Today in Kashmir clashes with the police and local militia groups erupted after the highly controversial sentencing of Kashmiri political leader Yasin Malik. Malik for decades has been the leader of one of the largest independence movements in the region and for decades has advocated for peaceful independence for the region. In India in the last few years a major political shift has happened in the nation as the standing government seeks to crack down on independence movements who aim for freedom in India’s provinces. These usually come with charges of terrorism as the government tries to assert its rule over minority groups who have become increasingly independent minded and anti-government.
History of the Region and the Separatist Movements in Kashmir
The collapse of the British Raj in the 1940s led to the creation of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and parts of modern-day Myanmar (Burma). Since many of the countries were themselves unified only by the purpose of the removal of British rule, when the British were thrown out immediate instability followed. Particularly between the Muslim and Hindu populations of India, in which both felt sidelined wherever one was a minority population. This conflict itself has been prominent in no area more than the Kashmir region, the most north-west province of India. Both Pakistan and India have claimed this region as their rightful territory, and conflicts between these two nuclear powers have grown tense in the past with wars and large-scale skirmishes breaking out.
The Kashmir Valley itself according to a BBC in-depth report the population of the locals indicated that about 95% of the population were Muslim in contrast to the roughly 80% Hindu overall Indian population by Pew Research Center. This disparity has led to many concerns about the oppression of local Muslims and calls by both the Pakistani and Kashmiri governments to join Pakistan or have outright independence. The Kashmiri people have called upon international organizations to investigate the way they have been treated with claims of ethnic cleansing as well as government sponsored suppression of the locals. While this intervention seems unlikely in the current moment, the extent of this has been suppressed internationally and within the Indian community in attempts to make the conflict remote and out of the public eye.
One of the most prominent groups in this conflict is the JKLF (The Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front), who have operated internationally since 1977. This group although being predominantly Islamic has been one of the pro-Independence parties opting for neither Pakistan nor India but a new nation. Originally the group was a paramilitary organization intending to gain independence through violent means as the organization was branded as a terrorist group shortly after its founding. In the 1990s this changed as two of the main factions in the JKLF split into the pro-military organization and the anti-war organization led by Yasin Malik who opted instead for a legal and non-lethal approach to independence. His path to independence was based upon ideals of liberty, freedom, and democracy with a secular state. This stance often brought his group into conflict with the Islamic extremist movements in the area who sought to establish Islamic rule in the region. More on this organization can be found here.
The Indian Government and Yasin Malik
Before we dive into the way that the Indian government has treated Yasin Malik, one of the most important questions is why is Malik such a threat? In India the rule of the Hindu majority has been easily kept in place by the religious and political institutions set up to keep the social order of the day. In more fringe places such as Kashmir where these same institutions do not have the same reach within the Muslim communities the government itself then becomes weaker to handle threats to the establishment. Malik by every definition is a threat to the establishment. He has had success in creating a movement unique to his own situation. In a place where Islamic radicalism has been the rule of the day for independence movements, Malik’s vision has been on instead of secularism, freedom, and democracy. All of these values have been supposedly foundations of the Indian government since its inception, meaning to condemn Malik in the same way that the Islamic radicals are would be an attack on core Indian values. He then becomes a double threat; he is both what the Indian government claims to be as well as what the people want the Kashmir government to be.
This brings us to the present day where Malik has been sentenced to life in prison for terrorism. According to Al-Jazeerathe prosecution had originally sought the death penalty for Malik, but this was blocked by the judge on the case who felt that option was too extreme. Malik himself and the JKLF have claimed that these charges are absurd and unjust but that “If seeking freedom is a crime, then I am ready to accept this crime and its consequences.” The charges leveled against him seem to be a bitter attempt by the Indian government to try and silence a major civil rights and opposition leader. While many believe that the charges are absolutely absurd due to the fact that Malik being a pacifist in recent years, it is worth noting that the JKLF was at times a military organization. While it can be debated how much influence Malik had in this section, it is clear that since the 1990s he has fought against violent measures toward independence and instead took up a genuine peaceful protest movement.
Regardless of whether or not Malik is truly guilty, the hammer of the Indian justice system came down hard on him. He was sentenced to two life sentences and 10 years of “rigorous imprisonment,” essentially hard labor. For him this means that while he is a prisoner the 56-year-old will have to endure the harsh conditions of a prison labor sector that intentionally breaks down a person. If we take into account the Indian government wanting to silence him, he will no longer have the time nor spare energy at his age to continue his fight while also being put under the stresses of hard labor. According to the World Bank, the average lifespan in India is 69.6 years, meaning that until Malik is 66, he will be living under these harsh labor conditions while he is already pushing the life expectancy for someone in his nation.
While many in Kashmir, India, and Pakistan have condemned these actions as “fascist” it is easy to see the independence movements in Kashmir giving up their vows of non-violence after the most peaceful man in the movement is facing life imprisonment as an accused terrorist. This becomes worrying as this rallying figure against violence is no longer able to influence the minds of the Kashmiri people who may no longer see pacifism as the best way to make progress.