Jammu and Kashmir is unique in many ways as a state of the republic of India.
R Mahadevan | Rakesh Sharma
Jammu and Kashmir is unique in many ways as a state of the republic of India. Its special status and the continuing conflict concerning it because of Pakistan and China’s claims over parts of the state have made it a state that often has an unusually heavy military presence.
A continually troubled state, elections have often happened under heavy military guard, and on occasion, have even been suspended. This has happened because of the threat of violence and instability and lack of safety brought about as a result of militancy. Again, state governments have been dismissed and President’s rule has been imposed on a few occasions. The election process has also periodically been marred by election malpractices and widespread rigging, and it was only in 1977 that the elections were accepted as being free and fair.
Incidentally, the first election to the Constituent Assembly in 1951 was a no-contest, since the Praja Parishad boycotted the polls and the Jammu & Kashmir National Conference of Sheik Abdullah won all the 75 seats unopposed! For the next three elections, too, more than 35 seats were no-contests in each. And elections have by and large seen average to poor turnout, rarely more than 50% and sometimes as low as 20%, making something of a mockery of the entire process.
The exodus of the Pandits from Kashmir to Jammu and other places following terrorist threats in 1990 made the polarization more acute.
In recent decades, efforts have been made to get better participation, mostly with debatable success. Political ambition, distrust and disaffection, and an unstable situation with a threat of separatist violence fuelled from across the Pakistani border, have come in the way of an attempt of any lasting peace and progress.
This has also depressed the main industry in Kashmir – tourism. What should arguably have been one of the most favoured international tourist destinations has suffered in this scenario of instability and uncertainty. Accompanying this has been a slowdown, if not a complete breakdown, in the development of infrastructure and economic revival.
The political scene has been dominated by three parties – the Congress; National Conference helmed by Sheik Abdullah and later by his son Farooq Abdullah and grandson Omar Abdullah; and after splitting from the Congress in 1987, the People’s Democratic Party founded by Mufti Mohammed Sayeed. The Bharatiya Janata Party opened its account with 2 seats in the 76-seat Assembly in the state elections of 1987 which was marked by widespread rigging. The results were widely distrusted – not just in the state but in the rest of India and even internationally. It would take years before normalcy would return to Kashmir.
The state government was dismissed in 1990, and was followed by six years of President’s rule, a period that saw overwhelming extremist violence and propaganda and provocative meddling from Pakistan. Things were so bad at one stage that All India Radio and Doordarshan had to suspend operations. Navin Chawla, who later became chief election commissioner, talks in his book “Every Vote Counts” about his experience as joint secretary in the ministry of information and broadcasting working to restart electronic media operations in Kashmir starting 1992. Offices had been bombed, transmission towers destroyed, and there was widespread fear among staff. His efforts bore fruit in a matter of two years; during this period, confidence returned, transmission started on both AIR and Doordarshan, and people had begun to turn away from the incessant propaganda of the Pakistani radio and television stations that were earlier the staple in the border districts.
The next state election, for the eighth assembly, were held in 1996, which was the first election after delimitation when the number of seats was increased to 111;out of these, elections were held for the 87 constituencies that were in India’s control.
This election was coming after a difficult period during which extremism had been rampant, and had brought the region to its knees. In these elections, the National Conference returned to power with an overwhelming majority, but the BJP strengthened its presence in the state, with 8 seats.
It was the 2002 elections that in a sense turned the tide for Kashmir. These polls were significant in many ways. The election, held in four phases over a period of 23 days, saw the use of electronic voting machines. This was part of the steps taken by Chief Election Commissioner J M Lyngdoh to ensure a return to normalcy and confidence among the electorate. His efforts finally saw the cynicism and the distrust begin to fade. Apart from introducing the confidence-inducing electronic voting machines, Lyngdoh also embarked on a cleanup of the system. He started to create computerized electoral rolls, allowed the Pandits to vote on the basis of their original domicile, and began a drive to enrol new voters. Photo identity cards were issued, and the cooperation, sometimes reluctant, of all the political parties was obtained through the relentless efforts of the Election Commission. All these steps to create the atmosphere for “free and fair” elections made a difference.
In spite of attempts of separatists to have the election boycotted, the election went ahead. More than 40 people were killed in election-related incidents. An independent candidate, Abdul Rehman Sheikh, was killed. Mushtaq Ahmed Lone, the law minister, was assassinated at a rally he was addressing in Kupwara. The Hizbul Mujahideen announced a bounty on Farooq Abdullah and Omar Abdullah. There was widespread violence in the valley.
In spite of all this, polling percentage was at an encouraging 45%. The PDP came into its own with a tally of 16 seats, and formed the government in a power-sharing alliance with the Congress. When the chief ministership passed to Ghulam Nabi Azad halfway through the term, the Congress occupied the seat of power for the first time in three decades. The BJP’s numbers went from 8 to 1.
The election was seen as a victory for the forces of democracy in the face of constant threats from extremists. The election also happened relatively peacefully and, along with the credible use of electronic voting machines, was seen as fair and the result a true reflection of the electorate’s wishes.
In an apparent expression of their displeasure of things going smoothly and the presence of the Congress in the scheme of things, just hours before Ghulam Nabi Azad’s swearing-in in 2005, a car bomb exploded in Srinagar, killing at least four people. The Pakistan-based Islamic terror group, Jaish-e-Mohammad claimed responsibility. Apparently, the bomb was headed to Azad’s residence but was exploded at a police checkpost on the way.
