Kashmir Elections: Opening a New Chapter

By K.N. Pandit

Hindsight shows that Congress (I) learnt yet one more lesson from making the grave mistake of brokering power with a totally incompatible partner namely Peoples Democratic Party in the aftermath of  2002 Assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir. It proved disastrous not only for the party and its cadres but for the people of the state as well. One does not presume that Congress was not aware of PDP’s veiled agenda. Its fault line lay along what may be called “willing suspension of disbelief.” Our politicians can be mercilessly selfish at the cost of an expectant voter.

What had prompted Congress to walk a mile with this perceptibly incompatible regional party of less standing and lesser experience was its lurking hope of neutralizing separatist-secessionist forces in the valley partially if not fully, through political maneuvering a la PDP particularly in South Kashmir where this party had created a foothold for itself.  But that expectation was not only belied; it rather boomeranged at the end of the day when PDP, with no qualms of conscience, pulled the rug under the feet of Congress in the assembly on 29 August 2008, and to his dismay, the beleaguered chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad found that National Conference was in no hurry to jump on his bandwagon.

It would be pertinent to briefly explain here the reasons for broad radicalization of South Kashmir (especially the districts of Anantnag and Pulwama) in comparison to North Kashmir and Doda.  Village Aerwin in Kulgam tehsil of South Kashmir has the distinction of becoming the first stronghold of Allama Maudoodi’s Jamaat-e-Islami of Deobandi orientation way back in 1951-52.  Three leading local personalities, the founding fathers and forerunners of the organization who led an untiring crusade for the propagation of Jama’at’s theocratic ideology, were the well-known landlord Mustafa Malik (Zaildar), Hakim Ghulam Nabi and Ghulam Ahmad Ahrar, all enjoying popularity among the rural population of the area. They established Jama’ati network in entire South Kashmir, namely the districts of Anantnag and Pulwama..

Following the dismissal and arrest of Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah on August 9, 1953 on charges of sedition (which were neither proved nor disproved), his trusted lieutenant and Vice President Mirza Afzal Beg, abandoned the basics of the party line, established a new organization called Plebiscite Front, recruited NC workers in it, adopted a hostile stance by challenging the validity of state’s accession and vitiated political atmosphere between the state and the centre.  The Sheikh neither became a formal member of the Plebiscite Front nor held any office with it; yet he never discredited the organization as the antithesis, which it was, of his three decade old political philosophy. The task of carrying on political confrontation with New Delhi fell to his lieutenant.

When the Sheikh’s internment prolonged and rapprochement with New Delhi became more and more bleak,  the cadres of Plebiscite Front, originally comprising ultra activist of NC,  raised the first ever militant organization in Kashmir valley called Al-Fath,  which apparently derived inspiration, albeit only superficially,  from the Palestinian liberation movement.  Some Kashmir watchers did not rule out the hand of Pakistani intelligence agency in subversive acts of Kashmir Al-Fath. It may be reminded that the same Al-Fath organization was suspected of involvement in the bomb blast in a public rally in Baramulla, which the former J&K chief Minister, Ghulam Muhammad Sadiq, was addressing and had a narrow escape.

Bakhshi Ghulam Muhammad, who headed the new government after Sheikh Abdullah was dismissed on August 9, 1953, adopted carrot and stick policy towards Plebiscite Front campaigners; unleashing punitive measures against its hardliners but appeasing softer cadres by recruiting them in hundreds in various branches of civil services particularly in education and police departments, the latter being directly under his control. At a later point of time, these fresh recruits played a key role in promoting hundreds of Islamic seminaries (madrasahs) in the valley where exercises in brain washing and indoctrination in Islamic fundamentalist ideology were carried with missionary zeal. Conversion of Amanullah Khan-led and UK-based Kashmir Liberation Front (KLF), which had compassed the murder of Indian diplomat Ravindra Mhatre in the suburbs of London in 1984, to Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) in 1990, made it the frontline armed band of indigenous Theo-fascist insurgents whose first criminal act was the gunning down more than a thousand innocent and defenceless Kashmiri Pandits in the valley in 1990, and purging the valley of Hindu presence.  This was the beginning of radicalizing  Kashmiri Muslim society.

Consequent upon India-Sheikh Accord of 1974, the latter was catapulted to the seat of power for the second time a year later. By now Jama’at-e-Islami had spread tenterhooks in Muslim majority segments of the State, particularly in the Kashmir valley. It made deep inroads in the rural areas of the valley particularly South Kashmir. State institutions were not excluded from its sphere of influence.

