Understanding the Kashmir mandate

The present election is special because it represents a fruition of India’s quest to guarantee freedom to all sections of its people. The high participation of the Kashmiris represents a triumph for India’s democracy

As reports came in of the high turnout in the Kashmir Valley in the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly elections, my mind went back to a bleaker time, in 1993, when I was Commissioner in Kashmir under Governor’s rule. It was a State that convulsed with the spasms of uncontrolled violence and pervasive fear. It was also a time when I discussed with Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, the crying need for a return to democracy, which, despite the advice of much of the establishment of the time, was my firm view of being the only way of ending the inchoate impasse. So, I could not but feel pride, along with I am sure every Indian, in what I see as the fructification of a dream of many years — that regular elections be held, so that the people, with their blighted past of flawed elections, see to it that theirs is a voice, like that of any Indian, that will be heard.

The 2002 elections that voted out the National Conference (NC) government was a watershed event in that Kashmiris — perhaps with the exception of the 1977 elections, and which I conducted as the Deputy Commissioner of then Srinagar district — actually saw for the first time that they could vote out their “rulers”. Up to that time, the elections in Jammu and Kashmir had been little more than a charade. The increasingly obvious fairness of the polls since 2002 has placed the present in sharp contrast to that unhappy past. I recall a discussion with Chief Election Commissioner J.M. Lyngdoh in 2002, on how to ensure that the elections were free and fair, and would appear so, not only to the world, but, more importantly, to the people of the State as well. The present election has been special because it represents a fruition of India’s quest to guarantee freedom to all sections of its people, and the high participation of the Kashmiris represents a triumph for India’s democracy.

End of separatism?

In the present election we have had the regional parties, the NC and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) exchange the lead vote share of 32.2 per cent between 2008 and 2014. While the PDP had taken 24.1 per cent in 2008, the NC has come down to 17.2 per cent in 2014. Independents and others, including the regional Panthers Party, had taken 11.5 per cent in 2008, but have been reduced to a negligible percentage. What is significant however is that the national parties, the Indian National Congress (INC) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which between them had shared a total of 32.1 per cent of the vote in 2008, have together taken nearly 46 per cent of the vote in the current election.

Does this election then mark the end of separatism? Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had been criticised by many for declaring in his Independence Day speech in 2009 that in Kashmir, separatism as an issue was over. Having been associated with the internal dialogue process with the separatists initiated by the Vajpayee government, I am witness to the fact that by 2009, the pervasive political demand was indeed only for greater self-government within the Indian Union. It is important to understand that the theme tune of Kashmir’s union with India springs from the aspiration for azadi. What is azadi to a Kashmiri? While there is no agreement on the meaning of this term to a Kashmiri, Sajjad Lone, author of “Achievable Nationhood: A Vision Document on Resolution of the Jammu & Kashmir Conflict” (Srinagar: Jammu & Kashmir People’s Conference, 2006), a former separatist leader and son of one of the Hurriyat’s founding members Abdul Ghani Lone, has, by participating in elections for a second time, given us the answer.

This he did with his party, the J&K People’s Conference (JPC) taking two seats, Handwara and Kupwara, and where his Pakistani wife Asma, the daughter of Amanullah Khan of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), campaigned freely for him. Although there had been calls for a boycott by some sections of the ‘separatists’, this was muted and later blunted by the very voices that had called for it.

What then is the challenge for the new government?


Communal polarisation in the State has been a matter of concern since the Amarnath land controversy of 2008 that had felled the INC-led coalition bringing on the 2008 election. This was only exacerbated by the 2010 disturbance that followed an encounter, now established in a court martial to have been staged by some soldiers in the frontier township of Macchil. The election results serve to deepen such concern. There is not a single Hindu candidate who has won from Kashmir, with Moti Kaul of the BJP contesting in Habbakadal of Srinagar being the only runner-up. Although the party leading in the Kashmir Valley, the PDP, had fielded candidates in Jammu Division, the only seats that it has won are in Muslim-dominated constituencies in Jammu Division: Darhal, Rajouri and Poonch. Of the three winning contenders in the Valley, the PDP, the JKNC and the INC, it is only the JKNC which has won seats in Hindu-dominated areas in Jammu Division.

