The Jammu-Kashmir Plebiscite Front (JKPF), the parent organisation of the Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), was founded by Maqbool Bhat, a Kashmiri school teacher, in 1966, the same year Yasin Malik was born. Last week, Malik, who is the current chairman of the JKLF, was sentenced to life imprisonment in an illegal cross-border funding case.
Amanullah Khan, from the Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), was the first chairman of the JKLF, set up in 1977 for “liberating” J&K from both India and Pakistan. Khan died in Pakistan in 2016. The JKLF, as an armed group, came under spotlight in 1984 when its men living in the U.K. kidnapped Ravindra Hareshwar Mhatre, a 48- year-old Indian diplomat, from a bus stop. The first ever kidnapping by the JKLF was a desperate bid to get its jailed patron Bhat released. But it didn’t work out as per plan. Mhatre's body was found three days later in Birmingham. The incident spurred the case proceedings against Bhat, who was hanged in 1984 in Tihar, for the murder of a Criminal Investigation Department (CID) officer in 1968.
After this incident, the JKLF faded from the scene till December 8, 1989 when the outfit, with just 40 members in its ranks, kidnapped the then Union Home Minister Mufti Muhammad Sayeed's daughter, while she was on the way home from her medical college in Srinagar, at around 3:45 p.m.
Moosa Raza, who was the J&K Chief Secretary in 1989, has described the impact of the kidnapping on the security situation in the state in his book, Kashmir: Land of Regrets: “The Intelligence Bureau chief was as much in the dark as the local police. The JKLF claimed responsibility and demanded the release of their members from the custody in exchange of Ms. Sayeed. The JKLF decided to do abduction so that it could become a cause célèbre.”
On the ground, the incident proved as a cause célèbre for the JKLF and its aim was to galvanise ground support for its ideology in Kashmir, as their five men were released in exchange of Ms. Sayeed. It empowered the JKLF further. Later, the outfit’s widely-known HAJY group — Hamid Sheikh, Ashfaq Majeed Wani, Javed Ahmad Mir and Yasin Malik — who had crossed to PoK in 1988 for arms training, became the poster boys of militancy in Kashmir.
The popularity of the group made even Pakistan rethink its Kashmir policy, and left many in the deep state edgy. It was reflected in the floating of the Hizbul Mujahideen militant outfit, which, contrary to the JKLF's goal of “complete independence”, demanded accession of J&K to Pakistan.
Frail-looking, but agile and angry Malik became the face of the JKLF after his two aides Hamid Sheikh and Ashfaq Wani died in two separate encounters in Srinagar by 1992. Before his JKLF role, Malik, who comes from a humble dwelling in Srinagar’s Maisuma locality, was a polling agent in the Batamaloo area of the Muslim United Front (MUF) candidate Mohammad Yusuf Shah, who, after his defeat in the 1987 rigged polls, became Syed Salahuddin of the United Jehad Council.
Mr. Raza described in his book the indelible mark left on the psyche of the MUF and its supporters by the 1987 rigged elections, which triggered a new wave of violence in J&K. “I told Abdul Majid Wani (father of Ashfaq Wani). You are claiming to fight for justice. But you yourself are committing an injustice by kidnapping an innocent girl and holding her captive against her will. I know your son and other leaders of the JKLF are, perhaps, on the ground floor. Please explain the point to them and get response,” Mr. Raza wrote.
The senior Wani returned to the room with a message from the kidnappers. “Sir, these are good boys. They consider Rubaiya as their own sister. They would not harm her in any way. But they say that because they functioned as the polling agents for the MUF candidates in the last election, they were arrested, beaten up and jailed. Is that not an injustice?"
Malik was arrested in August 1990 amidst the height of militancy. By that time, he had started showing signs that he was keen to initiate a political process on Kashmir. He kept meeting diplomats from the West and left-oriented intellectuals from the country, besides the official emissaries, including intelligence chiefs. Malik once said that reading about the resistance put up by Mahatma Gandhi in a Delhi jail motivated him to change the course of his approach on the Kashmir issue.
Malik took an unpopular decision to declare a ceasefire in 1994, which split the JKLF into two camps: Amanullah Khan's faction in PoK and Malik's faction in Kashmir. This earned him hatred among sections in Pakistan but also won the faith of many in India, especially the ruling political class, which wanted to put an end to the growing and uncontrolled armed rebellion in the Valley.
No written record
Interestingly, there is no written record of the ceasefire agreement and the conditions agreed to by Malik and the then government. However, the decision by the previous governments not to pursue cases against him was a signal enough in that direction. In 2009, the Srinagar wing of the TADA court stayed the trials and directed that proceeding “to remain in abeyance” in two key cases faced by Malik — the killing of Indian Air Force men in Srinagar's Rawalpora area and kidnapping of Ms. Sayeed. The policy, however, was upended by the BJP government after it came to power in 2014. This has ended New Delhi's policy to engage separatists in Kashmir as stakeholders.
Over the years, Malik had been the go-to man for Delhi in Kashmir to set a stage for talks, whenever the valley witnessed eruptions. In 2006, he supported talks between India and Pakistan on Kashmir and was sent to Pakistan by emissaries of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to prevail upon militant outfits there to back the four-point formula, which was being negotiated.
In response to an offer of talks by L.K Advani, who was a Union Minister in the NDA government, Malik told CNN in 2000: “Previous governments also offered talks — the governments of V.P. Singh, Narasimha Rao, Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral — but they all had the same conditions. I don't think [this government] has shown any flexibility.”
Malik always proved to be a tough nut for both Pakistan and India, when it came to his ideological core. In 2000, Malik hurled a shoe at Pakistani-American businessman Mansoor Ijaz, who was negotiating between India, Pakistan and separatists at the behest of the U.S., following a verbal brawl over understanding of the Kashmir issue. In 2016, Malik wrote a letter to Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif warning against changing the status of Gilgit-Baltistan.
Much to the chagrin of New Delhi, Malik steered politics agitations in Kashmir between 2008 and 2016. He travelled across Kashmir in 2007 during the ‘Safar-i-Aazadi (Journey of Freedom)’ campaign and collected 70,000 signatures from locals to emphasise the need to include the people of J&K in the dialogue process.
Now, Malik's JKLF stands banned. He was arrested and the JKLF office in Srinagar sealed after the Union Home Ministry issued the ban order in March 2019, just one month after the Pulwama attack by the Jaish-e-Mohammed.
The conviction of Malik is fraught with implications. In the short term, the safety valve of separatist politics, which Delhi had used in the past, will come to an end. This will provide space to new militant faces to dominate the scene in the Valley. On the other side, Delhi would hope that the conviction of Malik would act as a deterrent against rebellion among the future generations. But Maqbool Bhat's hanging did not act as a deterrent in the long run. So it is to be seen how Malik’s sentencing would impact militancy in Kashmir.