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Separatist Sentiments and Deepening of Democracy

The energetic and high voter turnout in the recently held elections in Jammu and Kashmir defied popular scepticism after the widespread Amarnath land protests and the vociferous demand in Kashmir for azaadi. The elections should be seen as a process of democratising the political mainstream in the Kashmir Valley. It would however be a folly to suggest that the high degree of participation in the elections has signalled a rejection of separatism. The "problem" of separatism can only be addressed through greater dialogue, which has been facilitated now by the people's yearning for a honourable solution.


Separatist Sentiments and Deepening of Democracy of agitation or during the elections – that reflects a political reality of overlap between separatist and the mainstream politics and which needs to be understood in its
right perspective. It may add to the sub
stance of the argument if one is reminded
Rekha Chowdhary that just before the land agitation there

The energetic and high voter turnout in the recently held elections in Jammu and Kashmir defied popular scepticism after the widespread Amarnath land protests and the vociferous demand in Kashmir for azaadi. The elections should be seen as a process of democratising the political mainstream in the Kashmir Valley. It would however be a folly to suggest that the high degree of participation in the elections has signalled a rejection of separatism. The “problem” of separatism can only be addressed through greater dialogue, which has been facilitated now by the people’s yearning for a honourable solution.

Rekha Chowdhary ( is with the Department of Political Science, University of Jammu.

Economic & Political Weekly

january 17, 2009

hen assembly elections were announced in the state of J ammu and Kashmir, there was an apprehension that the voter turnout in Kashmir might be very poor and that the electoral exercise may not gain legitimacy. This impression was generated due to the massive participation of people in the demonstrations taking place all over the valley throughout the summer over the Amarnath land issue. The political environment, resounding with slogans demanding azaadi, was reminiscent of the early period of militancy when people in the valley had rejected mainstream politics and had refused to participate in elections. One was reminded of the parliamentary elections in 1989 which were reduced to a farce due to lack of availability of contestants and which had registered a voter turnout of only around 5%. The voter response during the recently concluded elections was therefore surprising.1 Not only did people vote in sufficiently large numbers, there was also an all-round improvement in the voter turnout since 2002 assembly elections.2 However, what was the most important thing about the voter turnout this time was the eagerness of the people to vote. The images of long queues outside the polling booths that were repeated in each phase (except perhaps the last phase which registered only 20% voter turnout) showed how people willingly exercised their franchise. There was generally no complaint about coercion and on the whole elections were seen to be fair and credible.

So what is the meaning of the electoral participation of people? Of course, it cannot be seen as a rejection of separatist politics because the same people who voted in elections were also seen to be participating in the huge demonstrations asserting their separatist sentiments, only a few months before the elections.

There is a thread of continuity in the r esponses of Kashmiris – whether at the time was a surge of electoral politics and this was seen even a year before the elections were due. Well-attended massive rallies were organised by various political parties all over Kashmir. It was indeed during that time that expectations about substantial voter turnouts during the assembly election were built up. However, concomitantly there were signals of unrest – though expressed mainly in the form of localised protests. Throughout the year of 2007, there were a number of agitations in various parts of the valley against the violation of human rights.3 These protests invariably reverberated with the slogans of azaadi.

The enthusiasm for elections, despite the call by the separatists to boycott the polls, reflects certain ground realities of Kashmir which while defined by the centrality of separatism point to some shifts that have taken place since the onset of the present phase of militancy and separatism. First, there is a change in the response of people towards violence and armed militancy. People are urging for peace through a settlement of the problem. They therefore seek from the separatist leadership, political work which promises of a forward movement in that direction. Second, there is gradual expansion of mainstream politics boosted by certain democratic forces and which has become very prominent in the more recent periods. The expansion of mainstream politics, however, is not taking place at the cost of the separatist sentiment at the ground level. Both these points need further elaboration.


It is the popular separatist sentiment that sustains separatist politics in Kashmir. The militant, separatist leadership and organisations like the All Party Hurriyat Conference and its factions draw their legitimacy from this sentiment only. There exists at times a disjuncture between the popular separatist sentiment on the one hand and the separatist politics followed by the militant and separatist leaders on


the other. In the defiance of the poll boycott call of the separatists, one can see one such moment of disjuncture between “separatist sentiment” and “separatist politics”. The separatist politics of boycott is out of sync with the popular responses. The popular urge as stated above is for a forward movement in the peace process. The people of the valley have endorsed a kind of politics which has the potential of resolving the “separatist issue” in the v alley. The people are also keen on ending the political impasse they have been subjected to, for two decades now. They p erceived that the boycotting of the poll did not offer anything positive or was useful in attaining the aforementioned objective of resolving the problem. On the contrary a boycott was seen to represent p olitics of a negative kind only leading t owards prolonging the impasse and therefore a dead end.

