Electoral democracy in Kashmir has succeeded in engendering institutions and processes, but not a political culture

They were hunting for traitors on the buses that rounded the bend into north Kashmir’s Sopore: a gaggle of young men, most barely into their teens, their faces covered with intifada-chic scarves, their hands clutching stones and rods. Less than one in hundred residents of Sopore, the heartland of Kashmir’s Islamist movement, had voted on May 7. In nearby towns and villages, though, a majority had chosen to defy the secessionist boycott — and the young radicals in Sopore were delivering vengeance. Hundreds who had ink-marks on their fingers were stripped naked and beaten, their humiliation recorded on cell phone cameras.

Nasir Ganai was travelling from Kupwara to Srinagar that day, when the men were rounding on a young, burkha-wearing woman sitting near him. “You want to marry an Indian soldier do you?” she was asked, after her finger was examined. Then other words followed, each cruder than the last.

Last week’s elections to north Kashmir’s Baramulla Lok Sabha constituency illustrated that the end of the murderous war in the street has given way not to peace, but a grim impasse. Though ever-greater numbers of people are embracing electoral democracy, rage against it is also rising — led by a fast-growing cohort of semi-educated but prospectless urban youth, economically disenfranchised and politically marginalised.

South Kashmir’s Tral or Shopian, Srinagar’s old city Shahr-e-Khas, the decaying cores of Sopore and Baramulla — all of which saw near-zero voter turnout — are seeing the triumph of a new anti-politics of rage.

Kashmir’s youth Islamism

“Long live Pakistan,” chanted the young men who demolished Srinagar madam Sabina Bulla’s home in the summer of 2006, as “we want freedom.” Ever since 2002, as Pakistani support to jihadists was choked-off under pressure from the United States, levels of violence had fallen. Political secessionists had begun engaging in dialogue with India, and democratic parties had begun to extend their influence and patronage networks. Ms. Bulla’s town was alleged in the media to have been the centre of a prostitution racket involving top politicians. Kashmir’s Islamists saw the house of sin as a metaphor for Indian democracy.

Following the rape and murder of a teenager in 2007, Islamist patriarch Syed Ali Shah Geelani claimed that “hundreds of thousands of non-state subjects had been pushed into Kashmir under a long-term plan to crush the Kashmiris.” Then, in 2008, Islamists mobilised against a career counsellor who, they claimed, had been despatched to Srinagar schools to seduce students into a career of vice. In Anantnag, a schoolteacher was attacked after a mobile phone video of his students dancing to pop music on a holiday surfaced.

Late in the summer of 2008, the movement exploded after the State government granted temporary land use rights for facilitating the annual pilgrimage to the Amarnath shrine in south Kashmir. Mr. Geelani claimed this was a conspiracy to settle Hindus in the region. “I caution my nation,” he warned, “that if we don’t wake up in time, India and its stooges will succeed and we will be displaced.” Large-scale violence broke out in Kashmir — and in Hindu-majority Jammu.

Finally, in 2010, street violence exploded across large swathes of Kashmir, with young protestors taking on the State in frontal confrontation. More than 100 young people were shot dead by police, following pitched battles. Force pushed back the new Islamist mobilisation — but, as the recent elections make clear, did not break its back.

In some important ways, this new Islamism marked a break from the jihadism of the 1990s. For Islamists like Mr. Geelani, Kashmir’s secessionism from India was an existential struggle for the protection of Islam, not a battle for territorial freedom. In a 1998 book, he argued that for Muslims to live among Hindus was as difficult as “for a fish to stay alive in a desert.” Thus, India and Kashmir were locked in irreducible opposition — a transformation in the political views of a man who served several terms as a legislator.

Mr. Geelani’s views were, however, increasingly out of step with those of the political organisation he had served for decades, the Jammu and Kashmir Jamaat-e-Islami. In 1997, the then-Jamaat chief G.M. Bhat called for an end to the “gun culture.” Three years later, dissident Hizb-ul-Mujahideen commander Abdul Majid Dar declared a unilateral ceasefire. Though the ceasefire fell apart, the Jamaat itself continued to marginalise Mr. Geelani. In May 2003, Jamaat moderates led by Bhat’s successor, Syed Nasir Ahmad Kashani, retired Geelani as their political representative. Finally, in January 2004, the Jamaat’s Majlis-e-Shoora, or central consultative council, went public with a commitment to a “democratic and constitutional struggle”— legitimising this by drawing on the party’s constitution.

Mr. Geelani became dependent on Islamists outside the Jamaat fold. Figures like Massrat Alam Bhat and Asiya Andrabi, leaders of the post-2006 protests, emerged as his inheritors. Most were ideologically linked to the global jihadist movement in ways Mr. Geelani was not — and spoke to a new constituency.

The failure of politics

It isn’t hard to see what this constituency is. From 2004, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government pumped in ever-greater funds into Kashmir, hoping to revive the insurgency-destroyed economy. The state-of-the-art new railway lines, roads, power infrastructure and hotels gave birth to an ever-richer contractor class, often closely enmeshed with the National Conference or the new People’s Democratic Party. They did little, though, to create jobs and opportunity for the rapidly-growing youth population — other than fuel their rage.

The problem was worst in Kashmir’s decaying inner cities, where traditional artisanal trades have been in decline for generations. Tens of thousands of middle-class Kashmiri students are pursuing opportunities to study outside the State, but multiples of that number have no access to either education or capital that would allow them to capitalise on new-economy opportunities.

New Islamists politicians are just one of multiple currents reaching into the rage. Among them, there are neo-conservative religious movements like the Tablighi Jamaat, the Jamiat Ahl-e-Hadis, and traditionalist ones like the Karavan-e-Islami.

Indeed, legislators in areas like Sopore, Tral or Baramulla have perverse incentives to not engage with this constituency: elected by tiny numbers of loyal voters who defy secessionist boycott calls, greater political engagement would mean greater political competition.

The sad truth is that Kashmir’s Islamists are the only political force offering disenfranchised youth a transformative language. Like Indian politics generally, modernist impulses were extinguished in Kashmir soon after independence. It is inconceivable today that any major party might emulate Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah’s radical programme of economic redistribution, or his wife, Begum Akbar Jehan radical call for women to cast off their veil.

Electoral democracy in Kashmir has succeeded in engendering institutions and processes, but not a political culture — the system of ideas through which people relate to each other and to the world around them. Kashmir’s political life desperately needs to learn a new language.

praveen.swami@thehindu.co.in

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