On the other hand, the BJP, the second largest party in the Assembly, has fielded and won with both Hindu and Muslim candidates in Jammu — including in the hitherto Congress fastness in the Muslim-dominated Chenab valley — but has taken not a single seat in Kashmir or in Ladakh, a constituency that it holds in the Lok Sabha. Besides this, the BJP’s share in the Kashmir Valley, set against the 28.7 per cent of the vote taken by it Statewide, is only one per cent. And this is despite a determined effort by the BJP’s national leadership to reach out. In an article in the Times of India (December 22), Sameer Arshad Khatlani says that this only contributed to a reaction seen in the larger voter turnout. The increase in the BJP presence is indeed the foremost feature of these elections, rising from a mere 12.6 per cent of the vote share to the present, edging the INC into fourth place. But this stems almost entirely from its dramatic gains in only the Jammu Division. This issue will therefore pose the prime challenge to the incoming government in J&K and is possibly an issue flagged in the process of what Mehbooba Mufti describes as cobbling together a coalition.

Issue of AFSPA

The continuing application of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act to the State in the rapidly changing situation has attracted much debate, often heated. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah’s announcement on withdrawal of the application of the law in certain areas — which the Army has stoutly argued in favour of continuance of the status quo — has deepened Kashmiri suspicions of the country’s intent. But there is an alternative. The deployment of the Army, extensively in civilian areas in Kashmir, is a hangover frozen along the demands of the tribal invasion of 1947-48. This explains why there is heavy deployment in Pattan, on the crossroads between Baramulla and Sopore, in Palhalan, located on the karewa(highland), a natural wall of defence for Srinagar, and Shalteng, once on Srinagar’s outskirts and today a suburb. Clearly, the premier threat today of war between two nuclear-armed States is no longer about a military assault; it is infiltration. For this purpose the Army would do well to consider redeployment along the more vulnerable areas on the Line of Control (LoC). Tensions between the Army and local civilian populations, which characterise the civilian areas of the Valley, despite prodigious efforts by military authorities to dispel such an image through sadbhavana, is inexistent along the LoC, where among the predominantly Gujjar tribesmen using these meadows as seasonal pasture, the need for deployment is understood as necessary for their protection. And it must be acknowledged that it is the Army’s signal achievement that a military presence in the Valley’s heartland is no longer required for maintenance of law and order.

The breakdown of 2010 that afflicted Kashmir, spreading from north to south and into Poonch district in Jammu Division, leading to the extensive loss of lives, mostly children shot by police and paramilitary personnel, demonstrated an absence of representative authority. The Army, at the time, had wisely refused to intervene beyond staging a flag march, to quell what was civil disorder. Unfortunately, preoccupation with security had taken the form of a persistent security presence, two years after the country had celebrated a record high voter turnout.

The State, and the Valley in particular, need to be carried into enjoying the kind of open government, with concomitant official accountability, which the rest of India takes for granted. What, then, is the demand on the Indian Union? The answer is incredibly simple: allow to the Kashmiris the same liberty that is considered a right by each Indian. Kashmir then calls for India to introspect. The infrastructure is already in place. Will the result of this election help India rise to the challenge?

I can only conclude with the words of the great 14th century Saivite mendicant and poetess of Kashmir, mentor of the Sufi Sheikh Nooruddin of Charar-e-Sharief, revered by Hindus as Lalla Ded and Muslims as Lalla Arifa, and also with a fervent hope: A thousand times I asked my guru, ‘The name of the One who is known by No-thing’, Tired and exhausted was I, asking time and again; Out of Nothing emerged; Something, bewildering and great! — Lalla Ded

(Wajahat Habibullah is former chairperson of the National Commission for Minorities.)


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