The reason for quick ascendancy of the Jama’at to a position of influence at this point of time was Chief Mir Qasim’s known soft and patronizing attitude towards it. In the assembly elections of 1973, he had covertly fielded and logistically assisted pro-Jama’at candidates against Congress mandate holders, the party which he chaired and which won him the coveted position of chief minister. This is considered the peak of Jama’at’s success.  It was also the time when a hate – campaign against the Kashmiri Hindu minority was floated among wider Muslim circles of the valley. This new stance of Kashmiris with stakes in power was a spillover of Islamization programme of General Zia-ul-Haq of Pakistan who had carefully chalked out radicalizing programme of Pakistani Muslim society.

Shiekh Abdullah held the reins of power for the second time in 1975.  Islamic theocratic wave had gripped large segments of Kashmiri Muslim society especially in South Kashmir.  National Conference and its leadership had been castigated, albeit in a low key, for entering into yet one more Accord with New Delhi. Jama’atis were on a prowl and reinforced opposition to and questioning of the regime of the Sheikh. The Sheikh had agreed to sign the accord because the defeat of Pakistan in Bangladesh war had shattered all hopes of Pakistan making any headway in Kashmir.

Zlufiqar Ali Bhutto had become very popular with Kashmiri Muslim community just because he had very ably extricated Pakistan from the disastrous whirlpool of the consequences of Bangladesh war, obtained unconditional freedom of a hundred thousand Pakistani PoWs and handled Shimla negotiations with extraordinary ability. His boast of fighting a 1000-years war with India, and his claim of eating grass but making the atom bomb had electrifying effect on the make-believe Kashmiri Muslim mind. Thus when the military dictator got him executed, the event created unprecedented reaction  in Kashmir valley in which the Jama’atis became instant targets of attack, loot and arson by ordinary people with National Conference goons taking the lead. The whole of South Kashmir was swept by an anti-Jama’ati wave because they were alleged to have played a key role in getting Z.A. Bhutto eliminated.  Houses of Jama’ati activists were looted and burnt, and the violence against them was so intense that even the mosques of the Jama’atis were not spared. Kashmir Muslim society seemed to be at war with itself.

Having dispirited opposition to his leadership in the aftermath of Indira-Sheikh Accord of 1974, the Sheikh is reported to have agreed to a discreet move made by the ISI through the conduit of Saudi monarchy to intervene in the matter of polarization of Kashmiri Sunni community. Grapevine has it that the sister of Saudi monarch, then heading the kingdom’s secret intelligence agency, spent two months in Srinagar, silently reporting on the ways of bringing about rapprochement between the Jama’atis and National Conference hardliners. The Sheikh chartered a plane for his family to perform umra . Was this to cover up talks with the Muslim Sunni centre of religious power?

It is known to everybody that ISI had used the Saudi instrumentality to bring about reconciliation between the two groups in Kashmir. Soon the situation reversed and the Jama’atis steadily began to gain upper hand. Hundreds of seminaries (madrasshas) were opened by the organization and thousands of Kashmiri Muslim youth, previously with Plebiscite Front, al Faith and Jamma’at’s various wings, were recruited as teachers in these seminaries that became the breeding ground for Islamic radicalism and anti-Indian bastions. Those who joined JKLF and went for training in terrorism in training camps in PoK actually formed the cadres of the Jama’at. After receiving training and arms in PoK, these people became the frontrunners of JKLF in Kashmir.

In 1986 assembly elections, the Jama’atis participated under the name of Muslim United Front (MUF). They alleged that NC goons had rigged elections, captured polling booths, manhandled their supporters and locked up their representatives until final results were announced. This violated election rules, they argued. At the end of the day MUF got 6 seats, boycotted the assembly session, resigned from membership and took up arms to fight against the system in the state. The rest is history.

The final untying of Congress – PDP knot in summer 2008, preceded by nearly two-month-long civil agitation in Jammu and spearheaded by Sangharsh Samiti, has been an event of far-reaching consequences in post-independence history of the state. Some non-serious and superficial critics and commentators called it a freak and an aberration in the flow of events but realities on the ground were something different.

Jammu civil movement was a spontaneous reaction of Jammu Hindu community to PDP’s explicitly sub-national and parochial attitude in the context of land allocation to Shri Amaranth Shrine Board.  Reneging on cabinet decision to which it was a party – - – being in coalition – - – concocting the allegation of disrespect to Islam shown by Ravinder Kumar, an IAS officer of known integrity and competence who was the Secretary to the Amarnath Shrine Board besides being principal secretary to the Governor, and forcing his removal, whipping up mass communal hysteria in the valley overtly and covertly in tandem with its cohorts, the firebrand secessionist Ali Shah Geelani and government’s refused to withdraw allocation order, handing out an ultimatum to the government and finally withdrawing support to the government before the expiry of the stipulated date of ultimatum, all this combined to sensitize Jammu Hindu majority to a scenario of PDP taking the entire state a hostage to its masked agenda.

