The government has reasons to seek momentary calm in Kashmir
Two recent judgements by lower courts, which usually take maximalist positions on the side of caution, suggest that the government of India may want to dial down provocation in the Kashmir Valley. At least for now.
One, a Delhi court recently awarded Kashmiri separatist and former militant Yasin Malik multiple life sentences and financial penalty of Rs 10 lakh in a case of terror funding. The National Investigative Agency had pleaded for a death sentence. The 56-year-old Malik may yet get a death sentence in another case—killing of unarmed IAF personnel waiting to board a bus in 1990. The chargesheet for this case was filed only in 2020, even though the case was registered in 1990 itself. There were reasons for this delay, but more on that later. As of now, it seems improbable that the judgement on that case will come in a hurry. Malik is likely to remain alive, at least until the time his death is deemed more useful to the government.
Two, People’s Democratic Party’s (PDP) youth leader and former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti’s confidante Waheed Parra was granted bail by the Jammu and Kashmir high court after 18 months of incarceration. The court deemed evidence against him too sketchy. That neither his arrest nor his bail has anything to do with the merits of the charges against him is evident from the fact that even when Parra had managed to secure the bail within two months of his arrest on 25 November 2020 (he got the bail in January 2021), he was immediately arrested by another agency. Clearly, someone had decided that he, or what he represented, needed to be taught a lesson. Hence, treated like a criminal, he was shunted between the NIA detention centre in Delhi to District Jail in Jammu, then Joint Interrogation Centre in Srinagar and finally in the Central Jail, Kashmir.
In May 2022, the powers felt that enough lesson has been taught. Perhaps, they are right. If sources are to be believed, then Parra (or his family), has decided that he takes a break from politics. This is likely to be a lesson for the young who still think that there is a possibility of dissent within the mainstream. The mainstream path is straight and narrow. And safe, if you know which side to walk on.
There is no surprise in any of this. Enforcement of law and prosecution of Kashmiris—militants, unarmed separatists, politicians, human rights activists and civilians—has always been a political endeavour. The criminal or civil cases are built based on the message that the political power in Delhi wants to convey. That’s why human rights activist Khurram Parvez, chairperson of Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances and programme coordinator of Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, is likely to remain incarcerated because he embarrasses the government globally through his work. It’s difficult to teach a lesson to such people or buy their silence. The only way to muffle them is to put them out of circulation for as long as possible.
However, going back to the beginning. There are two possible reasons why the government wants the silence of the streets in the Valley. One, the possibility of talks with Pakistan without Kashmir becoming a sticking point. Both, the Pakistan army chief and the new Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif have expressed the willingness to start ‘meaningful talks’ with India. Though they are still mentioning Kashmir in the same breath, there have been several indications that ‘talking on Kashmir’ will not be a pre-condition to opening the conversation.
From the government of India’s perspective, the means would be the end in itself. It would help build the narrative of getting Pakistan to talk on India’s terms. The sustainment of the ceasefire on the Line of Control is evidence that Pakistan is keener for peace with India than the vice versa. Given this, it wouldn’t harm if Kashmir has a veneer of calm. It is good optics.
Two, China. The continuing occupation of parts of Ladakh has rightly convinced the government that this is no ordinary instance of provocation by Beijing. The unending rounds of talks, and Chinese obstinacy despite Indian appeasement has probably led to the realisation that it is in India’s interest to keep the western front as calm as possible. One way of doing that is to keep the Valley calm, so as to maintain the illusion of normalcy. Perhaps, the United States, which is pushing for greater militarisation under the rubric of Quad, also has some role to play in this. Any trouble between India and Pakistan, including border tension, is likely to dilute New Delhi’s commitment to the US’ objective.
Another consideration could be the impending Amarnath Yatra. It will be less stressful for all concerned if there are no major disturbances in the Valley leading up to and during the yatra.
In this balancing act of ‘zero tolerance towards terrorism’ and a façade of ‘normalcy returning to Kashmir’ Malik plays an involuntary, but important role. The revival of old cases against him conveys government’s toughness. But the pace of the case would depend upon the tide of relations with Pakistan. Hence, Malik can be dispensed with whenever the government deems fit. And in case that happens, it won’t be the first time something like this would have happened. To be fair to the Modi government, it would only be following the precedence established by the earlier governments—that whenever a case of being tough on terrorism had to be made, a Kashmiri was hanged.
But like others before him, dead Malik would be a bigger trouble than the living one. Yasin Malik was the romanticised revolutionary in the late 1980s and early 1990s, for Kashmiris. His aura peaked a few years after he gave up arms and embraced the Gandhian way of resistance. He sat out the most violent phase of Kashmiri insurgency, talking about peace, holding exhibitions and ill-attended protest marches. Lacking both in intellect and craft, Malik has been unable to reinvent himself successfully. In the last two decades, he had reduced to being a bitter middle-aged man, quick to anger.
Despite being a member of the Hurriyat Conference, even in its heydays, Malik was never seriously courted by India, because it was realised fairly early that conversation was not his strong point. Beyond rhetoric and angry outbursts, he had very little to contribute. This was also the reason why his influence over the Kashmiri street continued to diminish year on year, until the point when his voice was barely heard beyond his neighbourhood of Maisooma.
Perhaps, it was his persona of harmlessness that put the 1990 IAF-killing case on the backburner. The successive governments took the position that in the early years of militancy several incidents happened which were best left alone. Besides, it was useful to have a Kashmiri Separatist, unfriendly to Pakistan, and talking peace.
Given this, a living Malik in Tihar or any other jail, would gradually move into obscurity. Of course, he would suffer the same fate if he were living in his house in Maisooma too, just as other members of his ilk are, post the revocation of Articles 370 and 15A. Ideally, this is what should happen to him. It requires no genius to see that the terror-funding case is political. It’s no secret that any insurgent, or even political movement needs money to sustain itself. The case of Kashmir is not unique. Money has been coming into the state from several sources. But money alone does not sustain an insurgency. So, the crackdown on the sources of funding can at best give temporary relief. What Kashmir needs is a political resolution. Not criminalisation of those who are seeking it.
Coming back to Malik’s sentence, a handful of people had collected outside his house to protest when his life sentence was announced. Any other verdict would turn this into a sea of people tearing through the veneer of calm. A hanged Malik will join the list of Kashmiri heroes, much like Maqbool Bhat, Afzal Guru and Burhan Wani.
Should the government care for that? Yes. Will it? Unlikely. Because as people we have repeatedly shown that our collective conscience is satisfied only by the misery of the Kashmiris. And the government knows that.