In the summer of 2000, I met Yasin Malik in the small study of his home in Srinagar. He was 32 then, and as chairman of the Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front, the most prominent face of Kashmiri separatism. And it was a face that made many Indians uncomfortable, for it had been grotesquely disfigured by torture at the hands of the authorities. As we sat on the carpet, I noticed a small bookshelf behind him, and in it a collection of Mahatma Gandhi’s works. This was not what I expected to see in the home of a former militant who, in his conversation with me, defended the violence of the Kashmiri ‘mujahedin.’
When I asked him if he had read the books, he opened the glass door of the bookcase and pulled a well-thumbed volume. “Of course,” he said. “He was a great revolutionary.” But how, I asked, did he reconcile his admiration for the apostle of nonviolence with his support for the militants who killed not only Indian security forces but also ordinary Kashmiris? After all, Gandhi had defeated his enemy with peace. “Yes, but Gandhi’s enemy was much gentler with him than mine have been with me,” Malik said. “They never did this to him,” he added, pointing to his face, its youthful features frozen in an agonized rictus.
I didn’t get to see Malik on my recent visit to Srinagar — I did meet other, prominent separatists of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, of which he is a member — but I was reminded of his stated admiration for Gandhi when, on the day before my arrival, militants killed seven men in Kulgam district. Five of them were policemen, guarding a van used to deliver money to bank branches; the two others were civilian bank employees.
All seven were Kashmiris, and the killing sent a shock through the Valley, even among those who had no love for the Indian state. In WhatsApp and Facebook groups, many Kashmiris agreed that this was beyond the pale. It was one thing for the militants to attack Indian security forces, but to kill civilians was another thing altogether.
But neither Malik nor the Hurriyat was heard from. The separatist group, so quick to call for Valley-wide protests and hartals when one Kashmiri is killed by the security forces, could not be moved to outrage over the murder of seven. The message it sent out was that the spilling of Kashmiri blood — civilian Kashmiri blood, at that — was okay if the militants did the spilling. (Hizbul Mujahedin claimed responsibility for the attack, adding, implausibly, that it had only killed the policemen, and not the two civilians.)
If Malik remembers his Gandhi reading, then he may recall the name of Chauri Chaura. This was the village in Gorakhpur district where, on 5 Feb, 1922, an angry group of protesters who were participating in Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation Movement, set fire to a police station, killing 23 men inside. The Mahatma could have remained silent, or dismissed the incident as an isolated spasm in an otherwise entirely nonviolent movement. Instead, he condemned the incident, and pressed the Indian National Congress to call off the movement, which it did on Feb 12.
If it is too much to expect the Hurriyat to call off its separatist agitation in response to the murder in Kulgam, the leadership could — should — have condemned the killings vociferously. The announcement of a Valley-wide expression of mourning would not have been untoward. But the Hurriyat did no such thing.
Nor was it able to muster any outrage last week, when another Kashmiri, Ummer Fayaz, was abducted from his cousin’s wedding in Shopian, and assassinated — again, police say, by Hizbul Mujahedin. The fact that Fayaz was a lieutenant in the Indian Army seems to have made him unworthy of the Hurriyat’s sympathy.
Condemnation of these killings would not have weakened the Hurriyat; indeed, it might have given more credibility to its claim to represent all Kashmiris. Not only to these omissions undermine the Hurriyat’s claim to the moral high ground in the Valley, the leadership’s silence in the face of the militants’ excesses emboldens groups like the Hizbul Mujahedin to pursue their own agenda — leaving the Hurriyat with no credible voice. One manifestation of this was the threat by Hizb commander Zakir Rashid Bhat to behead Hurriyat leaders, for describing their movement as a political struggle, rather than a religious war for an Islamic state. On this occasion, Bhat was expelled from the militant group, but Malik and his fellow leaders of the Hurriyat will likely watch their backs, and their tongues, from now on.
The Hurriyat leadership often compares the condition of Kashmir to that of Palestine. Having spent time in both places, I can attest that there are few similarities. But the leadership of the Kashmiri separatists have one thing in common with their Palestinian counterparts: in the words of an Israeli statesman, “they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”
Already this month, they’ve missed two.
Bobby Ghosh is editor-in-chief of Hindustan Times