Breakfast at Kamat with Yasin Malik
It is not often that we get to meet the likes of Yasin Malik. At least, not us. We are neither journalists, nor academics, nor 'Kashmir experts' - and we don't even live anywhere within 2000 kilometers of Delhi, where such encounters are de rigueur for the well networked.
But here we are, early one weekday morning, sitting across the table from the bearded, brooding, gaunt figure of Yasin Malik - Chairman of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front. Former militant, now charismatic and most-recognized face of the cause of an independent Kashmir.
This came about by accident. We were at dinner at a friends home and mentioned, in conversation, to a fellow guest that we were recently in Pakistan for the World Social Forum. Our fellow guest, as it turned out, was an active member of the Pakistan India Peoples Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD - a mouthful, really, despite all its good intent) and went on to invite us to attend a panel discussion the next evening at St. Joseph's College. The discussion was to be on 'resolving' the Kashmir issue, and Yasin Malik was to be on the panel, along with Dr. Mubashir Hasan, former minister in Zulfikar Bhutto's cabinet.
At the venue, the next evening, it becomes clear to us that the meeting has been carefully and selectively publicized and the audience is going to be friendly to the whole idea of even 'discussing' Kashmir. Its clear that there will be no entrenched positions that will be aired and no slogan shouting or confrontation either. As it gets under way, the panelists all stress the importance and need for the Kashmiri people, in some adequately representative form, to be an integral part of any dialogue instead of only the governments of India and Pakistan. Dr. Hasan repeatedly states that he 'is nobody' to sit in judgement or suggest solutions to the Kashmir 'problem' and defers everything to the Kashmiris, themselves. Yasin, in his soft, almost pained, tone of voice, makes his case for an independent and unified Kashmir and begs attention to the plight and suffering of Kashmiris. But he also throws his support behind the ongoing peace process which he says is slowly treading new ground. Tapan Bose, as the Indian voice on the panel, makes the more adventurous statements about how the writ of the Indian Union has been questioned time and again from its geographical extremities and there are therefore, in his opinion, genuine claims and grievances that deserve to be, at least, considered in the midst of all the nationalist discourse. He also believes that unless the issue of communalism and harmonious coexistence of Hindus and Muslims is resolved, there can be no real peace between India and Pakistan.
Questions from the audience proceed along fairly predictable lines - given the overall 'friendly' flavor of the meeting. And then, just as the meeting is wrapping up, one woman jumps out of her seat and insists on a last question - but this time to the audience. She asks how many people in the room would be willing to even just consider the possibility of an 'independent' Kashmir. Some thirty percent of the audience raises its hands reflecting the fact that there are significant differences of perception and concerns, even in this selected sample of the public. Yasin Malik thanks her for her question, after the meeting, and when she asks if she could meet and talk to him offline, he invites her to come see him at 9am the next morning. I decide to tag along.
The environs of the CSI guest house - nestling deep inside the Unity Buildings campus give you the illusion that all is well with Bangalore - quiet, graceful and surrounded, as it is, by huge, old, canopy trees. The unceasing churn of Bangalore outside is well insulated from this one remaining island of peace. We walk up to Yasin's room, he gets ready in minutes, not in his trademark red shirt, but in a white salwar kurta and we walk down to Kamat 'for a coffee'.
There is something delectably cross-cultural about the situation. Yasim Malik and us, sitting at the Kamat in Unity Buildings and deciding what to get ourselves off a menu of Poorie, Idly, Vada, the usual assortment of doses, Kesari Bath and Uppittu. Udupi Brahmin menu meets Kashmiri revolutionary in an older (yet 'modern' in a 70s kind of way) location in new Bangalore.
This is Yasin's first visit to the city. He says he likes what he sees of it - although we don't dwell on this (as pained Bangaloreans, we've learnt never to ask people what they think of it, more than once ... !). He tells us that he visited the Sri Sri Ravishankar establishment, the previous day, on Kanakapura road (we don't ask why or in what connection) - and that he was surprised by its size and scale.
