Interpreting the Kashmiri vote

High voter turnout in the first three phases of the ongoing Assembly election in the State of Jammu and Kashmir is being venerated as a sign of “Kashmiris rejecting separatist politics” and “burying the demand for azaadi (independence).” While the Prime Minister has said that the people of Kashmir “have chosen the ballot and have given their reply to the bullets,” a high profile journalist decided to debate the election in Kashmir under the rubric of “Valley Shuns Separatists.” Such convenient equations, often accompanied by an aggressive nationalist undertone, negate the complexities of “choices” Kashmiris make in a political conflict theatre that the region is, and often referred to by the media as a flashpoint. In the process, their political agency is obliterated and condescendingly declared as being limited in binaries — an acceptance of Indian democracy or submitting to the will of separatist leaders.

Understanding the turnout

It will be erroneous to construe the high voter turnout as a sign of Kashmiris embracing the Indian Constitution. There are varied determining factors, embedded in the political conflict situation of Kashmir that influence people’s decision to vote. Many in Kashmir assert that it reflects developmental aspirations of a region where local institutions and the economy have been ravaged in the past 25 years of conflict. The vote is for effective local governance that will deliver social services. The ballot is being used to resolve day-to-day problems, to address unemployment, towards improved infrastructure like roads, schools, health systems and to fulfil basic needs like food security, water and electricity.

Jo nahin milega usko vote doonga,” (I will vote for what I am not going to get) was how a 60-year-old man who voted in the Kulgam constituency of south Kashmir responded to a question on what he would vote for if given a choice between India and independence. The hint was telling. He went on say that he had voted in almost all the elections and added, “ kisi ke darr se nahi” (not because I feared somebody). He had voted for development, emphasising that the winning MLA has a responsibility towards ensuring it.

A lawyer from Shopian district court, Habeel Iqbal, echoed similar sentiments. He said that people’s expectations from this exercise stem largely from the need to have a functional local government that is pro-development and pro-people. They do not see voting for their local MLAs as voting for India. Kashmiris do seem to associate themselves with the State election more than they do with the national elections. Low voter turnout in the parliamentary election this year, 49.52 per cent, is evident of the disconnect when it comes to voting for “national issues”.

There are multiple dimensions as to how Kashmiris interpret the elections. Some call it political maturity. They see it as a befitting strategy to avoid having a party in power that has no sensibilities about Kashmir. A development professional from Ganderbal said if Kashmiris don’t vote, then the elected representatives will be more pro-India and less pro-Kashmiri people. Many see it as political leverage in negotiating for issues such as an immediate and urgent repeal of draconian laws in force in Kashmir and the release of youth who have been booked under these laws. Some consider it important for a long-term political solution to the conflict, which they think is only possible through consistent dialogue and negotiation with New Delhi.

Kinship and familial relations have also played a significant role in successive elections. A substantial rise in the number of candidates over the years, especially independent candidates, has led to a proportional increase in the number of people voting. Candidates have been able to leverage their social network in strengthening their number of votes and support base.

Another dimension is anti-incumbency sentiments against the ruling political party. A much delayed and inadequate response from the government to the recent catastrophic floods in Kashmir has resulted in widespread public anger and frustration. However, there is a deeper and older resentment, against the Omar Abdullah government whom they accuse of unleashing brutal police force against unarmed civilians during the protests of 2010, and which resulted in the deaths of 112 civilians.

A journalist in Srinagar said that people know that they can never get justice from the court but they know they can punish him by making him lose this election.

A free and fair election?

Ahead of the election, separatist leaders, who represent political alternatives of self-determination in Kashmir, have been incarcerated. This includes the octogenarian leader of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, Syed Ali Shah Geelani. Democracy is all about having a level-playing field and the creation of conducive and threat-free conditions for all to express their political viewpoint, with the right to mobilise people and influence masses. Such spaces and tools of non-violent dissent and alternative politics, which have played a constructive role in shaping and strengthening Indian democracy, have consistently been denied to Kashmiris. As a calibrated strategy to circumvent any possibility of mobilisation against the election, hundreds of youth have been jailed throughout the Valley — not just the stone-pelters but also those who are likely to influence the masses with their speeches and online campaigns. Many have received threat calls to either “discipline” their children or face police cases. Kashmiris say coercion tactics have also “evolved” over the successive elections. In the garb of extending help to secure the release of detained men, families are induced to vote. First they get men arrested ahead of the election and then in exchange for getting them released, they force people to vote, said Nasir Patigaru, a businessman from Anantnag. In Srinagar, a 16-year-old stone-pelter said that workers of a mainstream political party had threatened his friends and him of PSA [Public Safety Act] and said, “‘choose to be with us or get arrested.’” When faced with two years of incarceration without a trial, they reluctantly chose to become campaigners for the party.

Politics of numbers

Branding high voter turnout as a clear settlement of political choice, between the Indian state and separatist sentiments, isolates Kashmiris from their everyday individual and group experiences and strips them of their political aspirations, which are manifested and played out “contradictorily” in a multitude of spaces outside and beyond the polling booths. In 2008, localised demonstrations over the transfer of 99 acres of public land to the Amarnath shrine board gave way to a much larger struggle, to reassert the claim over their land and lives. Lakhs of people poured out on the streets of Kashmir raising anti-India and pro-freedom slogans. Time magazine reported that the largest demonstration during that phase saw more than 5,00,000 protesters at a single rally, among the largest in Kashmir’s history. Similarly, the 2010 uprising was marked by pro-independence slogans, a defiance of curfews, attacks on riot police with stones and a burning of vehicles and buildings.

There are other spaces where people have consistently asserted their politics, even in the absence of calls from separatist leaders or being a part of organised demonstrations. Encounters of militants have witnessed a show of solidarity by the people where protests erupt instantly at the news of such killings. Marches to the encounter site, staging pro-freedom demonstrations and anti-India sloganeering mark these protests. They are anything but an aberration in Kashmir. If numbers are the determining factor, then the popular anti-India and pro-freedom protests, with hundreds of thousands of civilians participating, are perceptive of the political aspirations of people, in contrast to the narrative of easy calculations. These protests become an uncomfortable political antithesis to the “democracy of numbers” as defined for Kashmir.

Let’s take a quick peek into the history of Assembly elections in Kashmir. In 1987, followed by a popular uprising and full-fledged guerrilla warfare against India, there was a record voter turnout of 74.9 per cent. During the height of militancy and anti-India sentiments, in 1996, 53.92 per cent voted. In 2008, preceded by protracted anti-India protests, the turnout was 61.49 per cent. This was followed by the pro-azaadi protests of 2010. Therefore, concluding that huge participation in an election as an absolute verdict on the political will of Kashmiris is not only reductive but renders the act ahistorical.

There seems to be an urgency in celebrating the numbers. Should we not be asking, instead, whether this high voter turnout has been able to change the political reality of Kashmir? A series of militant attacks a few days ago further challenges this very democratic feat. The region remains one of the highest militarised zones in the world, with draconian laws in force that disregard lives and dignity. Human rights abuses and the obstinate impunity which the perpetrators enjoy, militant attacks, soldiers of the Indian Army losing their lives, political repression and mass incarcerations are what define the political reality of Kashmir. Elections have happened and people have voted in huge numbers, but this remains unchanged.

(Ayesha Pervez is a writer, social development professional and human rights researcher. Twitter: @pervez_ayesha )

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Printable version | Jun 20, 2021 1:56:31 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/interpreting-the-kashmiri-vote/article6686791.ece

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