Kashmir: heralding a new era

By K.N. Pandit

Recent elections to the 11th Legislative Assembly of Jammu and Kashmir are significant in more than one way. Distributed into seven phases and spread over a period of a month and a half, this election was held in the backdrop of a somewhat surcharged atmosphere in the regions of Jammu and Kashmir. The state was in the grip of protests, agitations and strikes for most of the summer owing to the Amarnath Shrine land allocation row. Such was the state of uncertainty that just a month before the Election Commission decided to hold the elections in December, there was an intense debate whether in view of given ground situation elections should or should not be held according to the schedule.

Apart from the Election Commission, the Union Home Ministry, the PMO and the office of the Governor of the State, all were engaged in a serious debate about the wisdom and practicality of holding the elections according to schedule. Their teams visited the State, interacted with the players and reported back to their primaries about the feasibility of holding elections.

Several reasons had given rise to a state of uncertainty. Foremost was the usual call for poll boycott given by the separatists and secessionists, both factions of All Party Hurriyat Conference and dissidents sympathizing with separatists.

But more than that, two important political parties, namely Peoples Democratic Party and National Conference, made a strong plea for postponement of elections arguing that ground situation in Kashmir was not conducive for fair and free elections, the real reason being something other than that. They formally conveyed their recommendation to the Election Commission. Keeping these circumstances in mind, even the PCC had reservation in expressing its views freely. All this made it more difficult for the government and the Election Commission to take a decision.

Extension of Governor’s rule beyond the date of completing the tenure, viz. January 10, 2009, was fraught with constitutional complicacy and adverse political repercussion. Our adversaries were on the prowl and would have tried to extract political mileage out of deferment of elections. That would have given leverage to the Hurriyat Conference in lobbying for their call for poll boycott.

Credit has to be given to the foresight shown by UPA government’s think-tank for taking a decision in favour of holding elections according to the schedule. While PDP called it a precipitate action of the centre, National Conference just bowed without a comment, and Congress welcomed it saying it would grease its polling machine. The Hurriyat babbled its patent rhetoric that the government was disregarding the wishes of the people and declared that it would intensify its boycott call.

As the announcement came at a short notice, all mainstream political parties realized that there was no time to waste, and thus geared up to the crucial task of finalising their lists of prospective candidates. For the top leadership of political parties who must also announce broad parameters of their party line besides making final selection of candidates who are to be fielded, this is always a ticklish problem.

As happens with other political parties in the country, Jammu and Kashmir political parties also witnessed disappointed and angry candidates leaving one party and contesting either after seeking nomination from the rival party or as an independent candidate. Some defections happened in Jammu region and some in Kashmir region. But notwithstanding these small defections, they had not any serious impact on overall election results.

Before we proceed to analyse the outcome of this election, it is desired to state that elaborate security arrangements were made by the Election Commission to ensure free and fair polling at the booths. It had become necessary to identify the vulnerable and sensitive booths and provide adequate security cover to the voters in view of boycott call given by the separatists and the Hurriyat factions in addition to the threats doled out by terrorist operatives. Except for one minor incident at a polling booth, voters cast their ballot paper in an atmosphere of complete freedom and without any fear. No interference from any quarter was allowed to take place and the security as well as J&K Police personnel deployed from one corner to another corner of the State performed their duty with a sense of responsibility and efficiency. Not to speak of lukewarm observers, even the dissidents and separatists conceded that elections to 11th assembly were perhaps the most free and fair elections held in the State. This is bound to leave a lasting healthy tradition for future elections in the State. It should be considered a big step forward by our democratic dispensation.

In overall estimation nearly 61 % votes were cast, which is a highly commendable percentage by any standard. Even in the world’s strongest democracy, the United States of America, not more than 40 per cent votes are cast during presidential election. In a region where armed confrontation has been gong on for nearly two decades, where religious radicalism has brought the civil society on the horns of dilemma, where shedding innocent blood has become the creed of the militants, it is highly commendable to note that 61 per cent voters exercised their right to franchise.

It is rumoured that though at the initial stage the Hurriyat gave the call for boycott of polls yet covertly it prompted people to take active part in polling and cast votes to their favourite candidates. It is also reported that the Hurriyat of Gilani faction had fielded its proxy candidates and the leader himself is reported to have canvassed for them. There is no evidence to prove or disprove the veracity of this rumour but the ground reality is that in segments where the Hurriyat and the separatists-dissidents have made their stronghold, votes have been cast in fairly large numbers. This is particularly true of constituencies in South Kashmir.

This heavy turnout has immensely strengthened nationalist forces and has infused in them great confidence of carrying the state forward along the path of freedom and development. Undoubtedly the people of the State have practically given shape to the well-established principle of separating politics from religion. Even diehards among the dissident groups have been heard conceding that participation in elections was for development and progress of the state in its various fields like education, health, infrastructure, roads, transport, communication, industries and administration. And that this had nothing to do with the Kashmir issue, which according to them remains to be solved.

