In Jammu and Kashmir, my home state, ever since the 1930s, democratic urges have coexisted with both vigorous nationalism and secessionist tendencies. Kashmir’s history is replete with instances of suppressed rural masses rising against despots. The fire of rebellion, stoked mostly by the self-serving elite, has frequently stirred up the city folk. In fact, foreign non-native rule has been possible only because of the connivance of nobles who invited invaders — be they Afghans, Mughals, Sikhs or Dogras — to get rid of autocrats.
Around the time of Independence, the National Conference (NC), convincingly led by the charismatic Sheikh Abdullah, dominated the political scene.
The democratic mindset of the farmer-dominated Kissan Mazdoor Sangh and the coffee-house thronging, urban-educated Democratic Socialist Party can hardly be refuted. But both were subsequently snuffed out by overarching NC rule, which drew its strength from overt and covert support from the Congress-dominated Centre, despite a love-hate relation with it.
The elections of 1987 delivered a blow to democratic politics in the state. The ruling party failed to analyse the situation on a number of fronts, for which the state paid dearly. Evolved political maturity and expectations, on the one hand, and carefully sown and budding secessionism, on the other, formed a disastrous cocktail.
“Though all of us voted for the Muslim United Front, the rival candidate was announced as winner,” said 21-year-old Munir, while driving me to the clinic on a crisp Srinagar morning.
This is the kind of stuff Syed Salahuddin, Hizbul Mujahideen chief, and many other people with subversive motives are made of. Droves of democratic political workers and activists jumped from the frying pan of frustration into the fire of armed struggle and blood letting against the state for two and a half decades. From 2003 to 2009, which saw three chief ministers, the pendulum started to swing back slowly towards mainstream polity. Thankfully and despite the florid mistrust existing between the Centre and the state, the Kashmiris’ faith in democracy survived. They turned up at the polling booths in fair numbers, braving death threats and ignoring boycott calls. Coalition politics made its entry, the Congress crept into state politics and therewith fulfilled its long-cherished desire. The weary but angry youth swelled the membership of the newly and wisely envisioned, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Relatively good governance for three years, with a perceivable restoration of the dignity of the locals and a contribution to conflict resolution by pushing cross-border surface transportation and basic trade, consolidated the PDP’s position as an alternative to the NC.
Chief minister Omar Abdullah is unlikely to have enjoyed the benefit of hands-on training in the responsibilities of party politics and governance. An uneasy coalition partnership, the tragic death of 120 youth on the streets of Srinagar, the hanging of Afzal Guru, the non-abrogation of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act despite frequent utterances to that effect and, last but not least, overall lacklustre governance are his contributions towards creating robust anti-incumbency. Electorally the most vital shift in the Valley has been that of the rural political affinity from the NC to the PDP. This rural political backbone, which once enabled Sheikh Abdullah to realise Naya Kashmir, is now in the thrall of the PDP.
The stage is slowly, yet surely, being set for political change in the Valley. Unless some of us with a say in matters think otherwise, there is hope for democracy.
Sameer Kaul is cancer surgeon and spokesperson for the People’s Democratic Party
The views expressed by the author are personal