Kashmiri Insurgent Puts Hopes in America

For one year from 2007-2008, Amar traveled around the world reporting on how people from all walks of life view the United States through text and video.  The following is one of a number of posts from India. For more, click here.

Srinagar - Yasin Malik introduced the Kalashnikov to Kashmir. That’s what villagers in Pampur say. He’s a folk hero here among the thousands who share his dream of independence. Malik tells me that America is essential to realizing that dream. From the schoolyard to the interrogation room, he has always thought so.

India and Pakistan have been fighting over Kashmir ever since its king acceded his predominantly Muslim state to India in 1947. Over the decades, the India-administered portion has demanded independence, growing increasingly violent as the Indian army swelled to suppress militants.

Yasin Malik was born in 1966. His father was a government servant in Ladakh. He had three sisters, no brothers. His childhood was relatively normal. “When I was ten,” he tells me, “even that young, I had great hope for America.” Classmates and Malik giddily exchanged rumors that “Americans would send troops for the Kashmiris” to help them achieve independence. America distrusted the non-aligned India during the Cold War and cooperated with Pakistan to oppose the Soviet presence in neighboring Afghanistan, so the rumors grew easily that America would also side with Pakistan and Kashmir's Muslims over India's territorial claims. “We had great faith in America.”

Faith was not enough. When he was 18, in 1984, Malik joined the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), a movement founded in Britain calling for Kashmiri independence. But Malik's initial nonviolence was met by force from the Indian army. Malik was detained dozens of times and faced harsh interrogations by the Indian army. His heart valve was damaged after a severe chest impact. His faith in nonviolence was shattered. “There was no democratic space for the nonviolent movement…[and] so we became an armed struggle,” he says simply.

When Malik picked up the gun in 1989, JKLF followed him, becoming the foremost militant outfit in Kashmir. That year Malik orchestrated the kidnapping of the daughter of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, then India’s home minister, eventually exchanging her for fellow fighters. He went on as commander in chief of the JKLF to mastermind the killing of hundreds of pro-India forces in the India-administered part of Kashmir.

In this role, Malik wrote a letter to the President of the United States, George Bush senior, hoping to make childhood dreams become adult reality. With violence spreading across Kashmir’s streets in 1990, Malik asked for U.S. intervention. He got no response. And in August of that year, Malik was arrested by India.

This time he spent four years behind bars and turned to books for the first time. “I read more than a thousand books in jail," he tells me. "I read Khalil Gibran and Iqbal…and biographies of so many leaders across the globe” like Mandela, Arafat, Jinnah and Gandhi. Meanwhile, Pakistan co-opted many of the new militant outfits in Kashmir, providing bullets to those ready to accede to their patron like Hizbul Mujahideen. As a secular nationalist movement, the JKLF was left out and found itself strong on will but short on bullets.

Still the charismatic leader, though in jail, Malik was approached by Indian leaders like Gandhi’s grandson Rajmohan, and American diplomats who urged him to renounce violence in exchange for more power at the bargaining table. These diplomats worried about the Islamic character of new militant groups, and wanted to create a stronger nationalist voice willing to talk not fight. These visitors, along with his reading of world leaders' biographies, convinced Malik that nonviolence could work. So for personal, political and practical reasons, Malik renounced force. He got out of jail in 1994 and ever since has embraced dialog as the means of achieving an independent Kashmir.

His stature has grown since. On September 9, 2001 Malik visited America for medical treatment. Doctors in Washington, DC fixed his heart and his eardrum, also bruised by torture. But just after he arrived, the Pentagon was struck and the two towers fell. He left the hospital to find American streets awash with new interest in Islamic militancy. Malik received invitations to speak at the Brookings Institution, Carnegie Endowment for Peace, Columbia, Yale, Harvard and many more.

“After 9-11 I found a tremendous interest of very key people in the United States,” he said soon after his return. He saw Americans becoming increasingly aware that “long-term success depends not only on military battles but on combating the roots of terrorism…the factors that create an atmosphere of severe poverty and prolonged injustice.” For the first time in decades, America might pay real attention to Kashmir as a primary concern, he thought, not a secondary consideration in order to avoid war between India and Pakistan.

But Malik soon realized this attention was double-edged. While the newfound urgency to resolve the Kashmir issue was a welcome change, he now worries that Americans are too ready to link “the Kashmiri struggle…to [the] Taliban or terrorism.” A minority have been fighting a religiously inspired war for years, he says, but they do not represent the great majority of Kashmiris. A number of the militant groups are secular nationalists seeking independence at best, but would probably settle for a say in the Indo-Pakistan dialog.

Just because “there are Muslims fighting does not mean [they are] Al Qaeda or terrorists,” he tells me. “Kashmir’s struggle is not religious; it is political. It has always been.” He hopes America will appreciate the importance of Kashmir's struggle while differentiating it from the struggles of other militant Islamic movements, and ultimately help him achieve a peaceful resolution.

KashmirAmar Bakshi