Kashmiri separatists vow to determine their future

Against India's wishes, separatists move to create their own election commission.

Kashmiri separatist Yaseen Malik has remade himself more times than Madonna. In the late 1980s, he posed for photos as a fashion model. In 1989, he took up the gun as commander of an armed Kashmiri militant group. And in 1994, he changed form again and became a Gandhi-style nonviolent leader for Kashmir's liberation from India.

Today, as head of Kashmir's largest separatist party, the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), Mr. Malik and other separatist leaders may have finally found a formula for independence. By calling for the creation of their own election commission and simultaneously for a cease-fire by militants, the top Kashmiri leaders may have broken through an impasse in the 12-year bloody insurrection in a state that both India and Pakistan claim. With nonbinding elections planned for later this year, the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, a coalition of Kashmiri separatist parties, hopes to show that they - and not India or Pakistan - are the true representatives of the Kashmiri people.

"It is the political right of the people to decide their future," says Malik, chairman of the JKLF, sitting on his cot in his party's Spartan office in New Delhi. "The government of India always raises the question of, if you claim to represent the people, then why don't you stand for election? So we accepted the challenge."

It's not exactly the sort of election that New Delhi was asking for. India, which has claimed Jammu and Kashmir state as an integral part of its territory since its independence in 1947, has called for Kashmiris to decide their future as other Indians do, by holding state elections under the Indian Constitution. Kashmiri separatists, for their part, say that any election under the Indian Constitution would only legitimize New Delhi's control, and so they call instead for a plebiscite, where the Kashmiri people could decide their future: whether to remain in India, to join Pakistan, or to become independent. But whether the Hurriyat's election goes forward or not, it may signal that Kashmiri separatists are opening up to new ideas on how to solve the conflict that has already claimed some 40,000 lives.

"I don't think the Indian authorities will allow these fellows to run around the state organizing elections," says Kanti Bajpai, a political scientist at Jawaharlal Nehru University here, who considers Malik one of the more credible figures in the Kashmiri separatist movement. "India has a national election commission to hold national elections, and a state election commission to hold state elections, so if they let them hold their own elections, it's like losing sovereignty in a way."

"But I think this may have been a signal that they (the Hurriyat) may be thinking of joining an election in the near future," says Dr. Bajpai, who has taken part in behind-the-scenes negotiations with Pakistani academics and officials.

Inside Kashmir itself, Indian troops and police have rounded up hundreds of activists and killed dozens of militants.

ON a visit to India this week, Mary Robinson, the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner, called for the Commission to study rights abuses in Kashmir. At present, India does not permit international human rights organizations to visit jails in Kashmir or to investigate the operations of its police.

Even before the current level of suppression, many ordinary Kashmiris had begun to signal their fatigue in a war without results. And many of the young activists who make up the idealistic core of parties such as Malik's own pacifist JKLF party, say they can no longer trust the Indian government to honor the principles of a nonviolent political movement. Malik - who formed the armed JKLF in the heady days of 1989, when empires crumbled and dozens of former Soviet colonies gained independence - says it is getting harder to convince today's young idealists to resist taking up the gun.

"We declared a unilateral cease-fire in 1994, and since that time, 600 of my colleagues have been killed," says Malik. "We offered a dialogue process to resolve this conflict, but the government never paid any attention. Instead, they started the suppression."

Political observers say that if anyone can hold the Kashmiri separatist movement on a nonviolent path, it is Yaseen Malik. As former commander in chief of the JKLF, Malik showed his courage in numerous battles with Indian troops. The defining moment came in 1990, in a pitched battle in Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir state. Surrounded by soldiers of the elite paramilitary group, the Border Security Force, on the fifth floor of a building, Malik was forced to choose between surrender or death.

Malik chose death. He jumped from the fifth story to the ground. Stunned BSF soldiers took Malik to the hospital in a coma and left him for dead. That night, JKLF militants whisked the still-unconscious Malik away, where he recovered in various safe houses around the state.

"That's why Yaseen has credibility among Kashmiri people," says Surinder Singh Oberoi, former Kashmir bureau chief for Agence France-Presse. "He is the only Hurriyat leader who has the guts to jump from a five-story building, and he doesn't care about what happens to him."

Malik understands the appeal of militant groups like Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and Hizbul Mujahideen - Hizbul itself attempted a cease-fire two years, which India ultimately rejected. And Malik finds it increasingly difficult to argue against violence.

"The custodial suppression of Kashmiri people has increased," says Malik with a sigh. "If the situation continues like this, how can you expect there will not be more violence?"

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