It was this very same urge to move forward and beyond that was reflected in the people’s responses during the Amaranth land agitation as well. It is a common knowledge that more than the land it was the accumulated resentment over the stalled peace process that got reflected during the agitation. Though the government order handing over the land to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) was politicised to aggravate the fear of demographic change, the central issue which helped in bringing about such a massive mobilisation of people in K ashmir (comparable to the one during the early phase of militancy in 1990) was the feeling that fundamental issues of K ashmiris were b eing neglected in the context of the “normalcy” that was seen to be prevailing in Kashmir since 2002.4 The azaadi s logans therefore were meant to assert the pre-eminence of the s eparatist sentiment.

However, beyond providing a voice representing the people’s resentment, separatist leaders have offered nothing to the people since the agitation started in summer. Many separatist leaders, who had become relatively irrelevant to Kashmir’s politics over the last few years by not being able to make a mark in the various peace initiatives and having been left with hardly any other exclusive political agenda which were already been raised by the m ainstream political parties, could regain sudden prominence due to the mass response during the months of agitation on the land issue. Yet in order to sustain their relevance, the only strategy they had been using was to keep the pot of discontent boiling. They had therefore given their “chalo” calls – Muzzafarabad chalo, Idgah chalo, and Lal Chowk chalo – but with no vision for the future and offering nothing new to suggest to relieve the people from the impasse, these endless “chalo” calls could not sustain the political morale of the people beyond the agitations. The strategies adopted by the separatist leadership therefore remain very questionable.

It is in this light that one can analyse the response of the people to the call of the separatists to boycott the polls. The general feeling is that boycotting the election in itself is a futile exercise and does not make any difference in the ground r eality. “Not casting vote hardly makes a sense now because someone or the other will sit on our heads for next six years, so why not choose the one who is at least better than the rest?” (quoted in the newspaper Himalayan Mail on 24 November 2008). This response of a voter is supplemented by other responses such as “the elections are only for local governance. We were leading the pro-azaadi protests and still stand for the freedom of Kashmir. We are only choosing a better administration. We need better drinking water, roads and education” (Himalayan Mail, 24 November); “Freedom has no relation with polls. Election to us means better roads, electricity, and above all security, and give us our rights” (Greater Kashmir, 18 November), and “Vote hamara haq hai, azadi hamara nara” (Daily Excelsior, 24 November) (Vote is our right, azaadi is our slogan).

These responses indicate the well-recognised distinction that has come to be made in the valley between the mainstream politics of governance on the one hand and the separatist politics of ultimate resolution of conflict on the other. This distinction made since the 2002 elections (which were seen to be quite credible) is used both by the separatists as well as by the mainstream political leaders. While the separatists have been using this distinction to explain the gradually expanding mainstream political space, the mainstream leaders have been using it to locate themselves within the politics of Kashmir dominated by the separatist logic. However, what is important about the distinction is that the two spheres of politics rather than being projected as mutually exclusive or contradictory to each other are seen to exist parallel to each other. People, therefore, do not feel the strain of choosing between the two. It is the easing of the pressure upon the

o rdinary voters who do not feel that their act of voting amounts to betraying the “Kashmiri cause” that has encouraged them to defy the boycott call given by the separatists.

Extension of the Mainstream

Although in the participation of people in the elections, one cannot see rejection of separatism, one can see the legitimisation of electoral politics and the deepening of the democratic space. This can be attributed to a number of factors. First, the credibility of elections has increased since 2002 which has given a sense of confidence to the voters that there is a worth and a value accorded to their vote. The electoral exercise is seen to be meaningful because of the relationship between the act of voting and the outcome. The feeling that the governments are made through a local initiative and are not imposed from above and also that elections are no more subjected to manipulation, like the way it used to be earlier, has given a new meaning to the electoral process. The competitive nature of mainstream politics meanwhile has increased the appeal for electoral politics. Unlike the earlier hegemony of a single party, there is competition between the two regional parties – the National Conference (NC) and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). This has not only made the political space quite vibrant with people having the choice between the two parties. This has also changed the rules of the political game. Unlike the earlier times when remaining on the right side of the centre was seen as the only prerequisite for remaining in power (a condition acknowledged by the NC in the post-1984 period after being ousted from power through the manipulative politics of the centre), now a party needs to invest energy

january 17, 2009

Economic & Political Weekly


and work on the ground in Kashmir to compete for power. This has the consequence not only of enforcing greater accountability from the parties but also of changing the very nature of power politics in the valley.

One of the problems of power politics which contributed to the alienation among people was that it was superimposed from above and did not reflect the popular responses of the people in any manner. Much of the discontent that was accumulated in the valley was due to the fact that politics operated at a level where people were not involved – even in the discursive sense. Never there was any local debate about the kind of political arrangements the state required. The major political changes that took place in the state from 1953 onwards never became points of public discourse.5 The mainstream politics on the whole remained distanced from local aspirations in the valley.

Local Concerns, Political Issues

With politics becoming competitive at the local level now, its distance from popular responses in the valley has been reduced somewhat. Thus one can find some linkage between the local concerns of people and the political issues being raised by the political parties. Since the emergence of the PDP one can clearly see a shift in the political discourse taking place within mainstream politics. The issues which were earlier in the exclusive domain of the separatist politics are now openly debated within mainstream politics. It is not only the PDP – which introduced the peoplefriendly discourse of “healing touch” but also the NC who have been debating issues which were earlier in the agenda and domain of the separatists. A case in point is the manifesto of the NC during the recent election which among other things talked of repealing draconian laws such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and the Disturbed Areas Act; and setting up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to probe human rights’ abuses including killing, torture, disappearances in the past 20 years.

