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Monday, Sep 23, 2019

There is a pressing need to re-imagine the electoral politics of J&K

The Indian State has been generous with its economic packages. But funds are not enough to bring peace .

analysis Updated: Jan 16, 2019 08:42 IST
Shah Faesal
Shah Faesal
There is delegitimisation of this important space and the youth have chosen the bullet over the ballot. Young people believe that electoral politics is an obstacle to resolution.
There is delegitimisation of this important space and the youth have chosen the bullet over the ballot. Young people believe that electoral politics is an obstacle to resolution.(Waseem Andrabi / HT File )
         

In one of the most life changing decisions for me, I resigned from Indian Administrative Service recently. At one level, it was an act of protest to remind the Centre of its responsibilities towards the people of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K).

Kashmir is in crisis. A record number of killings was reported in 2018. There is an environment of siege. Educated young people are engaged in a suicidal upsurge against the Indian State. Space has not been provided to the Hurriyat leadership for political activity and there are restrictions on the movement of the Hurriyat leadership. Tourism and development activity has been abysmally low. A near-total boycott of recently held panchayat and urban local body elections was a chilling reminder of a diminishing democratic space.

This deadlock needed a sincere intervention from the central government. That has been missing. As a government insider, I therefore, decided to ring the alarm bell. At another level, my resignation was about the need for re-imagining the electoral politics in J&K, particularly the Kashmir region. That is why I decided to join electoral politics. I believe that in its current form, electoral politics in J&K has failed to provide the solutions to us. Kashmir is not a development issue.

If it were so, then the politics of economic development would have been enough to bring peace. The Indian government has been generous with its economic packages. The state has been authorised to raise special development funds from the market, but while money can buy bricks and mortar, it can’t buy hearts and minds.

If the choices were as straightforward as tourism versus terrorism, then the strong bureaucracy-military matrix of the Indian State would have been successful in breaking the cycle of violence here. I have been a part of that matrix and I know that bureaucracies and armies are bad at restricting people’s political choices for long.

The truth is that Kashmiri youngsters are not picking up the gun to get road connectivity or water supply to their villages. The new age militants come from well-off families. Stone pelters, most of them teenagers, are not putting their lives at stake because someone is paying them Rs 500 for one session of death.

PhD scholars are not taking to armed rebellion because of ideological indoctrination. The roots of the conflict go far deeper than the argument of radicalisation.

The absence of solutions comes from the attempts to confuse the people’s narrative. We must understand that there is a sentiment in Kashmir which has not been addressed since 1947.

The emergence of violent conflict after the rigged elections of 1987 fuelled the sentiment further because counter-insurgency operations took the war to the hearts and minds of the people.

Failure of dialogue between India and Pakistan and half-hearted attempts to bring warmth to the Delhi-Srinagar relationship discredited the entire dialogue process. The land row of 2008 inaugurated a new phase of unrest, which led to a near-total baptism of the new generation of Kashmiris with the sentiment. The calls for de-escalation are being responded to by incorporation of newer weapons to the existing armament. After a hundred thousand lives have been lost and thousands of people have disappeared, there is no looking back now in Kashmir.

In such an environment of despair, electoral politics have become irrelevant. Youngsters believe that electoral politics is an obstacle to resolution. It is widely understood that Delhi uses elections as a delay tactic to avoid addressing the cause of the problem. It is alleged that electoral participation is wrongly presented as an affirmation of the status quo by Kashmiris when the mandate is only for provision of civic amenities and not for the resolution of the dispute.

When I tell Kashmiris that we can participate in elections without allowing the elections to be misused against us, it resonates with the young in Kashmir. When I assure them that choosing well-meaning representatives who have the courage to speak the truth to Delhi doesn’t mean betrayal of the sacrifices of the people, I have found that they are ready to listen. Young people are facing a double-edged sword of governance issues and denial of political justice, and there is simmering discontent.

I am arguing that electoral politics can sustain and provide solutions only if certain important truths are told. We have to be forthright in telling Indians that a generation of Kashmiris avoids elections not because of apathy but because of a deep hatred for the process. Another truth that needs to be told is that the Hurriyat is an important stakeholder and expecting any peace initiative to succeed without its participation is impossible.

The Hurriyat needs to be assured that as custodians of the sentiment, elected representatives are not going to encroach into their space or allow themselves to be used to obliterate that space. Its decision not to participate in the electoral process under the given conditions of mistrust has to be respected.

In a conflict zone, it is not easy to operate in spaces that are unexplored and untapped. There are huge risks involved. But I see a big opportunity here and as I go into the field to listen to young people, I am hopeful that a new age of education and awakening is about to unfold for me.

Shah Faesal is an ex-IAS Officer from Kashmir and Edward. S. Mason Fellow, Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard University
The views expressed are personal

First Published: Jan 16, 2019 08:00 IST