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Kashmir ’02 Kashmir ’08

If there is one assessment of the polls in Kashmir by the Election Commission that has come true, it’s on the weather.

Written by Muzamiljaleel |
November 16, 2008 9:44:40 pm

If there is one assessment of the polls in Kashmir by the Election Commission that has come true, it’s on the weather. Chief Election Commissioner N. Gopalaswamy recently told a press conference in Srinagar that the only challenge in conducting assembly polls in Kashmir was the weather. Heavy snowfall in the Valley has torn apart whatever little semblance there was of a poll campaign.

The snow has only added to the troubles of the government, which has been consistently trying to push the Valley into poll mode. And as Kashmir goes to polls on Monday, the reservations of almost every mainstream party—especially Kashmir’s two major parties, the People’s Democratic Party and the National Conference—on conducting polls while Kashmir is in the middle of a separatist groundswell have come true.

Why has the EC’s decision to hold the elections now pushed Kashmir back to a familiar brink? A comparison with the success of the 2002 election explains the challenges the government and the mainstream political parties face this time.

Slogans replace guns

“The biggest and most difficult challenge before us is the current separatist campaign. The timing of the elections provided them (the separatists) an opportunity to extend their agitation against economic blockade to a poll boycott campaign,” says National Conference President Omar Abdullah. “We have to first convince people to come out to vote and then convince them to vote for us. This has put us in an extremely difficult situation.”

Unlike the 2002 assembly polls, he says, the level of anti-poll militant violence is negligible. “But despite the militant threat in 2002, the overall political environment was much more vibrant. At least people were ready to come out and vote,” he says. “In 2002, militants were at the forefront of the separatist boycott. We lost a sitting minister and candidate, Mushtaq Lone, while he was campaigning in his Lolab constituency. This time the anti-poll campaign is non-violent and has a context which in itself is a challenge for all of us,” says Abdullah.

The silence of the gun during the election campaign this time has, in fact, changed the very dynamics of the debate on elections. Before his arrest, JKLF chief Yasin Malik had initiated a poll boycott campaign by appealing to the Election Commission to allow the separatists to canvas for “no to vote” peacefully in the same manner as the mainstream parties campaign for votes. This recent transition of Kashmir’s separatist movement from guns to slogans has put the government in a tight spot too. Unlike the threat of a militant attack, the police and the security forces face public marches. Instead of bullets and fidayeens, there is slogan-shouting by unarmed young men who pelt stones when confronted by the police.

These separatist marches have been especially challenging for the J&K Police—a force which, after years of a counter-insurgency campaign, has become more of an army with an emphasis on sophisticated arms and gun battles rather than routine policing. With the entry of fidayeens, the J&K police’s top brass had put all their emphasis on training and conditioning their men for close quarter battles and ambushes to kill militants. Now these battle-hardened men are finding it difficult to hold fire and use tear smokeshells or water cannons to quell an unarmed protest. The results are, in fact, already out. In the recent protests, 57 unarmed youth were killed in police firing while 90 per cent among the wounded were shot above their waist. This shows how both the J&K Police and the CRPF were not prepared to face unarmed protesters.

In fact, Inspector General of Police, Kashmir zone, B. Srinivas, too, agreed that the force urgently needs to get back into its primary role of policing while confronting the separatist protesters.

The killings of protesters in police and CRPF firing have got the government so panicky that every time the separatists call for a march, the response is to impose a strict curfew. Though these restrictions have cut down on civilian killings, they have further vitiated the atmosphere, making it difficult for mainstream parties to come out to campaign.

The Amarnath factor

Prof Gul Mohammad Wani, who teaches political science at Kashmir University and is an expert on the electoral process in J&K, examines the “changed perception” in Kashmir, a phenomenon that has put a question mark on the very credibility of the election process. “These elections follow an unprecedented non-violent movement in Kashmir over the Amarnath land transfer. The land row has created a dangerous perception. An average Kashmiri has a sense that he is being bulldozed and for the first time, that has put a question mark on the very secular edifice of India in the minds of people,” he says.

A look at the ground situation in Kashmir before the Amarnath land row, says Wani, explains the situation. “There was an unprecedented enthusiasm as political parties prepared for the polls. In May, everyone expected a much bigger voter turnout than in 2002. But the land row changed everything overnight.”

