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Reading the kahwa leaves

Sajjad Lone’s decision to contest parliamentary elections from the Baramula constituency reflects a definite shift in the political situation of Kashmir.

Written by Rekha Chowdhary |
April 14, 2009 12:18:50 am

Sajjad Lone’s decision to contest parliamentary elections from the Baramula constituency reflects a definite shift in the political situation of Kashmir. This is not the first time that a separatist has changed political sides — there are many separatists and ex-militants who have joined mainstream politics — yet Sajjad Lone is the first prominent separatist leader to have taken the plunge into electoral politics. He along with his brother Bilal Lone (who is a key member of the Mirwaiz-led Hurriyat Conference) represents the legacy of his father Abdul Gani Lone who was a high-ranking separatist and formed the core of the leadership of the All Party Hurriyat Conference right from the time of its inception. It was his standing as a separatist leader that made the Prime Minister invite Sajjad in 2005 for a one-to-one talk at a time when the Governement of India was engaging the Kashmiri separatists.

Evidently Sajjad’s decision to contest the Lok Sabha elections has been influenced by the massive participation of the people in the 2008 Assembly elections. Not only did they defy the boycott call given by the separatists,but also showed sufficient enthusiasm towards the electoral exercise. This,despite the fact that just a couple of months earlier they had demonstrated their strong separatist sentiments during the Amarnath land row. This is a clear reflection of the deepening of democracy in Kashmir even within the overall environment of separatist sentiments. There is greater credibility of the electoral process on the one hand and greater stakes in local power politics on the other. Since 2002,there are no complaints about central intervention in the electoral exercise or local manipulation — or even of coercion by the security forces. Intense competition between the two regional parties of Kashmir — the NC and PDP — meanwhile has led to popular involvement in the elections.

Sajad’s decision to shift his political strategy and take the risk of joining electoral politics however goes beyond the logic of success of democratic politics in Kashmir. It has also much to do with the static nature of separatist politics at the moment. With global attention shifting from Kashmir to Afghanistan and the internal troubles of Pakistan multiplying on an every day basis,the movement in the peace process has been stalled and the separatists have nothing to offer or deliver to people. Their only role at the moment is to articulate the resentment of people,mostly in the cases of Human Rights violations,but even here they find stiff competition from mainstream political parties like the PDP.

Despite the fact that there is enough pressure on the Hurriyat leaders to contest elections,they have maintained a position that they will not participate in any electoral exercise that is not linked with the ultimate resolution of the Kashmir problem. Seen from this perspective,Sajjad Lone has taken a big risk and put his political future at stake. And yet one can also argue that among the separatists,only he could have taken the electoral initiative. His party has been considering this idea since the late nineties — when the leadership was in the hands of A.G. Lone. There was a speculation that the senior Lone was toying with the idea of joining the electoral fray but he was assassinated before the 2002 Assembly elections. He had however changed the direction of the separatist movement by raising the voice against armed militancy and jehadi elements and pleading for political rather than violent means of resistance.

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The People’s Conference is one of the very few separatist organisations of Kashmir which has its roots in the power politics of the pre-militancy era. It has a well-knit cadre as well as a mass base. All this gives it an advantage — of keeping its politics closer to the changing popular responses as well as giving it a chance to test its representative character — a luxury that not many other separatist organisations can afford to indulge in. The popularity of the party in northern Kashmir is well-recognised. The presence of the ‘proxy’ candidates of this party in the districts of Handwara and Kupwara during the 2002 elections had generated massive popular response in favour of elections.

The entry of Sajjad Lone into the electoral politics,however,should not be misread as the decline of separatism in Kashmir. His statement that he has changed his strategy and not his ideology makes it clear that he seeks to justify his shift within the separatist paradigm. The separatist sentiment in Kashmir remains intact,despite the expansion of democratic politics and despite the impasse in which the separatist leadership finds itself.

The writer teaches political science at Jammu University

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