Turnout Secrets

The turnout figures of this year’s assembly polls in Kashmir are a silent scream of a people under excruciating mental torture for more than six decades. The story the figures tell is not a fairytale romance with New Delhi’s version of calibrated democracy or a disillusionment with the Kashmir cause, but symbolic of a strong urge in the souls to find utterance.

It is as vivid an expression of determined independence of mind as the mammoth rallies of pre-election days, which, it must be remembered, were totally unbidden and spontaneous. People were driven to the polling booths by much the same motives as drove them to the streets in hundreds of thousands – the overpowering desire to make themselves heard. They have merely seized upon the instruments made available to them by circumstance. If it was rallies in the previous months, it was the ballot later on. And in both the cases, the message was clear: our will be done. That “will” is not limited to choosing who rules Kashmir, or how, but is a highly complex mix of sentiments shaped by perceptions of having been let down repeatedly and thrown into a cauldron of uncertainty by quirks of individuals. It is shaped by sharp echoes from distant centuries of darkness and servitude out of which Kashmiris collectively feel they have never been given a real chance to emerge. On the superficial level, Kashmiris might have acted out of the instinct of self-preservation, a trait ingrained in their psyche by long eras of oppression revisited recently by the ubiquitous presence of the armed forces, particularly in the rural areas, but subliminally, they want to shrug off the yoke and assert themselves by affirmative action, wherever the opportunity offers itself. It would be quite uncharitable to translate this phenomenon as guile – a subconscious defence mechanism would be the appropriate phrase instead.

The past sixty years of undetermined political status have given Kashmiris a split political personality, a duality that has painfully torn their loyalty between what is and what might have been. This is a terrible burden to carry as it transcends the issue of identification of territorial boundaries and spills over into the realm of psychological responses to events even of an everyday nature. The agony is to be lived to be believed. The therapeutics of protests and outrage offers momentary relief, but the masses relapse into the darkness of uncertainty again when the action is done with, even while the dead are being counted. The peculiar ordeal of Kashmiris have given them an acute sense of perception, making them appreciate the merits and demerits of New Delhi and Islamabad with a remarkable degree of accuracy. It is natural to be daunted by the prospect of a final and decisive aligning with either, but Kashmiris have plunged into the field with eyes wide open, as the prospect of being kept suspended for ever is far more frightening. Some might be tempted to construe the queueing up at the polling booths as oscillation or vacillation of the Kashmiri mind, but sight must not lost of the fact that major players in the elections have time and again reinforced that Kashmir needs resolution, some in sharp contrast to their traditional ideology. This open commitment across the board to settle the Kashmir issue has given these forces a new legitimacy in the eyes of the people who owe allegiance to an idea and not personalities. An onerous responsibility has been placed on the shoulders of vote-seekers who have been unmistakably told that this time they have not been thrust into the game for the spoils of office and power. The vote-seekers have been taken at their word, and have been put to the test with an unambiguous brief: we will have none of your previous prevarication. You have promised the moon, now deliver.

The lowly peasant who lined up at the polling booth, the underpaid employee who cast his vote, and all those others who amazed observers by their defiance of accepted stereotypes have put the Muftis and the Abdullahs on notice. The message is clear – that power in Jammu and Kashmir comes with a lot of strings attached. That unlike the untrammeled reign of yesteryears, power now brings with it the crippling burden of the Kashmir issue. By casting votes in the backdrop of breathless assertions by politicians of all ilk that Kashmir needs addressing, the common Kashmiri has formally inducted a hitherto hedonistic and escapist tribe and made it a partner in his own ordeal. Seekers-after of power can ignore this at their peril.

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