Not so long ago, in North Kashmir, at a nondescript primary school that was a defiant counterfoil to the overwhelming beauty of forests and vast open orchard fields that surrounded it, I met a voter. Abdul Rashid awaited his turn in the endless queue patiently, his back gently hunched over, his eyes seemingly transfixed by the ground on which he stood. As we got talking he furtively waved us to the back of the small school field, pointed out to a spot of patchy grass and dust and whispered, “My brother was killed right here.” “Who shot him?” I asked, doing an internal double-take at the staggering irony of this moment. Warily, he looked around for who might be eavesdropping, decided against answering in public and asked us to follow him home.
The name he was too scared to take — even decades after his brother’s murder — was that of Kuka Parrey, a folk singer-turned militant-turned infamous renegade whose name still evoked anger and fear in his home base of Bandipore. Ensconced in the privacy of his own house, Abdul Rashid lashed out at the many grave violations of the Ikhwanis — the local name for surrendered militants like Parrey who for years were allowed to retain arms in order to be effective counter-insurgents. Till they were disbanded their unbridled power however was often violently unleashed on hapless people who had nothing to do with militancy. “My heart broke today when I went to vote at the same spot where my brother was shot,” Rashid said, holding a photograph of his brother’s bullet- ridden body, “but I still hope that this time my vote will bring some real change.”
A few kilometres away at another home in Bandipore, a son sat right beside his father’s grave and spoke of how history had been unjust to his family. By the time Imtiaz Parrey’s father, Kuka Parrey had been assassinated by the Hizbul Mujahideen in 2003, so reviled was his legacy among his own people that he was denied space in the community grounds of the village and had to be buried in his own front lawn. “If he’d really killed innocent people, do you think I would have the following and stature I do today? Do you think such senior politicians from Delhi would share the stage with me?” Imtiaz asked, challenging us to contradict him. “Had those who made Haider even bothered to meet us, they would have made a different film,” he said, trying to make light of the recent, unflattering portrayal of his father on celluloid. “There is not one family in Kashmir who has not been a victim of violence in some way or the other.”
If for years, the lens was on Parrey, today’s its gaze was firmly on his son, who is a contestant in the assembly elections. In a valley with a wounded past, a candidate and a voter, Imtiaz Parrey and Abdul Rashid, were both seeking new beginnings. The perpetrator’s family and the victim’s family had one thing in common — children in both homes had grown up in the shadow of the gun. Despite the weight of their personal histories, today both had chosen, perhaps for entirely different reasons, to participate in the electoral process. By the end of voting day, Bandipore, once a transit route for infiltrating militants, had delivered a voter turnout of over 70%.
The complex and always inflammable realities of Jammu and Kashmir make it impossible to draw long-term conclusions on exactly where this significant increase in voter participation could lead. Lurking in the recent past are warnings to not be simplistic or too easily euphoric. The unrest of 2010 in which more than a 100 young men were killed after stone-pelting street clashes with security forces came just two years after the previous state elections.
But that the 2014 elections (and the willingness of more and more people to take part in them) offer a unique and brand new opportunity to build faith on is indisputable.
The dark months of 2010 were set off by the death of 17-year-old Tufail Mattoo, who was killed by a stray police tear gas shell, while walking home from tuitions. Today his father says he still believes that “the system will deliver justice.” These elections are a chance to strengthen the system and increase its credibility. Strong punishment in the Machil fake encounter and swift indictments in Budgam in which two teen boys were killed are significant steps in the right direction.
The multiple ironies of this election make it impossible to not be hopeful. Take the fact that a former separatist like Sajjad Lone is a candidate against the very man he once fielded as a proxy candidate in 2002. Or that Lone’s wife, a Pakistani citizen and daughter of a key Kashmiri separatist, has been actively campaigning in an election her country will try its best not to recognise.
Truth is that mainstream electoral politics in Jammu and Kashmir has given space for soft separatism to be absorbed within the constitutional democratic process, rendering the usual boycott politics of the past rapidly irrelevant. To travel from Haider to Hope may have been a very long, tortured journey for the state, but in this election the milestone of optimism is at least within near-sight. Now it all depends on the navigation of wise leadership.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, NDTV.
The views expressed by the author are personal.