The extent of public participation in the Jammu and Kashmir assembly elections has left the country completely baffled.
From July to September, as the agitation against the transfer of 100 acres of land to the Sri Amarnath Shrine Board took a separatist turn in the Valley and cries of azadi (freedom) rent the air, as lakhs of people poured into the streets to join the “March to Muzzafarabad”, it had seemed that all the peace efforts of past years had been nullified and the bad old days of 1989-90, when anti-India sentiment was at its peak, were back.
It is no secret that there were serious differences between the three election commissioners themselves on the sagacity of holding polls in the state at that juncture. With the separatists as usual calling for a boycott, a poor turnout would have boosted their morale no end, and shamed India before the international community.
In fact all fears proved unfounded with the overall polling percentage never falling below 40 in any of the seven phases in which the staggered poll was held, leveling out at around 60 per cent, much higher than the 43.7 per cent votes polled in 2002.
But does this mean that separatist sentiment in the valley is finished? Far from it. “Elections and azadi aspirations should not be mixed up,” said Noor Ahmed Baba, political science professor at Srinagar’s Kashmir University. “The separatists made a mistake by doing so. They are two entirely different dimensions of political life in the state.”
What Kashmiri Muslims have acquired in the past few years is not a fondness for India, but a taste for democracy.
Democracy provides — through local elected representatives —access to the corridors of power and thus at least a chance to get infrastructure needs fulfilled or grievances redressed. “Governor’s rule blocks that access,” said Baba. “There is no local person people can turn to.”
With the National Conference harping on the need for “greater autonomy” and the People’s Democratic Party demanding “self-rule”, Kashmiris have also been reassured that even the mainstream parties are ready to champion the very cause the separatists had taken up. Who needs the Hurriyat then?