In what it calls a new initiative to find peace in Kashmir, the Indian government this month released several leaders of the separatist movement from a New Delhi jail and offered to open negotiations with them over the disputed territory. Among those freed was Yasin Malik, 32, chairman of the Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front and, to many Indians, the face of the rebellion. A former militant firebrand, Malik has been in prison several times over the past decade, suffering gruesome torture at the hands of Indian security forces. A day after reaching home in Srinagar, he spoke by phone to Time Asia associate editor Aparisim Ghosh. Excerpts from the interview:
TIME: Have you heard from the government of India about holding talks?
Malik: I have gone through the statement of L.K. Advani, the Home Minister. He has offered a dialogue. But it is a conditional dialogue, to be conducted within the framework of the Indian constitution. So there is no scope for a dialogue.
TIME: You can't negotiate under the framework of the Indian constitution?
Malik: How can we? Kashmir is a recognized disputed territory. There must be no preconditions at the negotiating table. In Nagaland [the northeastern Indian state that has been wracked by a popular insurgency], the government has initiated a peace process without any conditions. Here, it has a different yardstick. The government has its own agenda: that Kashmir is a part of India. We have our agenda: that Kashmir is not a part of India. Let each party come to the table with its own agenda, and let the issue be discussed so we can find a solution. But if one party wants to impose its agenda on the other, then what can we discuss--the weather?
TIME: Some militant groups have threatened to kill any Kashmiri who opens negotiations.
Malik: Threats don't matter here. If the government of India honestly wants a dialogue, then they must remove these preconditions.
TIME: Has there been any change in the atmosphere in Delhi--any indication that the government is more inclined to genuine negotiations than before?
Malik: No. Previous governments also offered talks--the governments of V.P. Singh, Narasimha Rao, Deve Gowda, I.K. Gujral--but they all had the same conditions. I don't think [this government] has shown any flexibility.
TIME: What are the chances the Indian government would hold talks without preconditions?
Malik: They must, if they want a genuine peace process. But they just want to sell this idea to the world community, to say, "We offered dialogue, but the Kashmiris rejected it." They want to win diplomatic points in the international community. This has been their policy for 53 years.
TIME: Have the changes in Pakistan--the coup, the formation of a military government--affected the chances of dialogue in Kashmir?
Malik: Why should they? This is an indigenous movement. We are not advocates of Pakistan. We accept that Pakistan is a party to the issue, but we make our own decisions.
TIME: Some Kashmiri groups say there can be no negotiations unless Pakistan is at the table.
Malik: India has been talking to Pakistan. Prime Minister [Atal Behari] Vajpayee went to Lahore last year and said at a press conference that the two countries would find a solution to the dispute. This reflects an imperialistic attitude. If Kashmiri people aren't consulted, there can be no resolution. Kashmir is not a border dispute. We are not animals for India and Pakistan to distribute among themselves.
TIME: What was your reaction to U.S. President Bill Clinton's trip to India? He said America would not seek the role of mediator over Kashmir.
Malik: But the U.S. is playing that role everywhere else in the world. After the fall of the Soviet Union, there is no more open diplomacy--there is quiet diplomacy. I think the Americans are playing a role in Kashmir; it's just not visible. They have made it clear that this problem must be resolved. They have invested heavily in South Asia and want to ensure the safety of their investment.
TIME: Are the Kashmiri people more open to negotiations now than before?
Malik: There is no change in the mood of the people. They want peace, but not at the cost of their dignity.
TIME: The Indian government says most of the fighting in Kashmir is being conducted not by Kashmiris, but by mujahedin from Afghanistan and elsewhere. Is this true?
Malik: This is how they defame our movement. [The mujahedin] are offshoots from the Kashmir issue. Solve the Kashmir issue, and these offshoots will disappear.
TIME: So foreigners are involved in the fighting?
Malik: Not in the majority, as has been propagated. Most are Kashmiris.
TIME: How has last year's Indo-Pakistani border war in Kargil affected the mood of Indian people? Will they accept their government conducting unconditional negotiations with you?
Malik: I think Indian people also want peace. They know that the economy is bleeding on the soil of Kashmir.
TIME: Do you believe Indians will accept an independent Kahsmir?
Malik: Why not? They call themselves the greatest democracy in the world. If Kashmiris want independence, India must accept it. If Kashmiris decide to stay in India, we will accept that wholeheartedly.
Published in TIME Asia, May 11, 2000