'Marriage is a personal decision. Nothing can overshadow my commitment to the people of Kashmir'

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By It was love at first sight for Yasin Malik. But the JKLF chairman tells Sonia Sarkar that marriage with Pakistani artist Mushaal does not mean he has given up his battle for peace in Kashmir
  • Published 4.07.10

Yasin Malik looks tired. His hair is uncombed, his beard unkempt, and he is sitting on his bed when I enter his room on the second floor of a pink house in Maisuma Bazaar — known as the Gaza Strip of Kashmir because it’s the hub of all protests. I fear he has forgotten all about our appointment. But apparently he hasn’t.

“I just came back from Tral,” he says, referring to a village in south Kashmir. “I am a bit tired. Would you mind going out somewhere for a coffee where we can talk?” asks the chairman of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), a militant group turned political outfit.

The idea seems to revive him. While I drink kehwa — the traditional Kashmiri tea — and admire a photograph of Malik and his artist wife Mushaal on the wall and a portrait of a woman painted by her, he freshens up. He is back in a few minutes, now dressed in a pair of blue jeans and a black T-shirt. Suddenly, Malik looks younger than his 44 years.

We drive down towards Residency Road in his blue Alto, looking for a place where we can have coffee and a conversation. But Malik’s clean forgotten that the coffee outlets are all shut because of a strike called to commemorate the death anniversaries of two Kashmiri leaders — Mirwaiz Maulvi Farooq and Abdul Ghani Lone. We fix up to meet the next day.

I am there — this time at the JKLF office — right on time. My heart sinks when I see that Malik looks as fatigued as he did the day before. But this time, he is ready to talk. And he is in an expansive mood. The Valley, once again, is caught in a vortex of violence, and the militant leader — who once held New Delhi to ransom — remembers how it all began.

It was a July afternoon in 1980, and Malik was 14. The driver of an army vehicle had been slapped by some locals for driving recklessly. In a few hours, he says, army troops started burning vehicles, shops and bus stands. The boy witnessed it all from a hideout in a bus ticket counter. “Luckily, they did not burn the counter, and I survived,” he says, his voice becoming shrill.

That was the trigger. “This incident made me a rebel in my youth,” says the founder of the Students’ Islamic League — the first students’ political group in the Valley. His struggle for an independent Kashmir began under this banner. It was followed by a series of arrests. He remembers being arrested on his 21st birthday for raising anti-establishment slogans. He was sent to an interrogation camp for 17 days. “I caught a blood infection there, and one of my heart valves had to be operated on,” he says, ruffling his hair for the sixth time in the last 15 minutes.

In the last 20 years, the Valley has seen death mounting at its doorstep. Occasional glimmers of peace have almost always been snuffed out by recurring violence. Have leaders such as Malik — who once promised the people a new beginning — failed them in bringing peace to the troubled region?

He hands over a CD to me. “Watch this and decide for yourself,” he says. The CD — with a cover that says Safar-e-Azadi — is a video recording of a signature campaign that he started in 2003 for peace in the Valley. For this, he collected 1.5 million signatures — including those of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and then Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf.

Malik’s critics in Kashmir and elsewhere often allege that he betrayed the cause of the militants and joined hands with the Indian government. In 2008, when he broke a fast that he had undertaken over the Amarnath land row after the Prime Minister intervened, many had criticised him. “I broke the fast after he assured me that the situation would be controlled,” he says.

Some believe that the former militant — jailed for long years — is no longer the firebrand leader that he used to be. On the personal front too, the man has mellowed down. Last year, he married Pakistani artist Mushaal, whom he first met in Pakistan in 2005 when he had gone there for his peace campaign. “It was love at first sight,” he says shyly. “I liked her and decided that I had to marry her,” adds Malik, who was a model in his college days, a poet at heart and an avid reader of Khalil Gibran, Edward Said and George Bernard Shaw.

“Before leaving Pakistan, I called her and asked if she would miss me. She promptly asked, ‘Why?’ and I said, ‘Because I love you.’ She heard me and rang off,” he says. But this did not discourage him. “I made friends with her on a social networking site. Gradually, she started liking me too,” he says. They were engaged three years later. Malik incidentally was in jail then.

Twenty years younger to Malik, Mushaal, who stays mostly in Islamabad, is pursuing a bachelors degree in economics externally from the London School of Economics. “I miss her, but what to do,” he says.

So Malik is in the Valley — and his life continues to revolve around a series of meetings and protests. When he began his political movement 30 years ago, he wouldn’t have known that freedom could always be elusive. But when, as a young boy, he went across the border for training, the dreams were real. His parents — his father was a driver in the state road transport corporation and his mother a homemaker — were not happy to hear about his plans. “They didn’t want me to risk my life,” he says.

Indeed, his life was often at risk. On April 8, 1990, he and his two other partners, Javed Mir and Abdul Hameed Sheikh, were injured while their group leader, Ashfaq Majeed was killed in police firing. “When our hideout was raided, I jumped off the fifth floor of the house. I was bleeding so profusely that the security forces thought that I was dead.” Even now, his voice chokes when he relates the incident.

He regained consciousness after 24 hours, but suffered from facial paralysis. He was later shifted to Tihar Jail in Delhi and then to the Agra Central Jail two years later. “I was staying with people who were mentally ill. It was worse than death,” he says. He was then kept in solitary confinement for two years.

Malik was named the JKLF chairman after Majeed’s death. The movement took new twists and turns, as did Malik’s campaign. In 1994, after he was released from jail, he renounced violence and called for a unilateral ceasefire with the Indian government. “Even after that, 600 of my colleagues were killed by Indian troops,” he says. He was arrested more than 200 times and the Public Safety Act has been slapped on him thrice since 1994.

Even now, his campaign continues, though the return of democracy in Kashmir seems to have subdued the movement. Global pressures have brought about a change in India-Pakistan relations too. But Malik is not too enthused by the recent round of Indo-Pak talks on Kashmir. “The Indian government has a bad reputation of not delivering its promise where Kashmir is concerned. It lacks the will power to resolve the issue.”

And what about Pakistan, I ask him. He puffs on his cigarette and says, “The time has come for both the countries to deliver. And for a dialogue on Kashmir, local Kashmiris should be taken on board.”

Malik’s critics — especially those in the Indian government — have always held that he is soft on Pakistan. Some say marriage to a Pakistani has honed his anti-India, pro-Pak feeling. But Malik shrugs off the allegations. “Marriage is a personal decision. Nothing can overshadow my commitment to the people of Kashmir,” he asserts.

And as I prepare to leave, his phone rings. It’s Mushaal calling to say that she would be arriving the following week. I see him smiling for the first time, and am encouraged to ask him where he and Mushaal went for their honeymoon. “We did not have a honeymoon. But this time, we will plan something,” he says, smiling again.

Weeks later, I hear that he has been arrested for protesting against the killings of Kashmiri youths in Sopore. The honeymoon may have been postponed again.