In November 1989, as Kashmir teetered on the edge of insurgency, elections were held to the Lok Sabha in Baramulla and Anantnag. The turnout was 5 per cent, the lowest ever. In Srinagar, where fear was pervasive, Mohammed Shafi Bhat, then of the National Conference, won uncontested. On April 14, 2017, the turnout in the repoll in 38 polling booths to the Srinagar assembly constituency, contested by one who might be described as the tallest leader of Kashmir’s mainstream — read Indian national — politics, saw a turnout of 2 per cent, 709 of 31,000 eligible voters cast their votes.
In 27 of the 38 booths, there was no vote at all. The main election on April 9 had recorded a turnout of less than 8 per cent. There had been firing by the CRPF which caused the death of eight youth. If the low turnout in 1989 was due to fear of the gun, in 2017, it was Kashmir’s own youth who spilled out to deter prospective voters. There was even an instance of the security forces cowering behind a young Kashmiri strapped to a jeep as a shield. In response, the Election Commission of India postponed the Anantnag election, scheduled for April 12 to May 25. Do we Indians get the message?
Clearly, democracy in Kashmir has reached such a nadir that it is unable to operate even its most basic function, which is to hold elections. Instead of this arousing concern across India — the erosion of what should be our most prized asset in what should have been its showpiece — we witness indignation against those who have chosen to express themselves. The EC was criticised for taking the risk of holding elections in the troubled vale. Mainstream political parties and the Home Ministry reportedly advised the EC against holding the election, even though elections to both Anantnag and Srinagar were overdue.
It will be recalled that in 1996, elections were held to the Jammu and Kashmir assembly after a spell of governor’s rule that had lasted since January 1990. I had been commissioner, Kashmir, twice in that period, a tour of duty cut short by a near-fatal accident. But through my long recovery, I had consistently responded to Prime Minister Narasimha Rao with advice that the governance of the state must return to its people.
The election of 1996 was the outcome and although the period since has been anything but peaceful, the practice of democracy has only improved with increasing participation in the election process, and since 2002, resulted in the repeated supplanting of a sitting government through the electoral process. The increasing public participation in governance, even when voter turnout has been low by national standards, reflected in the inclusion of even the separatists in dialogue with the highest levels of the Indian government, a process initiated by Prime Minster Atal Bihari Vajpayee through his pointperson R.K. Mishra.
The fact that all the separatist and mainstream groups were engaged in discussing different forms of autonomy that could help settle the Kashmir issue enabled Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to declare in his Independence Day speech of 2013 that separatism had been overcome. This was the process that had helped the scion of a leading family of separatists to be absorbed in the political mainstream. And he was not alone. That Sajjad Lone is today a minister in the state cabinet and leader of his own political party makes him the most recognisable example of this trend.
Kashmir’s political establishment had pleaded for deferring the elections to June, until the civic polls got over. There have also been calls for the imposition of governor’s rule in the state, which simply would be an abdication of responsibility. The purpose of restoring democracy in 1996 was to give back to its people the authority to form their own government under the Constitution. That the political mainstream has failed to marshal the people is no reason to surrender governance to the Centre. There is no guarantee that the situation on May 25 or indeed in June will be any more conducive to elections.
Indeed, there is no guarantee that given the present environment, the civic polls will attract wide participation. The responsibility clearly lies with the Kashmiri political leadership to place the nation’s interest above party compulsions. The question now is not who might govern, but the trajectory that the will of its people, the fragile thread that binds Kashmir to India through the institution of democracy, will take.
A group of citizens, distressed by the outbreak of protests in Kashmir continuing unabated since July 8, 2016, and costing many precious lives, all of which are Indian, met in Delhi in September, 2016 to work for peace through the process of dialogue. We watched with grave foreboding as Kashmir descended into turmoil. Nearly a hundred people had died and many others were injured. Regrettably, most of the casualties have been young people, even children, many of whom could have been future leaders.
To our alarm, we heard from the youth their disregard of even the threat of death, which we were to find demonstrated in the field as well. Yet there has been no accountability thus far; resentment will continue to fester until there is. Is this, then, a generation lost? The restoration of democracy can be achieved only by ensuring the participation of Kashmiris in governance. A movement in this direction can be initiated only through dialogue, a feature of the present coalition government’s Agenda of Alliance. Kashmir, like the rest of India, has institutions to enable social and political inclusion; and without inclusive governance, I see no hope.