always go along with the current. Then there are the stupid people who go against the current. And if there is any progress in society, it is because of these "stupid people."

What is your opinion of the different militant groups operating in the valley?

I THINK that if the government of India stops the atrocities and the suppression in Kashmir, and allows a genuine space for the nonviolent struggle, there would be less militancy in Kashmir. In the villages, you can see this. When you don’t allow people to express themselves through democratic means, you get militancy.

Give us the right to express ourselves without fear of harassment; give our women the right to live without the fear of molestation, and there will be no need for militancy.

This is a responsibility of the international community too, but they have a double standard. After 9/11, they have called all the militant groups "terrorist" organizations, but the world has to allow for democratic process as well–there has to be an alternative space for people to register their grievances.

And the media rarely give any coverage to the nonviolent struggles going on. I have been interviewed numerous times by the international media–BBC, CNN, CNBC–and they all want to discuss only my militant past. They find this glamorous. But for the past eight years, I have been involved in a mass movement that is nonviolent, but this holds no glamor for the media.

You burn a bus, you get media attention. You hold a demonstration of one hundred thousand people, and everyone ignores you. They say they are against violence, but the same people enjoy glamorizing violence in their reporting.

It seems to me that Indian statecraft is very scared of a democratic nonviolent movement in Kashmir, because they have decided to tell the international community that it is a form of terrorism.

They tried their level best to send me back to the gun, but I’ve been patient. Our movement is strong, and it will keep going.

What is your message to ordinary people in India?

MY MESSAGE to the Indian people is very simple. Indian people have a rich history of ahimsa [non-injury] against imperialism. I would like them to know that we are the worst victims of Indian imperialism. One hundred thousand people, including men, women, and children have been killed by Indian security forces. I want to appeal to the conscience of the Indian people: They must come to the rescue of the Kashmiri people. And save the humanity of India by preventing genocide.

The second important thing is that Indian people themselves are the victims of the Kashmir issue. Money–money that belongs to the Indian people–that could be used to improve Indian education, improve health care, is instead being used to boost defense expenditure and to kill innocent Kashmiri people.

This money ought to be utilized for their own betterment. This is also true in Pakistan.

And to activists elsewhere?

I WROTE a letter to the leaders of both India and Pakistan, asking them to allow the people of Kashmir to be represented at the table. I believe we can come up with a win-win solution, but for that we have to have representation at the peace talks. The Kashmiri people have suffered a lot. They deserve the support of people across the globe. We hope that they will mobilize support for our struggle.

1 "Communalism" refers to the mobilization of religious communities for political ends.

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