On September 24, 2002, the day terrorists attacked the Akshardham temple in Gujarat, Jammu & Kashmir was holding the second of its 4-phase Assembly election, one that would be hailed as the first free and fair election in the state in more than two decades. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee said the attack was a “well-planned conspiracy” born out of “frustration”. The good turnout in the first phase, he said, was “a stunning slap on the face of Pakistan and the world of terrorism”. He congratulated the people of J&K for the “courage and conviction” with which they had participated in the election.
The turnout was about 41% on that day. The third phase on October 1 saw 16 attacks by militants, and 27 people were killed. The turnout was 42% in that phase. The overall turnout in that election was 43.7%.
That election went down in history as a turning point for Kashmir after a dozen or so years of high militancy. Former foreign secretary Muchkund Dubey wrote in The Hindu that the elections signified “a triumph of the political sagacity and courage of the Kashmiris and an emphatic assertion of their preference for a peaceful settlement of the Kashmir issue within a democratic framework”.
Until then, the other benchmark in Kashmir’s electoral history had been the 1987 election, which Kashmiris say India “stole”. Amid widespread allegations of rigging, the National Conference won, and Farooq Abdullah became Chief Minister. The eruption of militancy is traced back to this election.
Two years later, in the parliamentary polls of 1989, in Srinagar, all candidates bar Mohamed Shafi Bhat of the Congress withdrew. Bhat won uncontested. Baramulla and Anantnag saw a turnout of about 5.07% each.
The 7% polled in Srinagar in Sunday’s bypoll harks back to that year, when the problem in Kashmir had just begun in a big way.
Indian political leaders and the Ministry of External Affairs have repeatedly held up high voter turnouts in the state since 1996 as a vote of confidence in New Delhi — witness the Assembly polls of 1996 (53.9%), 2002 (43%), 2008 (60.5%) and 2014 (65.23%), and the Lok Sabha elections of 1996 (48.96%), 1998 (44.21%), 1999 (32.34%), 2004 (35.20%), 2009 (39.68%) and 2014 (49.52%).
By that same logic then, the turnout on April 10 should be seen as a clear vote of no-confidence in the way Delhi has dealt with Kashmir, especially in the last two years.
The Hurriyat had called for a boycott of the bypoll. There is nothing new or surprising about that. The last election that some of the current leaders of the Hurriyat had contested was in 1987. Since 1996, when elections started to be held after 6 years of President’s Rule, they have told Kashmiris that “voting would be a betrayal of the blood of martyrs”.
The turnout in every one of these elections was a finger in the Hurriyat’s eye. This time, reports from the ground suggest that they did not have to do anything to mobilise support for their boycott call. The ground had been prepared between July and November 2016, when Kashmir erupted in anger over Burhan Wani’s killing, and the Centre decided to settle it with pellet guns and other force.
“This time what we saw was an emotional reaction,” said one official, not wishing to be identified. “Also, for the first time since the 1990s, there is fear of militants, and also massive social pressure, of being caught at polling booths by television cameras and then being denounced by your own people.”
A senior functionary of the PDP-BJP government said the near wipeout of the election was a “rational” reaction after nearly 6 months of turmoil in the Valley during which 96 people were killed, more than 12,000 suffered some kind of injury, 1,000 lost vision in one eye after being hit by pellets, and 5 were blinded.
But it is not just what happened after July 2016. The anger against the state and central governments has been building up ever since the PDP and BJP entered into a coalition after the 2014 Assembly elections. PDP supporters have seen the alliance as a betrayal. Worse, the reasons offered by the PDP leadership for the alliance have not borne fruit: the benefits that would flow to Kashmir from the BJP-ruled Centre; talks with “all stakeholders” for a political resolution; talks with Pakistan.
But an interesting and not so obvious detail about the Srinagar byelection, which some local observers described as “polarisation”, is that Shia and Gujar voters made up a substantial part of the 7% that did turn out. In Ganderbal district, for instance, out of the 15,199 voters who voted in Kangan segment, an estimated 10,000 were Gujars. In Budgam, among the 13,276 voters, a majority were Shia.
Although there were pockets of high turnout in Sunni areas such as Birwah in Budgam district, and there were places where Shias too did not vote, a PDP politician, who did not wish to be named, said Gujars and Shias do not mobilise around the Hurriyat’s boycott calls or hartals, or back Hizb militants or their sympathisers. In south Kashmir, where there are no Gujar or Shia settlements, the boycott is likely to be near total if and when the Anantnag election takes place.
While Delhi has seen high turnouts as a thumbs down for separatism and azadi, for Kashmiris, participation in elections has traditionally been intended to select a group of people who would mediate between them and politicians and the administration for immediate benefits — a road, a bridge, bijli and paani.
For this, an Assembly election is naturally more important than a parliamentary election. Therefore, the question is moot: would there have been a higher turnout had this been an Assembly bypoll? Considering the anger on the ground, perhaps not.
In a detailed brief on J&K on its web site, the MEA declares: “In a diverse country like India, disaffection and discontent are not uncommon. Indian democracy has the necessary resilience to accommodate genuine grievances within the framework of our sovereignty, unity and integrity. Government of India has expressed its willingness to accommodate the legitimate political demands of the people of the state of J&K.”
At the heart of the problem is that this has not really happened.