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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 2, January 24, 2009

Lessons from the Jammu and Kashmir Elections

Monday 26 January 2009, by Balraj Puri


Omar Abdullah received a massive reception when he arrived in Jammu, a day before taking oath of office on January 5 as the eleventh Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir.

In July-August Omar’s effigies were burnt in Jammu for a word in his much acclaimed speech in Parliament on the confidence motion. In his remark that “we will sacrifice our life if an inch of our land was taken by an outsider” (the reference was to outside members of the Amarnath Shrine Board), the word “we” was misinterpreted as meaning the Muslims of Kashmir. A young man, provoked by this word, committed suicide, saying: “We can also sacrifice our life.” His suicide revived the tempo of the agitation which had subsided after the resignation of the Chief Minister on July 7, 2008.

In July-August Jammu was full of anger against all Kashmiri leaders. Sangharsh Samiti leaders would not talk to the Governor or to the all-party committee sent by the Prime Minister till the Kashmiri leaders left Jammu. The enthusiastic reception to Omar Abdullah does not mean that Jammu is reconciled to its present status.

Many were surprised over the change in the mood of Jammu. There were more surprises in the changing mood of the people in the Kashmir Valley. The year 2008 was, in fact, full of surprises. For the first few months, the separatist movement was at its lowest ebb. The hardliner, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, was a persona non-grata during Musharraf’s regime in Pakistan and isolated even in the separatist camp in Kashmir. Mirwaiz Umer Farooq, the leader of the moderate faction, did not stop praising Musharraf even after he was overthrown by a democratic revolution in Pakistan. The new government instead invited mainstream leaders like Mirwaiz and Omar Abdullah and gave them recognition and warm hospitality.

Many read this situation as an end of the secessionist movement. But it was a misleading impression. For, the underlying causes of alienation of the Kashmiris had not ended. It became soon obvious from the reaction over a rather exaggerated impression that the land transferred to the Shrine Board would be used to settle outsiders and thus threaten the demography and identity of Kashmir.

Big protest demonstrations were held through- out the Valley against the government order for transfer of land. The Hurriyat leaders found a godsend opportunity to revive their relevance. They sought to turn the agitation to a movement for self-determination and azadi. But they misread the popular mood as the agitation subsided when the government revoked the order of transfer of land to the Shrine Board. The separatist leaders again got an opportunity to lead a popular movement when the people got agitated over the reports of blockade of the Jammu-Kashmir highway. The Fruit Growers’ Association gave a call for Muzaffarabad chalo. As an alternative to the Jammu-Kashmir highway, they called for a route across the LoC to market their fruit which was perishing. The separatist leaders provided leadership to the agitation, which was basically motivated by an anti-Jammu sentiment, and divert it to a movement for self-determination and azadi. In this agitation many people lost their lives in clashes with the security forces.

In this surcharged atmosphere, the Governor’s rule announced the election in the chilly days of winter. Nobody expected that the people would come out to vote despite the boycott call of the leaders who were leading the azadi movement in which people were participating. But the surprise of surprises was when 61.5 per cent voters cast their votes, a record during the last two decades of militancy.

There were no serious allegations of coercion against the security forces on voters to vote.

Nor was there any serious threat by the

militants to impose the boycott call. The Election Commissioner acknowledged that the higher voter turnout was due to lack of the fear factor. Only three political killings took place this time whereas 101 political workers and leaders were killed during large scale attacks on election rallies and polling booths in the 2002 election. Farooq Abdullah thanked Pakistan and militants for not interfering in election.

It would be again misleading to interpret the high polling as a vote for status quo or an end of the Kashmir problem. When asked people standing in long queues invariably told reporters that they wanted azadi as well as good governance. They would not postpone their needs for development, employment, hospitals and schools till they get azadi. At some places, same people after attending a rally for azadi would rush to the polling booths. Though none could explain what their concept of azadi was.

The mainstream parties had made enough allowance in their manifestoes and election campaign for popular sentiments. They conceded that the election was no substitute for a settlement of the Kashmir issue and that they would facilitate the process for that.

EVERYBODY has to learn the lessons from the series of surprises that we witnessed during 2008, culminating in the election. The separatist camp too must be wiser after the election. Syed Ali Shah Geelani admitted that such a high voter turnout was something he had never thought would happen. He said: “Our people have shown a weak resolve and this voting has pushed us far back in our struggle for freedom.” He expected that the new government to fulfil the promises made during the electioneering.
Mirwaiz Umer Farooq went a step further calling for a need to “introspect and rethink”; he conceded that the separatists lacked rapport with the ground. He acknowledged that people have genuine problems like bijli, pani and sarak which the “Hurriyat is in no position to address”. He would appreciate if Omar’s government played a positive role in arriving at the resolution of the crisis and offered his cooperation.

Another separatist leader and Chairman of the People’s Conference said: “The ongoing movement had received a setback not due to heavy polling but improper strategy by the Hurriyat leadership.” In his view, “if people are annoyed with the Hurriyat and took part in election to seek redresses of their day-to-day problems, they should not be blamed”.

In the Jammu region, the disillusionment with the election is no less obvious. The Sangharsh Samiti, which led the movement over the land row, drew popular support from the widespread feeling of discrimination against the region over the last 61 years. It did not offer any positive solution to this feeling. Among its constituents were parties which wanted a separate Jammu State as a solution to the Jammu problem. But most of their candidates lost their security deposits.

The BJP, the main constituent of the Samiti, did win 11 seats against one in 2002. But in the previous election the Congress swept the poll in the region by projecting G. N. Azad, a leader from Jammu, as the Chief Minister. In the Lok Sabha election of 2004, the BJP had won majority in 15 Assembly segments. The main weakness of the party lies in the fact that if can neither come to power nor share it with any Kashmir based party.

It was the Congress which played a very passive role during the Jammu agitation and election and despite its depleted leadership could choose its partner and share power with it. But unlike the last time, it had to concede Chief Ministership to the National Conference for the full term of the Assembly. Even quantitatively and qualitatively leaders from Jammu are somewhat inferior to those from the Kashmir region.

Thus the Shrine Board agitation has not helped its leaders in either of the region to take their respective agenda forward. But two main problems that the election has projected, namely, azadi—a nebulous and vague idea which has to be defined and concretised—and regional tension—the solution of which has to be sought through constitutional and institutional changes—cannot be dismissed. Both sentiments feed each other. Agitations in both regions demonstrated that populist slogans do not represent the interests and aspirations of the people.

The absence of an all-State party either in the government or the Opposition is a major weakness of the post-election state. The PDP, with an image of a soft separatist party espousing the cause of Kashmiris and Muslims, and the BJP, with its traditional Hindutva and ultra-nationalist agenda, would be pulling the government in divergent directions.

Young Omar Abdullah, who with all his qualities and ambitions has raised high expectations, must take cognisance of the realities, some of which are less than helpful.

Balraj Puri is the Director, Institute of Jammu and Kashmir Affairs, Jammu.

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