Sushant K Singh and Rohit Pradhan
The free, fair, and peaceful elections in Jammu & Kashmir are a significant achievement. Only a few a months ago the state was ravaged by protests over the Amarnath land issue; large demonstrations took place in valley matched by equally vociferous and passionate protests in some parts of Jammu. Articulate columnists had suggested what was hitherto unthinkable: India should give up Kashmir, as the issue at hand seemed intractable.Ã‚Â Others had argued that the holding elections at this juncture were a meaningless exercise with a guaranteed low voter turn out. The Huriyat conferenceÃ¢â‚¬â€having rediscovered it political relevance through the Amarnath land issueÃ¢â‚¬â€was on ascendance and had given a call for boycotting the elections.
In sharp contrast to what doomsayers had predicted, Jammu and Kashmir (J &K) recorded a heavy turn out in the recently concluded state elections. Nowhere, not even in the separatist stronghold of Srinagar, voter turn out was in single digits. After the usual political deal making, the state is well on its way to a stable political coalition broadly reflecting the aspirations of the voters.
Some commentators argue that the vote was simply for developmentÃ¢â‚¬â€the Indian state should not see the high turn out as a repudiation of the separatist sentiment. While the common Kashmiris remain alienated from India, the pressing need for developmentÃ¢â‚¬â€bijli, sadak, paaniÃ¢â‚¬â€proved more alluring than the emotive call for azadi. The tendency among commentators to de-link the twoÃ¢â‚¬â€a sentiment for azadi and the heavy voting percentages is simplimistic at best. Elections always cover a gamut of issues, and focusing on a single issue would be a grave injustice to the courage, wisdom and will of the electorate.
Guns and votes are not mutually compatibleÃ¢â‚¬â€an acceptance of one is an implicit rejection of the other. No one has suffered more grievously than ordinary Kashmiris from the culture of gun which has ruled the state for the last two decades. The large, passionate, yet mostly peaceful demonstrations over the Amarnath land issueÃ¢â‚¬â€while every loss of life is regrettable, it was minimal by Kashmiri standardsÃ¢â‚¬â€was a pointer towards at least a grudging acceptance of the tools of democracy.
The high turn out in the elections should be seen as another step in this process of eschewing violence and embracing democracy. If Kashmiri aspirationsÃ¢â‚¬â€whether for azadi or developmentÃ¢â‚¬â€are articulated via peaceful means of the ballot, it willy-nilly represents a rejection of the gun. On similar lines, an important new factor is a new generation of voters that has not seen life without militancy. Seduced by IndiaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s growth story, it believes that elected representation and a peaceful environment will help replicate the same growth trajectory in J&K.
Admittedly, the voter turn out in urban areas remains low vis-ÃƒÂ -vis their rural counterparts. At one level, it is merely a reiteration of what has been seen across the countryÃ¢â‚¬â€the rural voters participate more actively in the electoral process than the urban middle class. Nevertheless, while it important to recognise that sentiment for azadi remains strong in urban centers, the effect of relatively low turn out in Srinagar or Sopore should not be overestimated. It does not amount to a rejection of India by the Kashmir Valley. Anantnag recorded a turn out of 34% while in Tral (referred to as Tora-Bora of Kashmir a few years ago), more than 60% of the voters chose to exercise their franchise.
Equally, BJPÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s sweep of the Jammu district does not necessarily reflect a ValleyÃ¢â‚¬â€Jammu divide; both the Congress and National Conference remain important players in the larger Jammu region. In fact, PeopleÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Democratic Party (PDP) has actually won two seats in the Jammu regionÃ¢â‚¬â€a first in its short history. The traditional approach of viewing the state as a monolithic entity must be replaced by one which recognises the heterogeneity across regions and demographics. It is also not necessarily a bad thing: Gorakhpur and NOIDA donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t vote on similar lines; why should Doda and Srinagar? It is more important to recognise that the rise of parties like the PDP and the BJP lends democratic voice to hitherto underrepresented groups and sentiments.
Many commentators continue to stress the importance of engaging Huriyat as a genuine representative of the Valley. Not only has Huriyat repeatedly refused to participate in the elections, the voters of J &K have forcefully rejected its unequivocal call for boycotting the elections. Certainly, in a democracy, all politics need not be electoral and Huriyat has the right to engage in agitational, but peaceful politics. However, the self-serving dogma perpetuated largely by the Huriyat leadership that it is the sole representative of the Valley must be rejected. Entering in a dialogue with unelected apparchiaks of Huriyat insults and undermines those who have placed their faith in the Indian democracy.
In fact, the emergence of PDP presents New Delhi with a wonderful opportunity to take forward the political process in the state. With its plank of Ã¢â‚¬ËœÃ¢â‚¬â„¢soft separatismÃ¢â‚¬â„¢Ã¢â‚¬â„¢Ã¢â‚¬â€open borders; demilitarization of Kashmir; and its emphasis on human rights, the PDP has emerged as a genuine mainstream alternative to Huriyat, occupying the same political space, but still proclaiming its faith in Indian democracy. No wonder, in many constituencies, the separatists, especially in the later phases of the elections, surreptiously campaigned for PDP. By providing avenues for the PDP to express itself politically, New Delhi will further marginalise Huriyat and redress, to an extent, the root causes of Kashmiri separatism.
The new government should actively leverage this opportunity to restore complete normalcy in the state. It should start with certain bold and signal measure that further deflate and marginalise the separatists including a plan to reduce a reduce the role of armed forces and turning over internal security duties to the police in a calibrated manner. Similarly, in light of the events of the summer of 2008, it must address regional imbalances by reducing the overrepresentation of Srinagar in the affairs of Kashmir valley and the undue prominence of the Kashmir region in determining the policies of the state government. It should engage with other regions of the state and announce a time-bound plan for rehabilitating Kashmiri Pandits. The central government should institute measures that facilitate integration of Kashmir with the rest of the Indian nationÃ¢â‚¬â€physically, financially and emotionally.
As these elections have demonstrated, Kashmir, like Nagaland, Assam and Punjab earlier, has returned to the Indian democratic fold after a violent detour. It is important not to underestimate the challenges India faces in Kashmir. It is equally important, however, not to overestimate them. These elections have thrown up an invaluable political opportunity to move towards a permanent political resolution of the Kashmir issue. It is hoped that the new coalition government in J& KÃ¢â‚¬â€with support from New Delhi–would chart a new course towards peace, stability and prosperity.
Photo: Kashmiri Men