July Issue 2008
Touched With Fire
Yasin Malik provokes such a divvied response among people, his name may as well be a yes or no question. Understandably enough. When the barrel of a gun and the doctrine of ahimsa or non-violence are the two poles orienting you, the associative cargo does tend to oscillate from one extreme to the other. As a result, Yasin spins in the tumultuous history of Occupied Kashmir like a ball with mirrored facets, casting back whatever beam of light is directed at him.
For the legions of Yasin obsessives, there is scarcely a grace the young chairman of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) cannot claim. He is their “only hope,” “saviour” and “saint,” whose efforts have provided a voice to their suffering and kept the Kashmir issue alive on the world stage. But there are just as many who revile Yasin, the “double agent,” “butcher” and “threat to humanity.” One rather witty detractor has even tweaked his moniker to “Osama Yasin Gandhi,” perhaps as a dig at his tactical turnaround from self-acclaimed author of terrorism to peacenik.
But the polemical dust whirling around Yasin veils more than it reveals, precluding an objective assessment of his place in Occupied Kashmir’s volatile political landscape and the complex drives fuelling his eventful life. A remarkable blend of unstinting idealism and practicality, bravado and introspection, Yasin has far too much depth and diversity to fit our tidy social taxonomy or be condensed into stale stereotype. Ditto for his physical appearance, body language and manner of speech. The boyish mop of glossy black hair, reticent mannerisms and measured tone jostle uneasily with the bad-boy swagger and raffishness, not to mention the much-storied Vesuvian blasts.
Without genuflecting to any fiction, though, there are a couple of things that are impossible to ignore. First, his name clearly features in the stockpile of legendary freedom fighters. And second, despite his high visibility, Yaseen has lost not a jot of his immense popular appeal and charisma. At 42, Yasin’s journey has had its opportunistic turns, to be sure, but the fact remains he has devoted over 25 years of his life struggling for his people despite profound personal loss and privation. And no ordinary life it has been. Yasin has been declared dead six times, courted over 200 arrests, clocked time in solitary confinement and death cells in some of India’s most notorious jails and detention centres, once with mentally challenged inmates, endured torture that left him deaf in one ear and damaged a heart valve, suffered nine corrective surgeries and some close shaves — most famously when he jumped from the roof of a five-storey building during an encounter with Indian security forces. What is more, he has lived to tell the tale.
“Tough times never last but tough people do,” says Yasin, as he sits lotus positioned on the edge of a cushy bed in a room at a five-star Karachi hotel, pulling hard on his umpteenth cigarette that he invariably seems to stub half-smoked. Yasin must take the respect and adulation he commands as standard operating procedure for he hardly notices his JKLF colleagues scurrying around the room packing his belongings, laying out ironed clothes for him to wear on his flight back to Srinagar and placing a hot cup of tea beside him, the requisite amount of sugar spooned in for his convenience.
That Yasin is equally comfortable fielding the press is evident by the scripted phrases and ‘intensifiers,’ reminiscent of past interviews posted on the net. Yasin recalls how he was hurtled from carefree youth to adulthood at the age of 14 on witnessing the excesses of the Indian army as it descended on his Maisuma Bazaar neighbourhood in the heart of Srinagar, a place he still calls home, to ferret out the men who had allegedly participated in a demonstration decrying the execution of Kashmiri freedom fighter and Yasin’s childhood hero, Maqbool Butt. “It was then I realised kay hum sub ghulam hein,” says Yasin, trotting out yet another stock explanation of his epiphany to launch a struggle for the liberation of his people.
Glibness for its own sake may not be likable. But used in the service of articulating and drawing attention to the plight of his fellow Kashmiris is quite another. Despite the slightly awkward inflection on past participles, Yasin has been invited to speak from scores of august platforms, including the World Social Forum, India Today Conclave 2008 and symposia held by Harvard and Yale universities, where he has presented the case of his people with trademark eloquence and cogency. Similarly, Yaseen has garnered column acres in the print media and successfully locked horns with many fearsome TV hosts, including Tim Sebastian of BBC’s Hardtalk, who was seen licking his wounds with a forked tongue following an edgy face-off with one Kashmiri gent who refused to scare easily.
Those who mistakenly take Yasin as an intellectual walkover simply because he discontinued his studies after grade 12 due to his early initiation into militant struggle and the resultant demands of vagrancy, are advised to desist. According to Yaseen, his real education began during his long and frequent stints in jail, where he read thousands of books on history, philosophy and literature. Amidst Yasin’s narrations of the rough and tumble of his life and brink-of-death experiences, he inevitably tosses in the unexpected reference to the poetry of Allama Iqbal, his concept of ‘inqalabi zindagi’ or age of revolt, and the hopes pinned by the poet on the ‘millat ka jawaan’ as the standard-bearer of this imagined uprising. Yasin is equally conversant with the verses of Iqbal’s more recent activist avatar, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and the Stoic philosophy of Ibn Arabi, who extolled the virtues of suffering as the only path to God. “It is the wisdom tilled from the work of such giants that has given me strength in adversity and taught me to surrender only to God,” asserts Yasin.
For one hardened in the cauldron of battle, such idealism, even romance, with its notion of the decisive uprising against tyranny, a virtual Armageddon if you will, is a hard sell. Yasin disagrees: “Romance is an essential ingredient of our political struggle. To wage this struggle you have to be touched with fire. How can it be otherwise? The Kashmir issue is not a territorial dispute between India and Pakistan. Rather, it is a human rights issue, involving the hopes and aspirations of the Kashmiri people to gain the inviolable right to freedom. Call it idealistic or what you will, but realising this right is not only my dream but also an article of faith for me. And dreams and idealism, as you know, have no threshold or border.”
To explain himself further, Yasin distinguishes between “clever” and “stupid” people. “Clever people conform to the dictates of expedience. But stupid people stick to their dreams against all odds. I, for one, number among those stupid people. There have been times when my patience, courage, endurance and resolve have been tested, often to near-breaking point. But I have not given up. And I am the happier for it.”
Clearly, Yasin’s life is ample proof of how dreams and idealism can thrive, even when the next step may be the last. We all need our paradises, come troubled times. But to have clutched on to a distant utopia in the face of such peril is a feat of true courage indeed.