Reading the vote in the Valley


From the days of Dogra rule to the heyday of Sheikh Abdullah to the current situation, elections have been an inherent means of articulating Kashmir’s evolving narratives. Prime Minister Modi needs to see the 2014 Assembly election for the game changer that it was

Electoral practice in Jammu and Kashmir, despite its stymied recognition, has played an intrinsic role in shaping the nature and course of politics in the State. Whether as a means of defining identity and its role in the body politic of the region or shaping the broader conflict dynamics of the issue, elections have been an inherent means of articulating Kashmir’s evolving narratives.

Its agency can be traced back to as early as the 1930s when as a result of the Glancy Commission report, an otherwise constricted political space was thrown open, providing the means for representative governance through the introduction of the Praja Sabha — the Jammu and Kashmir Legislative Assembly (1934). While providing relief from an autocratic regime, it were elections to the 30-odd seats of the Praja Sabha that proved the turning point altering the very character of political thought and ideology in Kashmir.

As a means of arresting simmering political discontent, the Dogra regime had allowed restricted space for popular mobilisation along social and religious lines. This was a calculated move aimed at providing a guarded channelling of grievances while keeping the more political means of dissent in check. However, when coupled with the discriminatory ‘Dharam laws’ and the earlier Muslim mobilisation surrounding the upkeep and conduct of shrines, the new-found space around socio-religious agendas further accentuated religious identities and divides. Despite the cultural overlap and periodic political convergences, such as during the ‘Mulki’ movement culminating in the ‘State subject’ law of 1927, the various communities remained overwhelmingly distinct.

The evolution of Kashmiriyat

The subsequent political space granted by the Glancy report was immediately capitalised upon, leading to the rise of organised structures of political engagement. The emergence of the Muslim Conference under the leadership of Sheikh Abdullah was one such development, espousing the cause of the majority Muslim population. As the political landscape evolved, animated by the increase of elected seats to the Praja Sabha, so did the political contestations. Officials and nominated members of the Maharaja continued to form a majority, dominating the Assembly. The rules of franchise were thus that the poor remained largely excluded — the key constituency of the Muslim Conference. In order to counter the growing imbalance it was essential for the Muslim Conference to win the support of the Hindu and Sikh elected members. It was largely this electoral gambit along with other realpolitik exigencies that lead to the eventual gestation of the secular and all-encompassing National Conference (NC) in place of the more linear Muslim Conference.

The transformation was to alter the course of Kashmir’s political history, redefining the very principles and ideology the movement had been premised on. It sought to realign existing social structures replacing them with a more interwoven social fabric, diluting religion-informed identity and giving way to a more syncretic consciousness — ‘Kashmiriyat’, erected on the shared values and cultural mores of the indigenous communities. Though religion continued to play a significant role, it enriched the idea of Kashmiriyat making it more versatile and acceptable. The reconstruction also aimed to close political ranks amongst the communities bringing about an ideological union by providing the platform for a convergence of ideas and pooling of resources. The NC with its egalitarian “Naya Kashmir” manifesto emerged as the vanguard of a collective Kashmiri identity and nationalism, challenging the writ of the Dogra Maharaja and finally overthrowing it.

Post-1947, elections in Kashmir retained their centrality even if transitioning through various political templates. Starting off as a means of empowerment symbolising indigenous decision-making, they soon nosedived to become a symbol of denial and defiance. In an increasingly constrained relationship between Srinagar and New Delhi, elections became the medium of political communication, whether as a means of implied conquest by denying Kashmiris their right of self-expression though rigged elections — conveying a hegemonic arrogance and political diktat — or as a means of evincing defiance by Kashmiri voters through their unflinching support of regional narratives and candidates over representation portraying New Delhi’s interests.

In fact, elections became a function of the deteriorating relations, the more New Delhi-patronised governments failed to deliver, the more the Kashmiri became disillusioned, not just from the dismal state apparatus but by extension its ‘backers’ in New Delhi. Election boycott also became a means of communicating displeasure and rejection of prevalent political structures whether in the form of boycott by the Praja Parishad of the 1951 elections or the en bloc indifference of the Valley throughout the tumultuous 1990s. Within an unresponsive statecraft, elections became the main means of political signalling.