We begin by asking him about the US role in the peace process is and whether he is consulted or involved, at any level. He tells us that he travels to the US and UK and spent time last year meeting State Department officials and talking to government representatives in the UK. When we ask him what kind of 'resolution' to Kashmir the US would like to see - he tells us he does not know 'what they have in mind' and that the US does not reveal its mind or interest although it is actively encouraging dialogue.
He tells us that an independent Kashmir would have to include all the areas that were part of the 'original' state of Kashmir before the creation of India and Pakistan. We take this to mean everything from Pakistan controlled Kashmir, to Ladakh, Aksai-Chin and the Indian controlled part of J&K. He says he dreams of a secular Kashmir, unified by Kashmiriyat, rather than divided by religion - where all Kashmiris will live in peace. The pandits will be welcome back and he believes they will indeed return to their homeland if peace returns to it.
Does he believe that we are headed in the direction of a resolution, at all? He is optimistic about the peace process and believes that both sides have made significant progress and seem to be more flexible, than even before. He is therefore supportive of the process and is hopeful in a 'wait and see' kind of way.
Could he be considered a 'true' representative of the Kashmiri people amongst the multiplicity of claims to true peoples' representation, in the valley? He tells us about his arduous, personal campaign in the valley, on foot, through which he has collected over 1.4 million signatures from ordinary Kashmiris throwing their support behind his leadership and vision.
What has his experience been, being first a militant (pre-1994) and then a non-violent campaigner for independence? Which one has been more effective, in his experience? He pauses a couple of moments, and then with some discomfort tells us that while he is clear that the non-violent approach is the one he believes in - being a non-violent campaigner has been difficult and challenging in the face of the repression unleashed by the military and police. He has been arrested over 200 times after he laid down arms and has been brutalized in police custody - having lost his hearing in one ear and having been scarred in many ways. He also tells us that non-violence in the public eye is not a 'glamorous' position to take and only violence grabs the spotlight. People seek out Yasin Malik only because he was 'once a militant' and not because of his courageous non-violence. We reflect for a moment on our own interest in meeting him and can't deny the irony.
What does he think about the media on both sides of the border? Have either one of them been 'fairer' in covering Kashmir and in presenting the reality on the ground? He simply tells us that he believes the media on both sides is 'controlled'. To understand the reality, he says, one should visit Kashmir and see for themselves the suffering of the people and to hear their voices.
We are joined by a local contact of Yasin's - a Kashmiri trader who runs a couple of businesses in Bangalore - and another order of chais and coffees goes around. The presence of the Bangalorean Kashmiri helps lighten the somewhat stiff, formal air of our chat so far.
We ask Yasin what he believes would have been the outcome of the plebiscite had it been held in 1948-49. He seems fully convinced that the vote would have gone in favor of union with Pakistan at that time, especially given the extreme communal polarization and Hindu-Muslim confrontations across the country. However, today, he believes it would be overwhelmingly in favor of independence for Kashmir. He also feels that in his interactions with the general public in both countries - that there is a greater sense that Kashmir 'should be left alone' on the Pakistan side. On the Indian side, however, he believes too, that public attitudes are changing - whether out of weariness or genuine reconsideration - towards wanting a peaceful and final settlement.
Something about this whole meeting suggests to us that Yasin Malik is walking a tightrope - between being the most recognized face of the independence-for-Kashmir movement and yet now having to take the diplomatic middle-ground. He risks losing support as the leading voice of Kashmiri self-determination if he appears to be leaning too far towards supporting the peace process of the governments. Yet he has undoubtedly been consulted and taken into confidence by the brokers acting behind the scenes. His signature campaign seems to have been as important in order to send a signal to other claimants to leadership of the Kashmir cause (and not least the Islamic militias and pro-Pakistan factions) that he is its most credible face as it would have been to build and connect to his grass roots support base.
Our idlies and coffees downed and almost an hour on, Yasin steps out for a smoke. We wrap up and join him outside, now with Tapan Bose who has just come to coordinate another engagement. Yasin invites us again to visit Kashmir and see for ourselves the ground realities there. We in turn, invite him to come back to our city to keep up the dialogue.