Yasin Malik’s conviction under the charges of financing terrorism turns a page on another significant period of Kashmir’s trouble-torn history.
Sentencing 56-year-old Malik, who headed the Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), to imprisonment for the remainder of his life will effectively deal a sledgehammer blow to the organised form of separatist politics in Kashmir, which was already tottering along the edges since August 2019 when Article 370 was repealed.
But the power vacuum that the gradual obliteration of separatist politicians is leaving – stalwart Hurriyat leaders like Ashraf Sehrai and Syed Ali Shah Geelani passed away last year – may also prove very dangerous as the undercurrent of discontent in Kashmir has not vanished and is likely to channel itself in more unpredictable and potentially perilous ways during the course of time.
Already, militancy is undergoing a radical transformation in Kashmir, with security forces expressing concern over the rising number of militant sympathisers whose participation in militancy is enabling a renewed wave of violence.
How the Situation Grew Tense in Maisuma
Malik hails from Maisuma, the historically significant neighbourhood in downtown Srinagar, just a few metres short of Lal Chowk. On Wednesday, as news channels began broadcasting reports about the Patiala Court’s likely pronouncement of the quantum of punishment for Malik, the situation in Maisuma got tense. Women from Malik’s neighbourhood gathered at his modest cement-plastered house. They covered their faces with scarves and broke into Kashmiri ballads, a traditional way of registering protest or affirming grief.
Videos showed a family member of Malik sticking her head out of a window holding Quran in her hand and reading verses from it, sobbing. Outside, young protesters defied the ban on pro-independence demonstrations and shouted slogans in favour of Malik.
The Jammu & Kashmir Police tossed tear gas canisters and tried to prevent the protesters from marching towards the main road.
Throughout the day, parts of Srinagar witnessed spontaneous shutdowns, with businesses shuttering and traffic plying sparsely. Such shutdowns had become very rare following the abrogation of Article 370. A voluntary shutdown, therefore, held great political significance in the current climate.
The Special NIA Court in Patiala pronounced its verdict at around 6:15 pm in the evening. Two life imprisonments have been awarded to Malik, along with five 10-years imprisonments and a fine to the tune of Rs 10 lakh.
The case pertained to the financing of terrorism in the Kashmir valley, and Malik was convicted of charges filed under sections 120 B, 121, 121 A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), and sections 13, 15, 17, 18, 20, 38 and 39 of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).
What Were the Charges Against Malik?
The conviction order was issued on 19 May last week. The verdict, a copy of which is with this correspondent, says that the case was registered against Malik in May 2017 following receipt of information that separatist leaders in Kashmir had been raising, receiving and collecting funds, including through illegal channels, to fund “terrorist and separatist activities in J&K”.
The judgment also said that Hurriyat politicians in Kashmir were receiving money through one Zahoor Ahmad Watali from Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, who heads the Jamaat ud Dawa organisation in Pakistan.
Besides indicting Hurriyat leaders, the verdict also charges one Naval Kishor Kapoor with being part of the larger conspiracy to assist and provide cover “to hold proceeds of terrorism”.
Malik’s name figures in the second supplementary chargesheet that accuses him of being involved in “terrorist and subversive activities”.
“During the investigation, on 26.02.2019, his (Malik’s) house was searched and incriminating material including documents and electronic items were seized,” the verdict mentions.
It says that Malik played a key role in orchestrating protests and demonstrations, adding that investigators recovered a protest calendar calling for demonstrations for a 10-day period during the month of August in 2016. Police had recorded 89 violent stone-pelting incidents during the same period.
Also recovered from Malik’s house were copies of letterheads of the Hizbul Mujahideen outfit. “In that letterhead, the terrorist organisations, ie, HM, LeT and JeM had jointly warned the people who supported the football tournament in the valley to disengage themselves from the organisers of this game and show loyalty to the freedom struggle,” the judgement read. “Facebook chat between accused Yasin Malik and Shahid ul Islam revealed that the stone-pelting incidents in Kashmir valley were orchestrated as part of well-planned conspiracy hatched by the accused persons.”
Malik’s interview with Rajat Sharma’s news show ‘Aap ki Adalat’, wherein he had admitted to visiting the LeT camp in Pakistan, is also part of the judgment convicting him.
'I'm Not a Criminal'
On 18 April, when Malik was produced before the court and the charges were read out to him, he decided to renounce legal aid and rested the case on the “wisdom and discretion” of the court. The court had also asked him to decide whether he chose to plead guilty or not. He pleaded guilty, the judgment says.
His decision to forgo legal help had prompted the court to assign an advocate as amicus curiae to Malik, who was instructed to meet him and “explain to him the consequences of entering into a plea”.
On 10 May, Malik was produced in the court again, where he reiterated his decision to accept all charges. During the proceedings, Malik is said to have told the court that he was not a criminal.
“I was arrested within 30 minutes of Burhan Wani's encounter [in 2016],” reports quoting him read. “Atal Bihari Vajpayee allotted me a passport and India allowed me to make a statement because I was not a criminal.”
He also said that he was an adherent of Mahatma Gandhi and had abjured violence in 1994. “I have been doing non-violent politics in Kashmir ever since,” he told the court.
He also said he had liaised with at least seven Indian Prime Ministers and would accept the death penalty and retire from politics if Indian agencies could prove that he was “involved in any terror activities or violence in the last 28 years”.
The JKLF group that Malik headed was the forerunner militant outfit that was the first to wage insurgency in Jammu & Kashmir. The first phase of the Kashmir militancy was led by Malik and his three associates – Hameed Sheikh, Ashfaq Majeed and Javed Mir – all of whom were participants in the 1987 Jammu and Kashmir Legislative Assembly election, which was allegedly rigged in favour of the National Conference, sparking the first wave of armed rebellion. The group led a host of attacks during the 1990s and effectively paralysed the administration in Kashmir.
However, the JKLF soon fell out of favour with Pakistan because of the group's advocacy of a separate, sovereign Jammu & Kashmir, as opposed to accession to Pakistan.
Pakistani architects of the Kashmir insurgency resented this posturing and reversed their support to the JKLF and instead crafted a new outfit, Hizbul Mujahideen, and several others.
Malik's Conviction Can Further Strain India-Pak Ties
A newspaper survey of the 1990s recorded that there was a sudden spurt of at least 150 tanzeems countering JKLF. “Pakistan feared that a single body will settle with India as Sheikh did,” legal jurist AG Noorani had observed.
It is estimated that between 1990 and 1992, as many as 2,213 militants were killed, a majority of whom were JKLF fighters. The group eventually declared a ceasefire and swore off violence – a fact that Malik also broached before judges during his trial.
The JKLF has also been accused of perpetrating the killings of members of the Pandit community. Malik has been specifically accused of orchestrating the killing of four Indian air force personnel on 25 January 1990 allegedly in response to a massacre at Gaw Kadal in Srinagar that Indian paramilitary troops have been accused of committing.
The group was formally banned by the Home Ministry in February 2019, and its offices were raided and members arrested.
While the court eventually awarded a life sentence, the NIA prosecutors had sought a death sentence for Malik. It is also likely that the NIA may challenge the court’s decision.
The conviction of Malik is also likely to strain the ties between Pakistan and India further. A day before Malik was sentenced, Pakistan Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari wrote to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, requesting her to urge India to acquit Malik of all charges.
(Shakir Mir is an independent journalist. He has also written for The Wire.in, Article 14, Caravan, Firstpost, The Times of India and more. He tweets at @shakirmir.)