When more than half of the electorate in the Kashmir Valley defied stringent boycott calls by the separatists, and turned out to vote after having suffered four months of curfews, house arrests and deaths in police firings reminiscent of the dark days of the 1990s, the government in New Delhi triumphantly announced that militancy had ended in Kashmir. Political accommodation with the ‘separatists’ was no longer necessary to restore peace. The time had come to concentrate on good governance and economic development. Prime Minister Narendra Modi made the same triumphant announcement at Udhampur on November 26 when the people of the state again turned out in record numbers to vote in the first phase of the assembly election.
But the very next day Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, the leader of the PDP, scoffed at Modi’s belief that Kashmiris were ignoring the separatists’ boycott call because they wanted economic development, and lamented his ignorance of the political hopes and fears that were prompting them to do so. Sayeed is right: In the five constituencies of the Valley that went to the polls, the turnout was a full 12% higher than in 2008. In sharp contrast, the rise in vote in the remaining 10 constituencies (including six from Jammu) was only 3%. This leaves no room for doubt that an epochal change is underway in Kashmir.
Kashmiris are on a search for political empowerment through the exercise of their democratic rights under the Constitution. For many it is not their first choice: Since 1996, the response from the so-called separatist leaders to the query as to why, having forsworn armed militancy, they do not seek power through the ballot box, has invariably been the same: How can we go back to what was there before after a lakh of young people have been killed?
But as time has softened the harsh edge of the wounds inflicted during the Kashmir insurgency, the desire to find a peaceful, but durable way out of the morass of war has grown steadily stronger.
The 2002 elections removed the single greatest hurdle to democratic empowerment that had existed during the preceding five decades, by showing that if elections were free and fair, even a 30% turnout in the Valley was sufficient to dethrone a government that most of its residents had come to loathe.
The next five and a half years of responsive and, by Kashmiri standards, honest government strengthened their confidence in Indian democracy. With India and Pakistan also having inked a framework agreement for settling the Kashmir dispute in the summer of 2008 peace, and genuine empowerment through Indian democracy, seemed finally within their grasp. Tragically this was whisked away by the turmoil that followed a land grab along the route to the Amarnath shrine, by unscrupulous builders and corrupt state government officials.
If 2002 had demonstrated to Kashmiris the benefits of participating in the electoral process, the 2008 elections brought home the perils of a boycott in the most tragic way. The almost complete boycott delivered 11 urban seats to the National Conference (NC), and took its overall tally to 26, making it the largest party in the 87-member assembly. In the Valley, it gave a result that Kashmiris couldn’t understand, for the PDP had polled 25% more votes than the NC. Boycott had therefore brought back the very party that most of them detested. In the next five years, Kashmiris revisited the dark days of the 1990s insurgency time and again in 2010, when the government gunned down 106 unarmed, stone pelting adolescents because the government could think of no other way of controlling them; and from February 2013 onwards, after the hanging of Afzal Guru in Tihar jail.
Each of these violent confrontations left the Islamist militants in the Valley stronger and further eroded the support enjoyed by centre ground in Kashmiri nationalism that is held by the Mirwaiz-headed Hurriyat (M). Far from being a separatist organisation the Hurriyat (M) has been paying a heavy price in terms of assassinations, for supporting the Manmohan Singh-Musharraf plan for resolving the Kashmir dispute, which involves no change in Kashmir’s borders.
But these years have also seen repeated attempts by the people to recapture control of their lives. In 2011, to New Delhi’s surprise, the melting of snow did not bring about a resumption of the stone throwing of the previous year. Nor did it bring a widely anticipated increase in cross-border infiltration by armed fidayeen. The reason was an entreaty to the ‘separatist’ organisations by a newly formed Kashmir Economic Alliance, representing virtually all the small businesses in the Valley, to spare them from the ‘calendar’ of confrontations, which had killed tourism and brought them to the brink of bankruptcy.
The year 2011 also saw a record 80-85% turnout in the first panchayat elections to be held in 33 years. Although the Omar Abdullah government banned the use of party symbols in an attempt to diminish the political significance of these elections, within days of their completion it became common knowledge that around three quarters of the elected sarpanches were supporters of the PDP.
The NC government rewarded them by making the release of funds for rural development conditional upon their joining the NC. Those who refused were denied police protection, and even taxi fares to visit Srinagar. A spate of murders of panchayat members, allegedly by militants, completed the demolition of this effort at peaceful self-empowerment through democracy.
Prem Shankar Jha is a political commentator and senior journalist
The views expressed by the author are personal