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Democracy in Kashmir: Indira’s failure, Vajpayee’s success

Radha Kumar writes: As a new party — Ghulam Nabi Azad’s Democratic Azad Party — is born in Jammu and Kashmir, Modi-led Centre must learn from the past. Only a free and fair election can revive peace-building in the former state

Atal Bihari Vajpayee ensured free and fair elections in 2002 at a time when the insurgency was at its height. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

Ghulam Nabi Azad’s re-entry into Jammu and Kashmir’s politics with the launch of a new party has once again put the focus on the long-overdue elections in the former state. May 2022 marked the completion of four years since the elected government fell. Since then, the erstwhile state has been under direct administration by the Union. Though the Narendra Modi administration has repeatedly promised assembly elections, it appears that the earliest time for holding them might be spring 2023.

To understand the impact that elections might have on the former state, it is important to note how the context has changed over the past four years. While Jammu and Kashmir was under President’s Rule, the Union parliament divided the state. The new Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir was given an assembly with curtailed powers, along the lines of the Delhi assembly. The reorganisation act was immediately challenged in the Supreme Court by the Valley’s chief political parties as well as engaged citizens like myself. Our petitions are still to be heard.

In the meantime, the Modi administration made far-reaching alterations to Jammu and Kashmir’s polity. It replaced the state subject certificates with domicile certificates that opened up property and voting rights to a large number of temporary as well as long-time residents, it altered land laws and affected forest rights, it allocated mining rights to industry from outside the former state, it removed the right to free education up to the post-graduate level, it dissolved the Jammu and Kashmir administrative service, and it made anyone even remotely related to a militant liable to dismissal. Its latest act was to redo the delimitation of electoral constituencies, as ordered by the reorganisation act.

After the delimitation commission submitted its report in May this year, the Jammu and Kashmir administration began to revise the voters’ list, announcing the possible addition of as many as two and a half million new voters. Given the absence of a recent census — the 2020 census exercise was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic and has yet to resume — it is difficult to understand how the figure was arrived at.

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Like the delimitation commission’s bizarre exercise, which took radically divergent population yardsticks for Jammu province and the Kashmir Valley without offering any justification, the revision of the voters’ list has given rise to further suspicion of the Modi administration’s intent — from seeking demographic change to manipulating the voters’ list — to install a BJP-led or compliant administration in the former state.

The suspicion is not baseless. According to BJP members, the party formed a coalition with the Mufti Mohammad Sayeed-led People’s Democratic Party (PDP) to gain insider knowledge of the latter. Having gained what they sought, they withdrew from the alliance, unseating his daughter Mehbooba Mufti’s administration. Twenty-one months later, they engineered a split in the PDP leading to the founding of Apni Party, which was the latest entrant to Jammu and Kashmir’s politics until the advent of Azad’s risibly named Democratic Azad Party (DAP).

The next assembly elections, whenever they are held, will see a larger number of political parties in the fray than ever before. But the extent to which parties like the Apni Party or DAP will impact the electorate is doubtful. In the Valley, the vast majority of seats are likely to go to the National Conference (NC) and PDP, both of which have strenuously opposed the Modi administration’s actions since 2019. Though the removal of special status is popular in Jammu, the BJP might not do as well as they did the last time, since Jammu too has suffered as a result of the new domicile certificates, land laws and industrial policies. New voters, such as refugees from Pakistan, a large proportion of whom live in Jammu, might swell BJP votes but most likely only in and around Jammu city which would have gone to the BJP anyway. The probable shortfall in BJP seats might be taken up by DAP or ultranationalist Jammu parties, but it might equally well be divided between these and the NC or PDP. Unless the elections are blatantly rigged, the prospect of a BJP-led or supported administration being elected is dim at best.

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The spectre of rigging already hangs over the next election, with allegations of gerrymandering by the delimitation commission and over the prospective voters’ list. Yet the need for a free and fair assembly election — preferably one that allows civil society observers, as has happened in the past — has never been greater. The memory of the partially-rigged 1987 election is fresh in the Valley. The alienation from Delhi that the people of the Valley felt following two cross-border wars and a series of political blunders by the Indira Gandhi administration is even stronger today, this time due to the actions of the Modi administration from 2019 onwards.

Despite an overweening security grid that has brought down the number of armed attacks by local as well as cross-border groups, support for insurgency has grown in the Valley and targeted attacks on Pandits, panchayat officials and the police continue. The administration might fear that a return to democracy, likely to loosen heavy security restrictions, will lead to an increase in violence. The answer to that lies in India’s own experience.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee ensured free and fair elections in 2002 at a time when the insurgency was at its height. Jammu and Kashmir paid a high cost in terms of lives lost in attacks on candidates and campaigners. But the elections were followed by new policies of non-interference in state governance, along with peace negotiations with armed groups as well as Pakistan, which were continued by Vajpayee’s successor, Manmohan Singh. Together, they soon led to a sharp fall in attacks and casualties and the restoration of a functioning government. The peace-building years of 2002-2012 also laid the foundation for India to use the UN’s Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to target Pakistan-based terrorists.

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A free and fair election in 2023 can revive peace-building in the former state. The strongest confidence-building measure would be to restore statehood prior to elections and shelve the delimitation commission’s recommendations. Since the former requires repeal of the reorganisation act, shelving the latter will be easy. It was constituted under the act and should vanish along with it.

The belief that installing a compliant administration would pacify the Valley was held by Indira Gandhi too. She failed. Her failure, and Vajpayee’s success, are lessons worth remembering by the current administration.

Radha Kumar is author of Paradise at War: A Political History of Jammu and Kashmir and a former interlocutor for the state

First published on: 29-09-2022 at 04:00:11 am
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