By Heeba Din:
Kashmir elections have always garnered a lot of media limelight, political speculation and hype, pointing towards the troubled political history of the state. Even as a Kashmiri, when I am trying to understand the complexities and subtexts of the Kashmiri elections which more or less have become a rallying point for handling International relations, for the rest of country to understand the issue and come to terms with it, in light of propagandist imagery regarding the state and its affairs, is pretty hard. So, this election before jumping on the bandwagon of preconceived notions, here is a brief crash course on Kashmir’s history for all those who may want to brush up their media generated propagandist image and knowledge about Kashmir, Kashmir elections and boycotts.
If you allow me to take you to the painful time of partition (as reflex action, please don’t snatch your younger brother’s history text book, you won’t find any mention. Kindly refer to Wikipedia if you want something more authentic than me). There were 562 princely states that had to decide whether they choose to stay with India or Pakistan. The ruler of Kashmir at that time, Maharaja Hari Singh, delayed the decision of accession wishing to maintain independence of Kashmir. A standstill agreement was offered by Maharaja to both the countries for continuing of trade and communicate. However, the agreement was never finalised and what followed were a series of events which included presence of Indian army in the state before the accession, large scale uprising in Poonch and intervention by Pashtun tribesman that led the Maharaja to write to lord Mountbatten and sign the conditional accession document on 26th October 1947 which as delivered by Mr V.P Menon stated that – “consistently with their policy that in the case of any state where the issue of accession has been the subject of dispute , the question if accession should be decided in accordance with the wishes of the people of the state, it is my government’s wish that as soon as law and order have been restored in Kashmir and her soil cleared of the invader, the question of the state’s accession should be settled by a reference to the people”.
With Pakistan not accepting the accession, Indian and Pakistan went on to war with each other which lasted till 1948 and India seeked a resolution from the United Nations Security Council, thereby imposing an immediate ceasefire and asking India to hold the plebiscite. Over the years what was witnessed was the dilly dallying of the issue of plebiscite and worsening relationship between the two neighbours. At one point, India made the precondition of removal of armed forces of Pakistan from parts of Kashmir for holding of the plebiscite. Over the years, 11 different proposal to demilitarise the zone and 4 sanctions were passed by United Nation to solve the issue, but till date, the matter remains a bone of contention between the two neighbours.
The first elections in the state took place in 1951 with Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah appointed as the PM of the state. What followed next was Abdullah falling out of favour with New Delhi, getting arrested and then returning to mainstream politics after a gap of two decades in the 1970’s. In 1974, article 370 was enacted. The next watershed moment in the tumultuous history of the disputed state came in the elections of 1987, which saw the formation of Muslim United Front (MUF) – a conglomerate of separatist parties that came together to fight the elections, and the fall out between Farooq Abdullah’s National Congress and INC turning into a coalition that went on winning the elections of 1987. However, the results of 1987 elections were widely disputed and considered overall rigged. A leader of the Congress Party at the time, Khem Lata Wukhloo, recalls: “I remember that there was a massive rigging in 1987 elections. The losing candidates were declared winners. It shook the ordinary people’s faith in the elections and the democratic process”.
And thus erupted the armed insurgency and many parties – like the Jamaat-e-Islami, the People’s Conference and the Ittihad-ul-Muslimeen which formed the MUF – were now part of the main separatist alliance, the All Party Hurriyat Conference, campaigning for self-determination of the Kashmiri people and since then continuing the boycott of elections. Ever since 1987 which saw a massive 75% turnout, there has been minimal participation. In the 1996 election, the voter turnout was only a meagre 10%. Thus showing how over the subsequent years since the dispute, people of Kashmir lost all their trust in the Indian state machinery.
There is however another aspect to the election in the state – true representation of the people in the elections. The 2008 elections which saw Omar Abdullah taking the seat for next six years witnessed only 9.14 lakh votes out of the total 65.37 lakh registered electorate. Previous records point to the same pattern. Some of the biggest heavyweights who claim to have won have less than 10% of votes in their respective constituencies and the number of votes which lead them to victory are so meagre as compared to the statistics of the rest of the country that one cannot restrain from asking if that is the actual representation of people on ground.
Another issue is the low electors-population (EP) ratio. Security forces – heavily deployed in Kashmir and also counted during polling – constitute 3.3% of the population and if you exclude them from the voter rolls, the EP ratio comes to 52%, leaving a gap of 3%. In a study conducted by the EC, the reasons listed for non-participation of voters in elections were anger against the candidates/political parties besides some people saying they have no faith in the political system. Some 15.86% of those surveyed said they had no faith in political system, while a respectable number – 16.52% – expressed their inability to vote for want of photo ID cards and 14.98% said they could not vote as their names were not in the electoral rolls.
Despite all this, the ongoing election phase as always has managed to steal the limelight. Modi government with their 44+ slogan are fighting tooth and nail to create history and win the election in the state. PDP are trying to cash on the incumbency of the Omar Abdullah government’s rule, separatists group are still boycotting the elections and people on ground are still wary of the results. But terms like development, employment, and economy have also surfaced along with the call for resolution.
Kashmir is once again going to poll as we speak. The first phase of elections has begun in 15 assembly segments of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh regions and “12 sitting MLAs, including seven ministers, are among 123 candidates trying their luck in 15 constituencies that will go to polls on Tuesday,” PTI news agency reported.
Also with boycott call from separatists, the authorities have launched a crackdown against the anti election protesters and separatists leaders with over 300 detentions made per week. Along with that, a tight security cover comprising of more than 200 battalions of central forces have also been deployed to ensure polling is conducted without any untoward incidents.
Amidst all the number crunching, election boycotts and political blame game, the people of Kashmir are being trampled. The betrayal of 1987 is still afresh in the mind as the torture and death trail that followed never really did let the memory die. And now with the new generation trying to establish their identity, the horrors of past and dilemma of a future with the same machinery that instilled the horrors is the startling irony of Kashmir’s youth.
While 70% of polling was recorded in the first phase of elections in Kashmir, more than what Jharkhand recorded, the mother of slain teenager who was allegedly killed by the army in 2012 says, “Last night I saw my son in my dream, do you think I would vote?,” she said, while wiping off her tears.
Though some may say that the voter turnout shows what people of Kashmir want, it is equally important to keep in mind that after 2008 elections which saw more than 60% turnout, it was followed by 2009 & 2010 protests that rocked with slogans of freedom and demands for self determination. The voter turnout may point to the need for development and better economy, but the underlying aspiration for ‘azaadi’ can never be overwritten with participation in elections.