Elections as a contestation

Electoral patterns, political posturing and particular stances of various parties during election campaigns also influenced the political choices appropriated by Kashmir. New Delhi failed to appreciate the intricate nuances of politicking in Kashmir, missing out on intricacies such as the sense of assurance and security — both political and cultural — elections symbolised for Kashmir. Rather than addressing these insecurities, it further sharpened them through a series of rigged elections, selective patronage and imposed legitimacy. The dissolution of the NC, which had historically been identified as the custodian of Kashmir’s indigenous identity and interests (of late reduced to a pale speck of the same) and its merger into the Indian National Congress in 1965, further sharpened the insecurity, an insecurity which had already been stirred by the communal agendas of certain political elements in Jammu.

Return of the religious idiom

This saw a withdrawal and recoiling of popular sentiment and a return of its mobilisation along religious lines, such as during the Moi-i-Muqaddas agitation — protesting against the displacement of a holy relic [the hair of the Prophet]. The phase also saw greater adoption of Islamic symbols and discourse depicted in actions such as the waving of a green cloth or flashing of rock salt during public engagements. The practice was widely employed during the 1977 election campaign in Kashmir. The expedient trend was further extended by Indira Gandhi, who incorporated communal imagery and fearmongering during her election campaign of 1983 in Jammu. The following year a popularly elected government in Srinagar was dismantled by New Delhi. This came as a jolt and a latently evolving persecution syndrome became manifest, strewing Kashmir’s political landscape with an overtly religious idiom. The elections of 1987, in many ways a watershed moment, reflected the seeping religious incline, with the founding of a political conglomerate consciously named the Muslim United Front, pitched against the status quo-esque NC-Congress combine. The flagrant rigging of the elections that ensued unleashed a series of events, culminating in the outbreak of a militant secessionist movement by 1989.

Kashmir had come full circle: from a painstaking construction of Kashmiriyat, it had rolled back to a religion-steered identity and from a neutral contender, watching out for its indigenous interests in 1947 and 1965, Kashmir rose up in arms against India welcoming support from (Muslim) Pakistan.

Adjusting to ground realities

As the movement lost its way bogged down by myopic visions and faltering leadership, conflict fatigue set in. Absence of a social security net for looking after widows and orphans or addressing the sustenance of the populace, while the leadership bloated, led to a re-visit and a trade-off between lofty ideological aspirations and immediate administrative relief. The peace process underway between India and Pakistan further added impetus. A relatively free election of 2002 provided the opportunity, registering a high voter turnout. The fact that the winning party had appropriated some of the separatist agenda, packaged as “soft separatism” based on a lose concept of self-rule, satisfied both the ideological moorings of the populace as well as their more mundane governance needs. The emergence of alternative political parties and a shift to a multi-party system from an otherwise monopolised one-party system helped channelise the people’s frustrations and extend a sense of accountability, even if not yet empowerment. The subsequent confidence-building measures such as the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service and other forms of cross-Line of Control interaction, such as trade, created the psychological cushioning to switch over to peaceful means of protest.

In a changing international environment, this rid the issue of a more fundamentalist tag. The coalition model of government also allowed New Delhi to scale down its perceived interventionist measures and become a more acceptable stakeholder — improving optics and calming agitated sentiments, hence allowing for a more progressive engagement.

As subsequent elections followed, they became a marker of shifting political trends, and changing tactics in the Valley. The people had found a perfect paradox: while they agitated all summer, come election time they queued up to cast their vote. By doing so they cleverly demarcate the temporal from the sacred — evincing a higher voter turnout for the State Legislative Assembly which addresses their administrative grievances directly, while remaining aloof from the more ‘national’ parliamentary elections, thus registering their displeasure. The practice also allows them to hold both the separatist and mainstream politicians accountable.

The recent elections of 2014 in many ways signify the criticality of 1987 — in terms of the repercussions it could unfold. Coming in the backdrop of a derailed peace process, one which the Kashmiris had pinned much hope on, ineffectual post-floods rehabilitation, lacklustre governance, rising militancy with its attendant violence and a general sense of dejection and alienation amongst the youth — the setting could reflect another cataclysm in the works. Unless invigorated with political initiatives, economic packages alone will not deliver.

As the political heir to the [Vajpayee] legacy of ‘insaniyat’, having a regional vision of his own (especially in terms of Pakistan), his standing within the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the chance to cement his position amongst political heavyweights internationally, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has an enormous opportunity, nay responsibility, at hand in Kashmir. Can he recognise the role and rise to the occasion personifying the game changer and statesman this region so desperately seeks? Only time will tell. –The Hindu

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