According to Wani, the conditions in Kashmir were well-suited for elections before the Amarnath land row.

“In 2002, the Indo-Pak peace process had just begun and the two countries had yet to take any confidence building measures. This time, there were a number of CBMs already in place,” he says. “The Pakistan factor too was missing. In 2002, Pakistan under Musharraf was offensive and single-mindedly focused on Kashmir. Today’s Pakistan is democratic, fragile and busy with its own internal strife.”

The lost middle-ground

Mohideen Sofi, who in 2002 contested as a proxy candidate of the separatist group, the People’s Conference, feels the situation is grim. In 2002, with separatist Sajjad Lone and his party behind him, Sofi’s message to delink assembly polls from the larger question of the Kashmir dispute had turned him into a symbol of the politics of reconciliation in Kashmir. And when his supporters shouted slogans for elections and Azadi in the same breath, his poll campaign had created the middle-ground between separatists and mainstream discourse. But over the last six years, the scope for such a political agenda has lost credibility. “I am hopeful that I will win. But this time around, I am single-mindedly focusing on the development work that I did in my constituency,” he says. “Unlike in 2002, there is a serious threat of a poll boycott in my constituency. What I said and promised in those elections have no credibility this time around.”

Sofi has other problems as well. He has split from Sajjad Lone and no longer enjoys the label of a ‘separatist proxy’. And now he faces opposition from the very people who helped him win in 2002. Unlike 2002, separatists across the hawk-dove divide are vehemently supporting a poll boycott. “In 2002, both the factions of the Hurriyat felt they would be taken on board once the election process was over. Though there was an element of violence, the moderate camp did not actively oppose the polls and their channels of communication with New Delhi were open,” says Prof Wani. “This time the Hurriyat became relevant only because of the Amarnath land row. They were completely irrelevant before that. The Hurriyat moderates felt New Delhi ditched them as soon the situation improved in Kashmir.”

The irrelevance of the moderate separatists was most evident in the months before the Amarnath land row. Mirwaiz Umar Farooq’s talks with New Delhi had failed and with Kashmir preparing for assembly polls, the Centre had started ignoring the moderates. Faced with a serious credibility crisis in Kashmir, Mirwaiz was planning a hiatus and was on his way to Harvard to pursue a course in conflict management. Sajjad Lone too was disillusioned. He says New Delhi had promised him a dialogue process to push for a resolution of the Kashmir dispute. “I had a one-to-one meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who asked for a concrete proposal. I worked for one year and came up with a document suggesting several ways to move ahead,” he says. “They (the Centre) never got back to me. They didn’t even acknowledge my proposal. We had been deceived and that was the turning point.” He says if New Delhi wanted to use them to strengthen their status quo policy on Kashmir, they were not willing to be part of such a process. “Elections are nothing but part of that process,” he says.

Prof Wani believes that the enthusiasm of the people during the 2002 polls had a lot to do with the anti-incumbency factor against the National Conference. “The PDP was new. It had an agenda that was close to the separatist discourse. Remember Mehbooba Mufti’s campaign? The party talked about a healing touch—it promised an end to human rights violations and people desperately needed relief,” he says. “Today all the four major political groups in the poll fray stand exposed before the people. Nobody believes the rhetoric of the PDP, NC, the Congress or the third front, the PDF. Somehow the recent land row has put a question mark on each one of them.”

It is a fact that a major chunk of separatists and even militants supported the PDP in South Kashmir, where the party finally managed a landslide victory. This time around, militant groups are silent.

However, the separatists’ emphasis on a non-violent campaign against the polls has had one major positive impact on the current election process. National Conference leader and former minister Sakina Itoo, who joined politics after the assassination of her politician father, didn’t dare to come out to campaign in 2002. Her closest competitor, the PDP’s Aziz Zargar, had known ties with militants who attacked Itoo nine times during the campaign, scaring her and her supporters. This time, Itoo is giving Zargar a tough fight—and that’s only because the separatist boycott is non-violent. “The boycott is not a problem. At least we are not scared for our lives,” Itoo says. “I move around without fear and I am sure I will win.”

The voter turnout during these polls will not be a major issue. It is the people’s perception of the electoral process that is at stake. “In 2002, the predominant view in Kashmir was that the Election Commission had tried to hold free and fair polls,” Wani says. “This time, it looks like the EC is party to a hasty decision despite being aware of the ground situation.”

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