Portents From the Kashmir Polls

Now that the first of four phases of the "litmus-test" elections to the legislative Assembly of the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) is over, India and Pakistan have instantly locked horns over their representative character and significance. This renewed rivalry could seriously affect the remaining three phases and the people’s responses, and in turn further aggravate India-Pakistan tensions.

The voter turnout in the 23 constituencies (of a total of 87) that went to the polls on Monday is now officially estimated at (a revised) 48 percent. While this is much lower than the average turnout in India (65 percent or so), it exceeds the earlier official expectations for Kashmir (40 percent), and is considerably higher than polling in the last Parliamentary elections, of 1999, (although lower than in the 1996 Assembly elections).

The Indian government, in particular the hawkish Deputy Prime Minister LK Advani, boasts that the relatively peaceful first round is a slap in the face of Pakistan, which "failed" to disrupt the elections despite its best efforts through "cross-border" infiltration. The vote is being tom-tommed as a great victory and a vindication of New Delhi’s "tough" policy of refusing out talks with Kashmir’s "separatists" and detaining major leaders like the Jamaat-i-Islami’s Syed Ali Shah Geelani and J&K Liberation Front’s Yaseen Malik for months.

Arch-conservatives in India hope the elections will obviate the need for a dialogue with Pakistan on the Kashmir problem.

Pakistan has dismissed the elections as "farce" and "sham". "The people of Kashmir have rejected those elections," foreign ministry spokesman Aziz Ahmed Khan has said. "We know from experience…what kind of elections they were…"

Islamabad’s line is that the elections are a totally coercive exercise based on the herding of electors into polling booths by the Indian security forces; their overwhelming objective is to put the ruling National Conference, the local ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party, back into power in Srinagar.

The truth is far more complex than the Indian and Pakistani official claims – indeed, more so than most international media reports, or the official comments from Washington, suggest. Like the voter turnout, the Kashmir picture is like a glass that is half-full or half-empty, with many "negatives", as well as positives.

On the "positive" side, there was genuine interest among voters, most remarkably in the contested Kashmir Valley, as the election campaign got under way in late August. According to many local observers, the interest level was higher than seen in any election in 30 years, barring 1987. Candidates were drawing 8,000 to 10,000-strong crowds in campaign meetings.

The "election fever" definitely reflected a change in the popular mood. It impelled a number of leaders and cadres of the 23 constituents of the "separatist" All-Party Hurriyat Conference to consider contesting the elections. For instance, the People’s Conference led by Sajjad and Bilal, sons of the recently assassinated major leader Abdul Ghani Lone, put up five "dummy" or "rebel" candidates – defying the Hurriyat, which opposed the elections.

The number of candidates filing their nominations rose 30 percent over 1996. And a host of small parties, focussed upon local issues, participated, in addition to larger groups like the National Conference, Congress and the BJP.

The Hurriyat sensed the pro-election mood in early September. It also came under tremendous pressure from Western diplomats to show it is serious about "democratic processes" by contesting the elections. But the mujaheedin groups, to which it is linked, totally opposed the elections. (Some of these, like many APHC parties themselves, are backed by Pakistan’s secret agencies.)

At the same time, the Hurriyat was afraid of courting popular disapproval by openly campaigning against the elections and punishing the PC’s move to put up "dummy" candidates. Thus, it did not expel the Lones. After three long meetings, it was forced into an awkward "compromise" under which the PC only technically suspended the "rebels".

The Hurriyat has itself been divided between anti-election "hardliners" and "ambiguists" like the People’s Conference, Jamaat-i-Islami, and the Awami Action Committee (led by Mirwaiz Umar Farooq). These are the Hurriyat’s only constituents with a political base and organisational structure in the Valley.

The situation favouring elections changed somewhat with the killing of two candidates: an independent on September 6 and law minister Mushtaq Ahmed Lone last week. After that, a pall of fear and insecurity descended on the Valley.

