Captive Democracy

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It must be some exotic variant of democracy where the people’s will is sought to be determined by locking them up behind closed doors – as if voter exuberance were expected to sweep all before its stormy tide.

The irony of it cannot have entirely escaped decision-makers in New Delhi however hardnosed they might be. But the strategy they have adopted, unique in the annals of adult franchise, is as liable to backfire as to pay dividends. Jammu and Kashmir is still partly paying for the massive electoral fraud of 1987, and there is no definite way to predict the long-term fallout of an election held in the face of overwhelming public hostility, or the credibility of the government that comes to power through such an exercise.

New Delhi had earned an international reprieve from the 2002 assembly elections in Kashmir which had been widely certified as fair if not free, the latter mainly because of crippling attacks by militants. But no such luxury can be forthcoming this time, if only because the run-up to the elections was a dramatic encapsulation of the political lie of the land in Kashmir, which cannot have gone unnoticed in quarters New Delhi would like to ingratiate itself with. One doesn’t require to be clairvoyant to foresee that future discourse on Kashmir, particularly in the context of its international dimensions, will be overshadowed by the massive, gun-less uprising of the pre-election days and its implications, as major players here too will lose no opportunity to hammer home the point about the unequivocal support to a particular political view witnessed in the upsurge. This group cannot be faulted for positing the uprising as a full-blooded expression of the public will as against the anemic electoral exercise conducted under the shadow of the gun.

The powers-that-be cannot hide behind the turnout figures to negate the palpable reality of the sentiment in Kashmir, which is underscored by the compulsion to impose valley-wide curfews to insulate and isolate areas going to the polls. Nor by any stretch of imagination can this experiment in captive democracy be interpreted as the vindication of the argument that repeated elections in Kashmir were a referendum on the future of the region. What has not been emphasized enough is that New Delhi’s erstwhile surrogate in the state, the National Conference, has totally repudiated its own ideological underpinnings, implicitly calling the accession of Kashmir into question. The seriousness of the ramifications of the uprising can be gauged from the fact that as die-hard a votary of the atoot ang theory as Dr. Farooq Abdullah today declares that elections were not the last word on the destiny of Kashmir. It cannot merely be Dr. Abdullah’s way of getting back at New Delhi for its many slights, or keeping himself and his party relevant and afloat in the turbulent waters of Kashmir, as much as the realization, reinforced by the uprising, that going against the public tide was the surest and the shortest way to political oblivion, nay disgrace. For the time being, pro-India parties here have managed to sneak, howsoever flimsily, into the public reckoning by identifying themselves with the Kashmir issue and the need for its resolution. But given New Delhi’s past record – did it not consign the NC’s autonomy resolution to the trash can? – there is no predicting what political contortions they might be forced to attempt post-elections. The last election, in which the PDP had staked its destiny on making progress on the Kashmir issue, had heightened expectations when the party got into the driving seat. But six long years down the line, which were marked by New Delhi’s trademark prevarication, Kashmir has slid back into a state where hundreds of thousands of troops are required to keep the highly restive masses under check.

If continued, an engagement of the pro-freedom forces, tentatively begun during the Vajpayee rule, might have lent a new dynamics to the Srinagar-Delhi axis, perhaps even made the electoral exercise conducted under the aegis of Indian authority less offensive and more acceptable as an interim part of a conflict resolution process. But the UPA dispensation’s unceremonious dumping of the Hurriyat Conference, which had courted political disaster in opting for talks with New Delhi, has successfully turned a potential climate of conciliation into one of confrontation where entire Kashmir is ranged against what it increasingly perceives as an occupation.    

New Delhi’s latest doctrine of containment in Kashmir, manifested in the curfew regime in place today, cannot have long shelf-life but will only serve to exacerbate antagonisms perhaps to the point of no return. Elections and their outcome cannot neutralize the massive wave of discontent sweeping Kashmir. Wholesale arrests and rigid curfews can at best be short term measures, and stretching them indefinitely will certainly prove counter-productive. Given the self-serving attitude of New Delhi mandarins, suffocating restrictions on Kashmiris to keep them from giving vent to their aspirations – which, to New Delhi’s dismay, is bound to continue even after the elections – may be regarded as sound policy to “manage” the unrest, but is the central government prepared to admit to the world that in Kashmir the state is at war against its own people? 


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