ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

Jammu and Kashmir Elections: A Shift in Equations

A sober appraisal of the recently concluded elections in Jammu and Kashmir will facilitate the government of India to move towards a democratic closure to this six-decade long dispute. The separatists also need to learn from their tactical mistakes and not take the people for granted. Having demonstrated their strength through large-scale non-violent protests in July-August 2008, demanding azaadi, the people have now exercised their vote peacefully. This represents a shift in equations away from armed militancy and towards a strong but peaceful demand for independence.

COMMENTARY

Jammu and Kashmir Elections: A Shift in Equations

Gautam Navlakha

while the e lectorate was 32,60,282 and 30,77,266, respectively.1 In other words, the ratio of the electorate to the population was 0.47 in Kashmir and 0.57 in Jammu. In the 2002 elections, voters in Jammu even numerically outnumbered those in Kashmir, specifically 28,92,290

A sober appraisal of the recently concluded elections in Jammu and Kashmir will facilitate the government of India to move towards a democratic closure to this six-decade long dispute. The separatists also need to learn from their tactical mistakes and not take the people for granted. Having demonstrated their strength through large-scale nonviolent protests in July-August 2008, demanding azaadi, the people have now exercised their vote peacefully. This represents a shift in equations away from armed militancy and towards a strong but peaceful demand for independence.

Email: gnavlakha@gmail.com

T
here were many firsts during the Jammu and Kashmir state assembly elections of 2008. It was a sevenphase poll, spread over five weeks, covering three winter weeks of December. An unprecedented deployment of 538 companies of the central paramilitary forces, which included 388 companies of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) were pressed in for election duty. This was supplemented by 60 to 70 companies of the J&K police and Rashtriya Rifles. Each phase of the election saw curfew imposed in those areas of Kashmir where polling was not being held. All separatist leaders, barring two who were placed under house arrest, were booked under the Public Safety Act to prevent them from campaigning for the poll boycott. This, despite the fact that canvassing for votes as well as campaigning for boycott form part of any electoral process. Further, an astonishing 1,354 candidates stood for 87 seats or about 16 candidates for each constituency. Interestingly, a large number stood as candidates of parties which have no presence in the state, least of all in Kashmir, and yet they spent money quite lavishly! Above all, for the first time since 1990, militants halted all activities which could be perceived as obstructing people from casting their vote. In this sense, the extraordinary security cover was grossly disproportionate to any threat posed by the militants and the boycott campaign, which was non-violent.

Missing Voters

In terms of voting figures, while 61.26% has been officially recorded as the p olling percentage, the actual percentage of polling in Kashmir points to some c aution. According to J&K’s election c ommission the projected population of K ashmir and Jammu for 2008 was 69,22,091 and 54,08,782, respectively,

in Jammu to 25,46,913 in Kashmir. In the

2008 electoral roll this discrepancy has

been rectified to some extent. Still, the

ratio of electorate to population remains

skewed in favour of Jammu. About 10 to

15% of the Kashmir electorate will remain

“unaccounted” for in the electoral rolls if

the electorate to population ratio of Jammu

is used for the Kashmir Valley. Whether it is

deliberate or due to shortcomings in the

revision of the electoral rolls is a moot

point. Given that identity cards are vital for

residents of J&K and are most sought after,

the Election Commission and government

authorities have a lot to explain.

Having said this, and despite these

caveats, it is indisputable that people did

turn up in larger numbers, exceeding the

20% votes cast in the 2002 elections in the

valley. These elections took place in the

aftermath of agitations in Kashmir and

the Hindu dominated districts of Jammu

over the Amarnath land allotment issue.

The state came down hard on the agita

tors in Kashmir, whereas it used kid gloves

against the agitation in Jammu spear

headed by the Sangharsh Samiti, which

was backed by the Rashtriya Swayamse

vak Sangh (RSS) as well as the Bharatiya

Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress. This

makes the larger than anticipated turnout

in Kashmir quite remarkable. So the point

is, what should one make of it?