However, in a display of determination and solidarity, the swearing in went ahead. In the context of Kashmir and its troubled legacy, this was a step forward, a statement about the political will to keep things normal and take the state forward in the face of extreme provocation. That this happened when the government had only a small majority seemed to indicate that things were on the mend for the state. The people seemed to have had enough of the constant turmoil.
But not quite, as it turned out. Six months to what would have been a successful and rare end of term, came the Amarnath land transfer issue. A mutual decision by the state government and the Centre to transfer 99 acres of land to the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board in order to put up temporary facilities for pilgrims turned into a major incident. With encouragement from separatist groups led by the Hurriyat Conference, demonstrations were organized throughout the valley demanding the repeat of the transfer.
It wasn’t long before there were counter protests from Jammu, demanding status quo on the land transfer agreement. Accusations were hurled, rumours flew about a planned blockage of the valley, there were encounters with the police, people were killed, and the region was quickly turning into a communal tinderbox. The polarization between the Muslims from the Valley and the Hindus from Jammu was unmissable. There was also the prospect of Pakistan trying to make capital out of the situation by inflaming the extremists into violence.The separatists planned a pro-independence rally in Srinagar, with a call to boycott the coming elections, which had to be held in another three months’ time, before 9 January 2009.
As Chawla engagingly writes in his book, Election preparations by the commission were meanwhile in full swing, updating rolls, enrolling new voters, issuing identity cards and getting rid of fake voters from the rolls. It looked like it would all come to naught, with the presence of tens of thousands of police and military personnel out on the streets.
In the middle of all the efforts to normalize the situation in the valley, everything wasthreatening to spiral out of control –that was when Hurriyat Conference Syed Ali Shah Geelani, out of the blue, made a call to order, postponing the rally. While most of the political parties seemed to prefer elections on schedule, the three members of the election commission couldn’t come to a consensus in face of doubts about voter turnout. At the press conference to announce election dates, when the EC didn’t include J&K, members of the press more or less threw a fit; the political parties too weren’t happy about the uncertainty. But, eventually, the EC, through a majority decision, announced simultaneous polls in J&K along with the other five states, and the ball was set rolling for what would turn out to be one of the most important elections in the history of the state.
There were more problems in store before the elections would happen. The Hurriyat made another call for a boycott, and many of the separatist leaders had to be put under house arrest to enable the smooth conduct of the polls. The weather took a turn for the worse, burying parts of Kashmir in snow and closing four passes. Undeterred, the EC used choppers to get election personnel to farflung areas, setting up polling stations in the remotest areas.
All this ended up with the best result the whole of the country could have hoped for. The state recorded the pleasantly surprising polling figure of 67%. It was an election exercise conducted successfully in extreme conditions, with no malpractice of note, no coercion, as free and fair as could be expected. And the people, in a show of appreciation, participated to show their preference for normalcy. If they rejected the call of the separatists, they also seemed to tell the political parties, with their fractured verdict, that they did not trust any of them fully yet, in a sense asking them to be committed and get their act together.
But, as an op-ed piece in the Tribune said after the election, “It would, however, be foolhardy to think that the Kashmir groundswell is now well set. Much more needs to be done to ensure that there is no retrogression in Kashmir. The lessons of recent history point to the need for a many-sided effort to ensure that the achievements of the 2008 elections are not undone.”
With that, we come to 2014, when the state elections in J&K were held simultaneously with the Lok Sabha elections. After the general feeling of dissatisfaction and of “business as usual” that the UPA II government induced in people, the BJP, with its bold slogans of “sabka saath, sabka vikas” and the focus on development, employment, infrastructure, and a declaration of war on corruption, seemed a welcome change.
The situation in Kashmir was better, things had settled down, and there was generally an air of expectancy. This push of the BJP, essentially aimed at the Lok Sabha elections of 2014, became relevant to Jammu & Kashmir because of the simultaneous elections. On top of this was Narendra Modi’s reputation as a doer.
The by-now-usual calls for boycott came from the separatist groups, but that was perhaps nullified by Narendra Modi’s visit to Kashmir campaigning, which bolstered the impression that the BJP was serious about its statements and promises of development.This boost in confidence was reflected in the polling numbers – 65% – unprecedented in recent memory.
The BJP, after a slide in 2002 that gave them only one seat, had bounced back in 2008, with 11. In 2014, they raised their tally impressively to 25, putting them in a position to be a contender for government. The 2014 government in J&K ended up being a coalition between the BJP and the PDP, after protracted two-month-long negotiations on a Common Minimum Programme.
The worry was whether this alliance would last. And in a matter of nine months, following the death of Chief minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, disagreements rose on the implementation of the common minimum programme.
Governor’s rule was briefly imposed, before Mufti’s daughter, Mehbooba Mufti, reached an agreement with the BJP following assurances, and was sworn in as the state’s first female chief minister.
The usual provocations kept happening – students clashing at the National Institute of Technology, Srinagar, after an India-Pakistan cricket match, the killing of HizbulMujahideen leader Burhan Wani, civilian killings in conflict zones – and it wasn’t long before things came to a head after the BJP refused to continue, post-Ramzan, a unilateral ceasefire that it had agreed with PDP, citing continued militant activity. Another month, and the BJP withdrew support, and governor’s rule was imposed again.
Since then, Kashmir has seen something of a rise in militant violence, including the Pulwama attack on a convoy, killing 40 personnel of the Central Reserve Police Force.The Lok Sabha elections would have been a good opportunity for the state also to go to polls. However, the BJP-run central government, which has endorsed simultaneous elections, has decided to not do it in this case, allowing governor’s rule to continue. How this will play out in the Kashmir scenario is not known. Whether it will be a setback is something that remains to be seen.
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