The story of PDP obstructing the land allocation proposal and many other welfare schemes of Congress regime has been vividly told by Lt. General (Retired) Sinha in his various articles and his recently published work. The worse was the canard of so-called reversing demographic complexion of the valley spread by PDP and its affiliates mostly among the separatists. Such was the intensity of this propaganda that even Omar Abdullah, the NC MP, during his speech on the occasion of UPA government seeking confidence vote on Indo-Us nuclear deal in the Parliament made an inconsiderate statement that earned him displeasure not only of the opposition but also sections of his own party including his father Farooq Abdullah.

Jammu Hindu majority reacted vigorously to these communal undertones, and hurriedly formed the Sangharsh Samiti (Resistance Union), surprisingly with the lone agenda of seeking restoration of Baltal land to Shri Amaranth Shrine Board.  Neither was the valley agitation against allocation of land to the Shrine Board without communal underpinnings nor was the Jammu movement impervious of Hindu right wing influence. However, it goes to the credit of the latter that it not only carefully eschewed communal disharmony and violence but also strove hard to rope in Jammu Muslim segment. As the movement grew in strength and solidarity, Muslims of Jammu region realized the justification for lending their support to the Jammu region’s peaceful agitation.

In all probability, Jammu Muslim segment, not only in two and a half Hindu majority districts but the entire region as a whole had two main reasons to throw their weight on the side of Sangharsh Samiti – led movement. One was their resentment to valley-based majority hegemony that overshadowed their identity, and the second was the chronic complaint of discrimination against Jammu region by the Srinagar administration.  These two aspects became catalyst to their handshake with the stalwarts of Jammu movement.

Yet one more factor that shattered their faith in the logic of valley’s violent reaction to land allocation issue was the blatant canard and false propaganda unleashed by the valley politicians about so-called economic blockade of the valley by Jammuites.  Peoples Democratic Party leadership, pandering to vote bank politics based on sensitizing communal sentiment, overtly and covertly took lead in this lie campaign. Its chairperson, habituated to overstepping limits of reasoned opposition in a statesmanlike manner, left nobody in doubt that her party’s agenda in reality extended beyond what its election manifesto had set forth. Despite several assurances by Jammu movement leadership including the chairman of Jammu Chamber of Commerce that much trumpeted “economic blockade” was neither the call nor the policy of the pioneers of Jammu movement, it had little impact on Srinagar business and political class.

Having upstaged anti-national hysteria, valley’s ambivalent politicians and other supportive activists roped in Kashmir Fruit Growers Association to spearhead thrust for reaction which culminated in two moves. The first was of ceasing trade relations with Jammu, and the second was mass march to Muzaffarabad by physically violating the LoC at Uri.

Hindsight shows that except for one Sheikh Abdul Aziz, a hard-line pro-Pakistani activist who got killed in the process, the much publicized march to Muzaffarabad actually ended in fiasco. Pretensions of making a big issue of Sheikh Azi’z death as a rallying point for large scale anti-India protests by the separatist, evaporated in thin air when the word made rounds that sensational disclosures behind the killing of the Shiekh  would put the militant outfits and their local cohorts in dire straits, the matter was hushed up. It was also conveyed to hysterical crowds that Pakistani security forces, mistrusting Kashmiris as deeply as ever, would have to face a rain of bullets from Pak Rangers once they dared to cross the bridge. They were reminded of almost identical scenario that had shaped near Chinari in 1992 when zealots from PoK attempted to cross the LoC from Pok side and fell to the bullets of Pakistani security forces.

A deal struck between the government and the Sangharsh Samiti culminating in the rescinding of the land deal withdrawal order, did not evoke counter agitation in the valley though some half-hearted protest rallies were taken out. The euphoria in the valley died down for two reasons. One was that Islamabad did not demonstrate any palpable enthusiasm for LoC crossing upsurge obviously for its embedded mistrust of Kashmiris, and secondly, for fear of their blackmailing antics getting fully exposed.

However, baring known mainstream nationalist groups, the rest of ambivalent political leaders and their groups tried to secure additional mileage out of this situation. Peoples Democratic Party leadership in tandem with separatists organizations, the Hurriyat (both factions) and sympathizers of theocratic militias vigorously played up anti-India card throwing up two main charges. One was that India was trying to bring about drastic change in the demographic complexion of the valley by “re-settling lakhs of Hindus” under the mask of pilgrimages, and secondly, human rights of Kashmiris were blatantly violated or vandalized.

Playing exclusivist and sub-nationalist card as eventual arbiters for consolidating its solid vote bank constituency in South Kashmir, PDP prepared the ground for improving its position for elections to 11th Assembly. Somewhat reassuring response from at least half a dozen South Kashmir constituencies, in addition to what lay in its kitty from 2002 elections, plus an understanding of sorts with the separatists, particularly the Hurriyat factions, had prompted PDP leadership to take the controversial step of withdrawing support to the Congress-led government in August 2008. It knew that in a prospect in which Congress chief minister Azad would be obliged to seek a vote of confidence on the floor of the Assembly, NC would not be willing to lend him support even from outside because of the fact that chauvinistic NC, like PDP, would not reconcile to the idea of a political leader from outside the valley to be the chief minister of the state. NC is fully conscious and sensitive to family rule.