Interpreting the Turnout

It would be a mistake to read this turnout as a rejection of the demand for selfdetermination. Earlier in the summer, similar claims about the demise of the separatist movement were rubbished by the massive non-violent assertion for azaadi. Separatist sentiments were consolidated by the transfer of land to the Amarnath board, the occupation of civilian land by security forces, as well as by the economic blockade imposed by the Jammu agitation. People in Kashmir

january 17, 2009

EPW
Economic & Political Weekly

COMMENTARY

joined the call for azaadi of their own v olition and it was their participation which persuaded the militants to silence their guns. Because the Kashmir protests were harshly suppressed in contrast to the gentle treatment of the Jammu agitators, the idea of azaadi from India did not get eroded but remains a material force. So why did they come out to vote?

It is commonly held that the state legislature plays a junior role in determining the future dispensation of Jammu and Kashmir. It enjoys little authority over the most visible public issue of concern, namely, the demilitarisation of the state. Going by the People’s Democratic Party’s (PDP) experience of being part of a coalition government, upward revision of rent paid to the landowners whose land is occupied by the security forces is about all that they managed to wrest from New Delhi. The state government is, in fact, powerless to even decide on the release of political prisoners. These issues fall in the domain of the New Delhi-based national security apparatus. But the state government has the power to build roads, schools, health centres, create jobs, stop land transfers to non-state subjects, etc. In short, it provides material succour to a population which has suffered immensely for over two decades. Thus, people were wise enough to realise that assembly polls may help them but they do not amount to disowning the right of self-determination. The point is that, elections to state legislatures in general, and the J&K assembly in particular, offer a narrow range of prospects and relate more to issues of employment, education, health, etc. People participate out of hope for immediate relief more than any other reason.

If the recent elections to J&K assembly carry any message, it is that one should not take people for granted. Those who came out to vote in J&K comprised many who had also participated in the earlier agitation for azaadi. Between that assertion for azaadi, and the recent elections nothing substantial has happened to suggest that popular demands have changed. The experience of governor’s rule in the past and the recent one in particular, seems to have driven home the advantage of having even a relatively weak Legislative Assembly. An assembly may be powerless to remove the

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
january 17, 2009

security forces from amidst the people, but, in contrast to governor’s rule, it is better placed to restrain the security forces from harassment and brutality.

Message to the Separatists

There is also a message for the separatist leaders in the elections, as much as for the state. The call for boycott was a tactical mistake and gave the state a propaganda advantage. It is true that the separatist leaders were obstructed at every step. But it is equally true that in the period heading towards elections, the separatist leadership erred in not propelling their movement forward through imaginative politics. They failed to mobilise the people around a programme of action. Juxtapositioning the earlier nonviolent movement for azaadi and the present participation in assembly elections reveals the people’s preference for a politics of agitation. Recall the remarkable discipline and restraint exhibited by the agitators in the valley during the Amarnath agitations, while they faced the brutality of the security forces and the preachy arrogance of the liberal intelligentsia. A people so brutalised for two decades could have given way, during that agitation, to anarchy and communalised frenzy. This stood out in sharp contrast to the self-serving “nationalism” of the right-wing Hindu agitation in Jammu and its bigoted behaviour. Politics of hate and politics of assertion took place, so to say, side by side, for all to see and for all to draw their own conclusions.

Significantly, hate politics found its way during the election campaign in the Jammu region. The BJP continued from where it had left off during the Amarnath agitation and mounted a communal campaign. This helped them win 11 seats against just one seat they had won in 2002. It must also be remembered that the BJP had eight seats in the 1996 assembly elections and had for long a base in the Jammu region. Several Congress and independent candidates also received support from the RSS backed Sangharsh Samiti. Thus a constituency, fed and nurtured by the Hindutva brigade on hatred, has emerged. Despite this, the BJP lost in Bishnah constituency to the sitting i ndependent candidate, even though the BJP icon, Narendra Modi, campaigned to

