Why I’m not interested in polls in Kashmir

I’m perhaps one of those boring, old-fashioned men who are constantly bothered by such archaic concepts as justice, accountability, prosecution for extra-judicial killings (or, in simpler words, cold-blooded murder), incarceration of minors, end of the largest militaristation in the world… To put it another way, I haven’t been too interested in the elections in Kashmir. Let me try to explain.

In 2010, 120 Kashmiri citizens, many of them school children, were brutally killed on the streets of Kashmir. This was ostensibly done to quell a fresh uprising against Indian rule. The central government in Delhi, the local government in Srinagar, and the armed forces apparatus in Kashmir were all responsible for what we now know as the Bloody Summer of 2010. Young lives were taken, families ripped apart, and parents left with a lifetime of mourning and chasing that ephemeral ghost, justice, in the Kafka-land that is modern-day Kashmir.

Those dead had the bullets of both the Indian paramilitaries and the local police inside their juvenile bodies. There had been massive demonstrations against a fake encounter and against the killing of teenage student Tufail Mattoo who was killed by a tear gas shell that broke open his skull. People filled the streets again and again. And clearly under specific order to shoot to kill, the armed forces ended the lives of more young protestors, resulting in more heartbreaking funeral processions. By the end of that summer, around 120 had been killed. The local government, elected on a mandate of good governance in 2008, never even apologised let alone prosecute those responsible for the killings. Over the next few years, the careers of politicians, police chiefs, bureaucrats and spooks, would be shined up in TV studios, friendly sky-diving journalists would bemoan the loss of lives but also demonstrate staggering political, historical and moral amnesia, or pure illiteracy, when it came to, for instance, investigating and following up on who was responsible for the lynching of eight-year old Sameer Rah.

I was home in Kashmir on the eve of the polls. On my way from the airport I saw a rather surreal vinyl image emblazoned on a fly-over. It was the poster of a newly sprouted political outfit, the Save Kashmir Party, with its patron in chief posing life size in a threepiece brown suit. It was a telling moment. So many political parties, often with fiercely opposite worldviews— if a political party can be said to have a worldview, that is—have emerged, or been birthed, to save Kashmir since the decolonisation of South Asia, that people have forgotten who exactly is being saved and from whom. I asked the driver if he knew anything about this brand new outfit. Sheepish grin turns to a grimace, a prelude to trademark Kashmiri black humour. “This man is a relative of mine but he won’t make it”. Why? “Because he’s actually a good man, he will end up losing not just the election but all his property. He just won’t be able to do it… He’s a shareef insaan; they’ll take all he has.”

But will people vote, I asked? Of course we will. In 2008, they killed around seventy of us, did they not? Two months later we voted, didn’t we, he said in a devastatingly succinct self-critique.

At home later that night, I was rivetted by another image. On TV this time. A former general of the Indian army was addressing a small rally, or a posse of fawning journalists, I couldn’t tell. Wait. I wasn’t mesmerised by the general turned politician’s clipped army-boy looks. Towards the left of the frame, I recognised a distant relative, and briefly thought he’s probably developed a fetish for photo-bombing. There was no way I could tear myself away from the screen. What on earth was he doing with an Indian army general? He’s contesting assembly elections, my uncle chipped in. Turns out this relative – very distant, I insist – who is done with most of his life tasks as a father, husband, and son, and having recently retired from his job and started a business, had decided, since there was nothing else to do, he might as well contest elections. After all, parties from Delhi were seen distributing tickets to just anyone, even an electricity pylon if it could talk would do. If nothing else, I would apear on TV, the relative may have thought. I sincerely hope he lost his deposit.

That said, people of Kashmir have clearly voted, not, in my view, to endorse India’s historically intransigent position on Kashmir or to suggest let’s forgive, forget, move on and be happy, but for a little bit of extra electricity in the dark winters, for a job for that unemployed post-grad son, daughter or nephew, for macadam on the only motorable road that leads to the village, or to help a cousin or nephew who’s been languishing in prison without trial for years, in short for a slightly less hard life. And people have voted before, sometimes in abysmally low percentages and sometimes in significant turnouts. In 2014, it seems the people of Kashmir have voted against the far-right BJP and the people of Jammu in favour it. This doesn’t bode well and may in future pave the way for a bifurcation of the disputed state.

In the larger political-historical context, elections in a place like Kashmir mean an old set of client elites will be replaced by another one. For the elites, it will be a six year opportunity for self-aggrandizement, for graft, to make money off India. For India, it is a part of conflict management that the state has practised for so long that it has now mastered the craft and thinks it doesn’t need to solve the issue.

So, to come back to the question this august newspaper asked of me. What do I think of elections in 2014? I think, Oh, same old, same old, in spite of the slight shift in idiom: Development, economics, and the suitably vague phrase ‘achche din’. I think if elections were the solution to the Kashmir imbroglio, it should have been solved and resolved at least ten times since 1957, when the first elections were held in Kashmir.

I will perhaps remain one of those boring, prickly people who still contemplate “the blood of children ran through the streets / without fuss, like children’s blood”, as Neruda would say. --ET

(The writer is a novelist. His new novel, The Book of Gold Leaves, was published earlier this year)

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