This election has further strengthened nationalist view of Jammu and Kashmir as integral part of the Indian Union. Mumbai carnage (26/11) has already convinced world community that in Kashmir there is nothing by the name of “freedom struggle”. All that is seen there is terrorists from across the border infiltrating clandestinely into the Indian territory and unleashing reign of terror, bloodshed and mayhem against the innocent people of Kashmir. This viewpoint is strongly endorsed by the result of assembly elections just concluded.

It is generally seen that coalition between the Congress and National Conference is the coalition between like-minded actors on the political platform of the state. This is not their first stint; they have had a stint earlier also. However, long years of wandering in political wilderness must have taught both parties some good lessons about their ability to deliver the goods. If they have ironed out their angularities on the basis of commitment to the cause of the nation and her people, then it can be presumed that the state has turned a new leaf in its political history. Congress will long regret the naivety of running a three – legged race with an incompatible partner. It might have imagined of making a dent in the separatist camp through the instrumentality of a somewhat neutral agency, namely PDP. But this remained an unrealised dream. It is somewhat ludicrous to presume that Congress did not know that it had agreed to get yoked to PDP on disproportionate basis. But then the lust of power blinded its eye of reason and very pathetically, as was proved at the last phase of previous coalition, that Congress had become a prisoner of “willing suspension of disbelief” syndrome.

Despite improving its seat tally a bit, PDP is out of power, thanks to the lack of transparency in its ideology and policy. Having dangerously pandered to the dissident and separatist school, it is left with the only option of whipping up sub-regional sensitivities of its supporters. From one mismanagement it may jump to another more unrewarding and counter-productive mismanagement. But if sanity prevails in its rank and file, it has still a fairly attainable chance of re-establishing its position. And that is of playing a fair and reasonable part of a party in opposition.

The danger is that given its covert understanding with the separatists, which has been reflected in its repeated rhetoric of “healing touch”, common currency, common council etc. the party leadership will find itself obliged to let its benign secessionist ideology be given expression in the legislative assembly. But will that cut any ice with the government and will that in any way make things easier for the party and the people, is a big question. It is not a rival of NC just because it demands self-rule whereas NC demands greater autonomy. There is something more than what meets the eye. All said and done National Conference is a party that takes pride in being considered a nationalist party to which Kashmiri identity is of historical importance. On the other hand PDP, barely a decade old, has no moorings of that sort.

After being declared Chief Minister-elect, Omar Abdullah arrived in Jammu to a tumultuous reception. His cavalcade took three hours to cover seven kilometre distance from the airport to Sher-i- Kashmir Bhawan in the heart of the city of Jammu. Thousands lined up along both sides of the road with fluttering NC flags and banners, yelling “Long Live Omar and Bharat Mata ki Jai.” It is something amusing to note that the people of Jammu had expressed their chagrin and disappointment in no ambiguous words on Omar’s controversial speech in the Parliament on non-confidence motion only three months ago. But the same Omar was given a hearty welcome and identified with national unity and integrity. This must have left a deep impression on his mind and given him an idea that a leader can win the masses not through trickery but through sincere work for their betterment.

In his press conference given soon after the oath-taking ceremony, Omar Abdullah created very favourable impression of his vision for the state. He said he would not tolerate discrimination against Jammu in any form, and in order to reassure the region he has now announced constituting a commission to report on discriminations and suggest measures for its eradication. This was a long standing demand of the people of Jammu and has now come just for a song. Even-handed justice is the key to Omar’s success and his success will be gauged from the level of communal harmony he is able to create among the people of different faiths and cultures.

Observers noted that his oath-taking ceremony was attended by top leadership of the country including the Congress President and the Minister of External Affairs. Noteworthy was the presence of three top Indian industrialists, a rare thing in the history of the State. This is a clear indication that Omar is likely to abandon the exclusivist policy of his predecessors and open the state to the industrialists for extensive investment. This is a practical step towards elimination of alienation and removal of suspicions created by ambivalent leadership which propagated that introduction of giant Indian industrial magnates meany “Indianization” of Muslim Kashmir. Absurd ideas like these have kept Kashmir a prisoner of backwardness and poverty and vulnerable to inciting religious extremism. Maybe Omar’s induction could be ushering in of a new era in the history of Jammu and Kashmir after going through two decades of fighting, bloodshed and antagonism. Believing that after every dark night there is a bright morning, let us hope that the State of Jammu and Kashmir turns a new leaf of peace and prosperity and enters the golden era of uniform and balanced development.
(The writer is the former Director of the Centre of Central Asian Studies, Kashmir University).

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