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Mainstream, VOL LII No 50, December 6, 2014

Would Kashmir’s ‘overwhelming desire for change’ bring about a Change for the Better?

Sunday 7 December 2014, by T J S George


The good news is that the first round of polling in Jammu and Kashmir saw the highest turnout in the State’s electoral history. The overall percentage was 71 but in some constituencies it went up to 77 and 80. Leh in Ladakh saw a drop, but even this was extraordinary. The temperature there had dropped to 10 degrees below zero, yet the number of voters dropped only from 68.9 percent to 65.2 per cent. This election is the people’s most decisive reply to the secessionists, the separatists and the terrorists who had all called for a boycott of the voting. It is now clear that the separatists are separated from the general sentiment of the people.

So what’s the bad news? If we look behind the parties and their posturings, we can see that whoever wins will make no difference in practice. All the leaders who attained power in the past primarily served their parties and themselves (with the possible exception of brief interludes under Sheikh Abdullah and then Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed). This is not unique to J&K. Elsewhere, too, widely welcomed change turned out to be disappointing, for example, B. S. Yeddyurappa and Mamata Banerjee. How can J&K become an exception overnight?

Not that change is not in the air. In fact this election may mark the start of a whole new chapter in the State’s history. Kashmiris had become as disgusted with the father-son dynasty rule in Srinagar as Indians in general had with the mother-son rule in Delhi. A defeat of the Abdullah dynasty as resounding as the defeat of the Gandhi dynasty would therefore be in order. The traditional challenger of the Abdullahs are the Muftis with their People’s Democratic Party. The PDP is not weighed down by the incumbency millstone, but it has the dynasty millstone and a non-performance track record. It cannot expect significant voter backing. The Congress may turn out to be nothing more than an also-ran. Contextual advantage thus lies with the BJP. When people are driven by “an overwhelming desire for change” (Mehbooba Mufti’s phrase), the BJP offers just that. It also has the unrivalled advantage of campaigning by the country’s most gifted orator-campaigner. The BJP certainly will be a change, but whether the change will be for the better is far from clear.

The reason for this reservation is that J&K has already been turned into a communal cauldron. The BJP finds such situations ideal for its growth as recent events in election-bound States have shown. Preoccupation with divisive sectarianism has stood in the way of J&K making any meaningful progress on the economic, educational or social front. If this has to change, the State will need a political dispensation that puts down communal elements and unites the people for collective socio-economic growth. There is no evidence that the BJP is ready for such moves just now.

What can be said in its favour is that it did not start the communalisation of J&K. To a large extent, history did. Even in the 15th and 16th centuries, the norm was: whichever community had the protection of the ruler of the day, violated others. As David Devadas puts it in his In Search of a Future: The Story of Kashmir, “When Pathan governors let them, Muslims merrily bounced on to the backs of Pandits, riding them like asses. Under Dogras, Pandits kicked Muslims all the way home. When Shias ruled, a Sunni qasi was trampled under an elephant. When Sunnis ruled, the Shias’ most revered grave became a burnt dung-heap.”

This was communal oneupmanship of convenience. It could have been contained by an enlightened leadership. Instead, what happened in our own times was the cynical exploitation of antagonisms for political gain. This was the contribution of Indira Gandhi. Just as she turned Punjab into a battleground by discovering Bhindranwale, and polarised Assam into Bengalis and Assamese with the contrived election of 1983, so did she undermine the political stability of J&K by first forcing Farooq Abdullah to share power with the Congress in 1986 and then toppling his government through organised defection. The 1987 election in J&K became notorious for rigging. Disillusioned young supporters of local parties turned to militancy.

India remains a functioning anarchy because leaders refuse to see beyond themselves and their narrow agendas. Since this is the ongoing culture of all political parties, Kashmir could continue to bleed after this election too. Such a pity.