GYAN AD

COMMENTARY

whip up passions for their candidate, Shilpi Verma, widow of Kuldeep Verma who allegedly committed suicide in support of the demands of the Jammu agitation. The loss suffered by BJP leader Nirmal Singh in Jammu’s Gandhi Nagar constituency was due to the Congress candidate being backed by the Sangharsh Samiti. The victory of an independent candidate from Kathua, Charanjit Singh too was on account of the Samiti’s s upport. Above all the victory of BJP’s 11 candidates, in particular, their senior leader Ashok Khajuria from Jammu (west) constituency, points towards the fact that right-wing extremism has emerged as a significant factor in Jammu’s Hindu h eartland. Ashok Khajuria, incidentally, was the BJP leader whose televised incendiary rhetoric during the Jammu agitation was full of venom against the Muslims. He was the person who first invoked the term “economic blockade” against K ashmir, threatening to starve the K ashmiri M uslims. There is a danger that the state’s continued appeasement of Hindu extremists in Jammu will further impair the fragile ties between the two com munities in Jammu.

Finally, one of the recurring anecdotal motifs of these elections, in the Kashmir region, was of voters pointedly claiming that they had not given up their desire for azaadi. Further, a fairly large number of voters did boycott the polls arguing that they did not want to dilute their commitment to separatism, by participating in polls. The apparent division between those who voted and those who boycotted is likely to erode rather than widen over time. The 2008 summer of discontent should act as a warning against over-reading the election participation. Nevertheless, a watershed has been reached in Kashmir. If the 1987 elections acted as a catalyst for the spread of armed militancy, then the current elections mark a breach too. The equation between armed and non-violent agitation has again shifted. The catalyst for the shift in equations was the earlier agitation in the valley, which brought home the political effectiveness of mass agitation. It must also be remembered that people continue to see the m ilitants as their own, who have not d isavowed armed resistance, and that most continue to be wedded to the idea of azaadi. In the midst of the election p rocess, the killing of a Hizb-ul- Mujahideen commander, Raees Ahmad Dar, in P ulwama on 17 December, saw more than 10,000 people turn up for his funeral.

This makes it imperative that the government of India reads the situation soberly. It is worth recalling that in 1987, the Congress-National Conference (NC) alliance became the precursor of a tragedy. One hopes it does not become a farce in 2009. A lot hinges on the PDP with an enhanced tally of 21 seats (against 16 in 2002), including two from the Jammu region. The PDP won 19 seats against 20 won by NC in Kashmir. Strikingly, Farooq Abdullah won his Sonawari seat by a m argin of less than 200 votes! In the Hazratbal constituency, where too he won, the results were mysteriously withheld for two days. What is important is that the PDP’s vote and seat share has expanded and the NC’s base in Kashmir has shrunk. In the opposition the PDP will perforce have to espouse separatist concerns if it has to remain effective. Doing nothing is not an option for New Delhi, but p laying a charade could be worse. The composite dialogue with Pakistan and the peace process have never fired people’s imagination even at the height of the Indo-Pak bonhomie. These processes were not seen as paving the way for a resolution of the Kashmir issue, but were rather perceived as an attempt to arrive at a settlement over the heads of the people affected. But even this process has now halted. The costs of p rocrastination have only risen.

For India’s policymakers, who dream their big power dreams, they now have the opportunity to show that they can rise above their post-colonial insularity and inferiority complex. Enlightened selfinterest suggests that allowing p eople to determine their destiny makes for an attractive democratic closure to a 61-year old dispute. This could augur well for India as an open and confident s ociety. The question is, does the State have the imagination and courage to take that step?

Notes

1 Data related to J&K elections 2008 are from www. ceojammuandkashmir.nic.in. See also “Independent Election Observers Team Report: J&K State Assembly Elections 2002”, J&K Coalition of Civil Society, Srinagar, 2002.

january 17, 2009

EPW
Economic & Political Weekly

Dear Reader,

To continue reading, become a subscriber.

Explore our attractive subscription offers.

Click here

Back to Top