As I write this piece, New Delhi is busy congratulating itself on the unexpected voter-turnout in Jammu and Kashmir, and the Indian media is filled with editorials gleefully proclaiming the “death” of the separatist movement. Indeed, the results have dealt a humiliating blow to the Hurriyat leadership. Despite their calls for a boycott, official ECI figures claim that over 51% of eligible voters across the 46 constituencies of the Kashmir Valley participated in the polls Ã¢â‚¬â€œ technically the highest turnout that the Valley has seen over the past 20 years.
Still, let us not forget that this is Kashmir, and these elections were conducted in much the same way as past elections have been. Votes were cast under the shadow of 700,000 Indian guns. Hundreds of separatist leaders and activists were arrested and detained for the entire polling period; many remain in prison. Unarmed protesters were shot and killed [additional link]. Human rights activists attempting to monitor voting were beaten and arrested. Journalists were attacked, detained and threatened by Indian security forces, sparking condemnations from Reporters Without Borders. There were reports of villagers being forced to vote against their will. Public assemblies were banned. And normal life in the Valley was crippled for days on end by draconian curfew orders, to the point where for nearly two months, Friday prayers couldn’t be offered in Srinagar’s largest mosque. I don’t think I need to belabor the point that this is not how a functional democratic society works, but that’s a different discussion entirely.
Despite all this, no one can deny the fact that a lot of Kashmiris wanted to participate in these polls of their own volition, if not the cities (especially among Kashmir’s disaffected urban middle class), then definitely in the villages. To interpret this as a sign that Kashmiri nationalism itself has lost public support makes little sense. Indeed, 51% turnout seems quite high, though perhaps not quite as momentous as some would like to claim. After all, following the 1996 polls, conducted at the height of the militancy at a time when few would argue that popular sentiment in the Valley was pro-India, the ECI still claimed 46% turnout in the Valley. It didn’t prove to be the death of separatist sentiment then, and I sincerely doubt that these polls will be any different. Remember, less than six months ago, hundreds of thousands of common people came out on the streets to demonstrate yet again just how deeply unhappy they are to be a part of India. Can anyone honestly believe public sentiment has changed so dramatically in a matter of months?
Twenty years of militancy have taken their toll, and hope for a distant azaadi notwithstanding, the beleaguered people of this state need some form of redress for their daily issues. Everyone voted for their own reasons Ã¢â‚¬â€œ some for the bijli, sarak, paani promised to their villages by the pro-India parties, others because local candidates promised to help their sons find jobs, or get their husbands out of Indian jails. The pro-India parties also did an excellent job of positioning themselves Ã¢â‚¬â€œ openly proclaiming that the polls were exclusively about local issues, and had nothing to do with acceptance of Indian rule or the final resolution of the Kashmir conflict. Campaigning on platforms condemning the Indian government’s recent excesses in the state (ironically including the arrest of the separatist leadership and the brutal and undemocratic suppression of the anti-election movement), and promising to curb the military’s authority in the region, further helped their cause.
While the higher than expected turnout has provided fodder for some chauvinists to claim this as public mandate for Indian rule, it’s difficult to find fault with the voters themselves. Rather, much of the blame lies squarely on the shoulders of the Hurriyat, and their irresponsible boycott, which inherently links participation in the elections to acceptance of Indian rule. Why, when the UN itself has repeatedly ruled that Indian polls and the decisions made by the governments elected through these polls have no bearing on Kashmir’s final status, did the Hurriyat feel the need to link the two issues? Perhaps with the popularity of this summer’s pro-independence protests, they were expecting a repeat of the 1989 Lok Sabha elections, when the call to boycott was nearly universally observed. But this is not 1989, and the optimism of those days, with the widespread belief that azaadi was right around the corner, is gone. Twenty years later, that azaadi has become a more distant goal, and some form of administration is necessary to address Kashmir’s day-to-day needsÃ¢â‚¬Â¦and a local Kashmiri administration (even under the auspices of the incredibly corrupt NC and PDP) is still superior to languishing under Governor’s rule. Expecting people to boycott polls under these circumstances, though potentially a powerful symbol of popular commitment to the independence movement, does little to address the needs of the impoverished masses, and will fail in the face of fancy campaign promises from the more resourceful pro-India parties. Clearly a fresh, and more organized approach is necessary, though whether that involves the Hurriyat’s direct participation in the polls is doubtful. After all, even if we ignore the ideological absurdity of a separatist taking an oath under the Indian constitution, the 1987 elections are testament to the lengths New Delhi has gone to in an effort to rig elections against Kashmiri nationalists.
As for the results of the elections themselves, I’m not particularly surprised. Dynastic tradition has been the bane of South Asian politics since the fall of the Raj, and unfortunately Kashmir has hardly been immune to this phenomenon. It’s all too easy to judge Omar Abdullah on the numerous failures of his family during their years of running Kashmir as a personal fiefdom, but that wouldn’t really be fair. Still, his personal track-record is hardly reassuring. The man who, just a few years ago, was the BJP-led NDA government’s blue eyed boy (and even voted in favor of POTA), is now claiming to be a champion of Kashmiri rights and autonomy. There doesn’t seem to be much strength of conviction there Ã¢â‚¬â€œ he seems to me to be more of a political chameleon, changing his colors to suit the occasion. Then again, I suppose some level of opportunism is to be expected of all politicians.
Omar Abdullah promised quite a bit over the course of this campaign Ã¢â‚¬â€œ an end to military human rights abuses, a review of the hundreds of PSA cases being used to detain Kashmiri civilians without formal charges, and negotiations with the Hurriyat leadership towards the peaceful resolution of the Kashmir conflict. Naturally, the NC (and the PDP, and Congress) campaigned on a pro-autonomy platform, as they have for the past 60 years. All three parties have been given a chance, and all have completely failed in that regard. Will Omar Abdullah make genuine efforts towards accomplishing these goals, or were they more of the empty campaign promises we have been fed for decades? Only time will tell. Still, though history has taught me to expect little, I sincerely hope that this new government does what it has said it will. After all, a lifetime of such broken promises has only served to feed the sense of alienation and discontent that plagues Kashmir today.
Shahnaz Agha is a Kashmiri.
Photo Courtesy: AP