In a way therefore, one can see the deepening of democracy in Kashmir, and even if it is taking place within an overall environment of separatist politics – there

Economic & Political Weekly

january 17, 2009

is an increasing credibility of elections; increasing competitiveness and a greater participatory nature of the political space; reflection of popular concerns in the p olitical discourse and in essence the rooting of politics within the local milieu. This process of democratisation is important since it is the minimum which is required to address the alienation of Kashmiris from the state of affairs that has persisted for years now. It is pertinent to remember that much of the alienation in Kashmir has its roots in the absence of democratic space. The present phase of militancy that started immediately after the 1987 assembly elections, in fact, reflected a deeprooted frustration over the constant manoeuvring taking place within mainstream politics.6

The process of democratisation would however not be complete till Kashmiris are not provided their due rights as citizens and they are not assured of security and justice over human rights’ violations. Much of the resentment in Kashmir in the recent years is related to the continued violation of human rights, especially those that have manifested in the killings of innocent people during protest demonstrations and in fake encounters. This has become the foremost source of alienation of the people during the last two decades of conflict.

Mere expansion of democratic space may also not be sufficient to deal with a lienation and the separatist sentiment in Kashmir. The separatist sentiment will remain alive till it is not addressed. It is important to look for a long-term negotiated solution to the “Kashmir problem” through greater engagement with the Kashmiris. Kashmiris are certainly urging for peace and a point of exit from the conflict. But the nature of the resolution is a form of “honourable exit” that they are looking for. It will therefore be dangerous to read in the present response of K ashmiris a democratic solution to the problem. Democratisation of politics is essential but it cannot be substituted for continual dialogue.


1 52.36% voter turnout was recorded in the Kashmir Valley. In the context of the state average voter turnout of 61.49%, this was a substantial number. In 2002, only 30.13% voters had cast their votes in the valley.

2 In all the districts, the voter turnout was higher compared to the levels of turnout in the 2002 elections. For instance, in Bandipora, in comparison to 47.28% votes in 2002, 59.66% votes were polled this time. In Ganderbal district, the voter turnout was 42.35% in 2002 and now it has increased to 55.10%. In Kupwara district, it was 53.15% in 2002 and 68.22% in 2008; in Budgam, it was 46% in 2002 and 62.41% in 2008; in Baramula it was 37.57% in 2002 and 47.88% in 2008; in Pulwama, it was 21.89% in 2002 and 46.09% in 2008; in Shopian, it was 27.56% in 2002 and 50.65% in 2008; in Kulgam it was 26.92% in 2002 and 64.45% in 2008; in Anantang it was 22.18% in 2002 and 68.10% in 2008; in Srinagar it was 5.02% in 2002 and 21.67% in 2008.

3 The protests started right in the beginning of the year 2007 over the issue of the killings of the innocent civilians in the fake encounters in Ganderbal area. In April, there were protests against the killing of a civilian in Tral; in July there were massive protests in Handwara against the rape and killing of a minor girl in Langet. In September there were protests in Kupwara over the killing of a student and in October there were protests in Kupwara against the killing of a teacher by security forces.

4 When the agitation was taking place over the land issue in the valley, the peace process was stalled both at the internal and the external levels. At the internal level, the dialogue with the separatist leadership initiated by former Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had come to a halt a year after the formation of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. After just one round of talks with the Mirwaiz led Hurriyat and one meeting each with Yasin Malik and Sajjad Lone, the central government had abandoned the idea of direct dialogue with the separatists and had opted for the route of Round Table Conferences. The movement on the issue at the India-Pakistan level was also halted early in 2007 when Pakistan got engulfed in internal problems. This generated a feeling of unrest in Kashmir which was aggravated by frequent cases of killings of the innocent Kashmiris in the fake encounter cases which surfaced throughout 2007. The statement made by Zardari early in the year 2008 that Kashmir be placed in the backburner had further intensified this feeling.

5 After 1953 when Sheikh Abdullah was removed from power and kept in detention , there were sweeping changes in centre-state relations. The logic of constitutional “autonomy” as negotiated by Sheikh Abdullah was substituted by the logic of constitutional “integration”. Around 42 Presidential Orders were introduced to extend the provisions of Constitution of India to this state in the period between 1953 and 1975. These Presidential Orders along with the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution of Jammu and Kashmir brought the state constitutionally at par with the rest of India. However, no public debate took place in Kashmir over and about these changes.

6 Though it was the widely held belief that the heavy rigging of the 1987 elections led to militancy and popular upsurge in 1989, the fact remains that resentment was building up since the overthrow of NC government led by Farooq Abdullah in 1984 through defections engineered by the Congress as the ruling party in the centre. The 1984 episode was seen as a repeat of the 1953 situation when Sheikh Abdullah was removed from power.

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