In Jammu, the Amarnath Shrine land related movement was strangely and strictly confined to the issue of demand for government rescinding its withdrawal order. Observers were at a loss why the leaders of the movement did not add other grievances to the basic demand. Discrimination against Jammu by the valley dominated governments and bureaucracy in a number of aspects has been a long-standing complaint of Jammu region. The reason why Sangharsh Samiti did not append other demands is that the government has usually been refuting allegations of discrimination and at times trying to show that Jammu had larger share in some areas of administration.  The Samiti thought that the pressure it had built and the momentum it had given to the agitation would get diluted if contentious issues were added.

The impact of 2-month long Jammu agitation in summer 2008 on the assembly elections of November 2008 is self-evident. A sense of regionalism has deepened among the people in three regions. However, for the first time, valley–based political groups have understood the dangers of adopting a policy of discrimination against Jammu majority.  New Delhi, too, has not been fair to the people of Jammu region. Soon after becoming Governor, Mr. N. N. Vohra is reported to have told a Jammu delegation that Jammu had only the second priority in the scheme of things, which is a reflex of the approach of New Delhi Sultans. Jammu agitation has also alarmed Congress stalwarts in New Delhi.  After all BJP has wrested at least five seats from traditional Congress constituencies in Jammu while in the assembly election of 2002 it  had to remain content with a lone seat. This will have a bearing on 2009 parliamentary elections.

In other words the coalition government will have to demonstrate reasoned statesmanship and foresight by carrying Jammu and Ladakh with it in the developmental plans and strategy.  The coalition government has very little time to prove that it will deal with even handed justice to all the three regions. Only then can it expect to emerge reasonably victorious in the forthcoming parliamentary elections.

Congress which had been considering Jammu district its stronghold has received drubbing and its senior stalwarts like Mangat Ram Sharma have been humbled. They were unable to gauge the public mood when Jammu agitation was going on. Notwithstanding the brave face which Congress leadership is putting, it has suffered the most.

The most important result is the formation of a coalition government between Congress and National Conference. Both claim that there is a wide canvas of compatibility between the two. This is not the first time when the two parties are yoked together into a coalition. But the difference is that National Conference is led by a very youthful leader of 38 years who luckily has had not to pass through complex and baffling social labyrinth. He has been brought up in very progressive and open atmosphere and healthy cultural environs. Naturally there are many expectations from a youthful leader.

A good beginning seems to have been made by the two coalition partners. They have to learn from their previous mistakes. Congress has realized that its disastrous camaraderie with a dubious party like PDP has cost it nearly ten seats in the assembly elections. At the same time, National Conference stands vindicated for its wisdom of not joining hands with incompatible groups just for the lust of power.  Peoples’ verdict has been in favour of secular democracy and not ambivalent and dubious role in the troubled state. A turnout of around 61 per cent of voters in the elections, which everybody agrees were fair and free, is a clear signal to the world that the people of Kashmir are for peace and development and reject separatism, gun culture and violence.

Ten cabinet rank ministers, five from each coalition party have been sworn in so far. The Council of Ministers is still in the process of making and it is expected that proper representation will be given to all the three regions. It should augur well for the future of the state.

The young chief minister has to deal with formidable challenges on home front. One real challenge is of re-shaping the mindset of the people because irresponsible and ambivalent leaderships have vitiated political atmosphere by their dubious policies and double speak over many decades.  Omar Abdullah has to rise above these debilitating weaknesses, and like a courageous man, lead the people of the state along the path of peace and development. They have reposed trust in him and they have rejected separatism and exclusivist tendency.

A new approach has to be made to state-centre relations. The state leadership will need to re-examine its demand for greater autonomy in the background of the situation in the region. As many as three major Accords were signed between the state leadership and the centre during past six decades. The State has its own flag and constitution besides the safeguards provided by the Indian constitution. But despite all this irritants remained and the causes for intermittent estrangement continued to bedevil the entire spectrum of relationship. What has been achieved by signing three Accords if the irritants are not resolved so far?  It has to be understood that in the process of economic development, our country has to adapt to new situations and new opportunities. Nothing can remain static. Progress and change go hand in hand. Constitutional, financial and administrative integration throw up new compulsions from which there can be no escape. Centre-State relations have to be understood and accepted in the background of this broad scenario. It is hoped that the coalition government in the State, having been brought about on the basis of compatibility, will surmount all obstacles in the way and make the path smooth and safe for quick and balanced development.
The END.
(The writer is the former Director of the Centre of Central Asian Studies, Kashmir University).

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