Despite that, large numbers of people voted voluntarily, especially in the rural areas and the overwhelmingly Muslim-majority districts near the Line of Control with Pakistan, such as Karnah (71 percent turnout), Gurez (77 percent) and Uri 67 percent).

Another "positive" is that there was little stuffing of ballot boxes or impersonation (although there were reports of many people missing from the hurriedly and sloppily revised electoral rolls, who were prevented from voting).

Not least, there was the "Lyngdoh factor" – the presence of a highly credible autonomous Election Commission headed by James Michael Lyngdoh, an officer of exemplary integrity, who had openly warned the security forces against messing with the elections.

However, the "negatives" were considerable too. The Indian government’s "tough" policy failed to instill much confidence among Kashmir’s political leaders. Nor did the state provide enough security to the campaigning candidates. They became extremely vulnerable to sniper and bomb attacks. This limited their participation in the elections.

Another "negative" is the unaddressed popular disillusionment with and alienation from New Delhi’s policies. Standing for elections does not presume support for these policies. For instance, many candidates, including the PC’s "rebels", and others, continue to swear by "azadi" (autonomy, freedom or independence, not to be necessarily equated with full secession or statehood, even less with Kashmir’s merger with Pakistan).

Just prior to the first phase, there was an attempt to force voter identity cards (not mandatory for elections in India) upon the people, leading to their harassment and embitterment.

Above all, there was significant coercion by the security forces to ensure the casting of votes in many polling booths, although none to vote for a particular party. According to a just-released report by Coalition of Civil Society, a group of NGOs from the Kashmir Valley and other parts of India, the coercion was "widespread". This however is contested by eyewitness accounts, such as those of Kashmir affairs analyst Sonia Jabbar.

The main coercive agencies were Rashtriya Rifles, an army auxiliary, and the Border Security Force. Says the CCS: "It is not clear whether the initiative for coercion came from field commanders at the local level or whether there was pressure from higher levels …. Whatever the case, it is reprehensible that coercion occurred in the face of clear instructions from the Election Commission".

The CCS also speaks of the security forces using loudspeakers in village mosques to exhort the people to vote. "In some cases this was accompanied by implicit and explicit threats."

Going by a number of observers’ reports and informal interviews, the elections were not seen by the Kashmir people as a referendum on the Indian government’s policies. Behind the change in the popular mood favouring elections, and the level of participation, is probably a combination of factors:

The Kashmiris are exhausted with externally-sponsored militant violence, as well as state repression. September 11’s aftermath and the increasing illegitimacy of Talibanist Islam have convinced many that there is no future in jehadi politics. Many believe that a new J&K government will probably shelter them from growing confrontation involving India, Pakistan and militant groups.

Local considerations are at work too. Farooq Abdullah’s NC is widely seen as corrupt, unresponsive to peoples basic needs, and thoroughly opportunist in allying with the Hindu-sectarian BJP. Many people probably would vote just to oust it. People’s short-term grievances about water, roads, hostels and jobs were an important factor at work.

This is corroborated by the leaked report of one of the 16 Western diplomats who went to Kashmir as observers: "The real issues in the elections seem … development and people are concerned about local issues such as corruption, construction of a road or bridge, [rather] than independence or going with India or Pakistan."

Many Kashmiris long for a return to less violent life and for ordinary decencies. Many see the elections as one, probably important, means to achieve that goal. But their vote is no endorsement of New Delhi’s policies. An election cannot supplant a comprehensive process to resolve the Kashmir tangle.

As the CCS puts it, a "variety of motivations and intentions" lay behind the vote. "A large number of those who voted told members of [our] team that they did so with absolutely no prejudice to their respective positions on the way forward to seeking a just solution to the future of Kashmir".

Islamabad is thus wrong to dismiss the elections. And New Delhi is equally mistaken to see them as a substitute for a genuine broad-based dialogue both within India and with Pakistan.

Author: Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai is a New Delhi-based political analyst and peace activist, a columnist with twenty-five Indian newspapers and co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament. He shared the International Peace Bureau's Sean MacBride International Peace Prize for 2000 with Vanaik.