28 December 2008

Dateline Srinagar: Kashmir verdict presents opportunity, but some dangers too

Both separatists and Centre need to rethink strategy...

29 December 2008
The Hindu

Kashmir verdict presents opportunity, but some dangers too
Both separatists and Centre need to rethink strategy

Siddharth Varadarajan

Srinagar: If the huge increase in voter turnout in the assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir is being seen as more decisive a ‘verdict’ than the specific apportioning of seats between the contending parties, this is because the electorate chose not to pay heed to the separatist call for a poll boycott. But a setback for the separatists need not automatically mean the ‘Kashmir issue’ or ‘masla-e-Kashmir’ has been robbed of its salience.
Indeed, if the separatist leadership is still in denial – some more than others – about the turnout, those in charge of Kashmir policy in New Delhi would be committing a gross error in assuming they can go back to business as usual.

“Yes, we’ve had a setback”, Sajjad Lone, a moderate in the Hurriyat camp, acknowledged. The movement made a mistake in not delinking the demand for ‘azadi’ from people’s day to day issues, he told The Hindu in an interview on Saturday. “Our problem is that we had stigmatized elections. Had we not done so, nobody would be accusing us of having failed to read what was on the mind of people”. Other separatist leaders are not so introspective. Syed Ali Shah Geelani says the boycott call made by the Hurriyat was not wrong. And he insists, contrary to media reports, that the turnout figures were artificially inflated by bogus voting and “invisible pressure” by the security forces.

Mr. Geelani’s claim that the Hurriyat’s boycott strategy would have succeeded if this pressure had not been there is ridiculed by independent observers. “The Jamaat-e-Islami is in complete denial”, said Tahir Mohiudin, editor of the weekly Chattan, referring to the organization to which the hardline Hurriyat leader belongs. “Just as Pakistan is not willing to accept Ajmal Amir ‘Kasab’, they are not willing to accept that people actually voted”.

For rural residents, who one’s MLA is really matters because often he or she is the most important conduit for ensuring civic amenities and development works come to one’s area. In towns and cities like Srinagar this is not the case, which explains, at least in part, why secessionist sentiments do not get leavened or tempered by such concerns at election time and the majority chose to stay away from the polls.

According to Mr. Mohiudin, the single most important factor behind the increase in turnout this year was the near absence of militant violence. Another factor was the huge number of candidates taking part. In some constituencies, the number of contestants was as high as 27, including several that had the backing of their own villages. This created a vibrant atmosphere, with rallies and door-to-door campaigning increasing voter interest. But none of this would have been possible without the decline in militant violence, he said.

In an interview to The Hindu, Mr. Geelani alleged that some of the huge increase in the number of candidates was engineered by the “agencies”. Though he offered no proof, it does seem as if the “soft power” of the Indian political establishment did play a role. Parties like the Forward Bloc, Samata and Lok Janashakti, which have never forayed into the valley, fielded candidates with reasonably well-funded campaigns. But even if this factor helped with the turnout, it is a measure of the changed situation on the ground that parties looking for candidates faced an embarrassment of choice this time around. In the past, potential contestants were few and far between given the risks involved in campaigning.

Security officials acknowledge the fact that militant organizations like the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HM) and Lashkar-e-Taiba made no attempt to disrupt the elections this time, unlike in 1996 and even 2002. But they say the reason for this was a certain complacency in the separatist political camp following the massive pro-azadi protests which convulsed the valley over the summer. “I think [they] assumed people were not going to vote and that there was no point in getting the militants involved”, said a security official who asked not to be identified. And by the time they realized people were voting, it was too late to do anything about it, he said, adding that the security forces were vigilant and had the upper hand.

Mr. Mohiudin disputed the suggestion that militants were not in a position to disrupt the elections if they really wanted to. “The Director General of Police said recently that there are still 800 militants active in Kashmir. Given the large number of candidates, even 50 militants would have been enough to disrupt things”. The Kashmiri street believes the absence of violence was the result of a backdoor agreement between India and Pakistan but Mr. Mohiudin put it down to the realization by militants, especially the HM, whose cadre is largely Kashmiri, that the international climate had turned against the use of violence and that there was little sense in using force to keep the turnout low when the international legitimacy of the elections would likely remain unaffected.

For separatist leaders like Mr. Lone with the semblance of a popular base in north Kashmir, these elections are forcing a rethink of strategy. “The grammar of our movement has remained unchanged since 1989”, he said. “How long can we run a movement with the same slogans and tactics”. Some in the separatist camp are now toying with the idea of fielding proxy candidates in the Lok Sabha elections next year with a view to defeating mainstream parties like the National Conference and Peoples Democratic Party. This strategy is ridiculed by hardliners as immature and by independent observers as impractical. But it is clear that some churning is likely to happen in the Hurriyat conference over this issue.

In convincing ordinary people in the valley that there was value in casting a vote, the Indian establishment has recovered some of the ground it lost over the past two decades. Though this verdict would have been even more robust if it had been accomplished without resort to questionable steps like placing separatist leaders under house arrest during the campaign, the reaction of Hurriyat leaders like Mr. Lone and Mirwaiz Omar Farooq makes it clear the APHC was genuinely out of synch with popular sentiment.

And yet, the alienation and the equally toxic mistrust between the Valley and Jammu remain as major problems that will have to be resolved through careful handling. The elections of 2008 may well be a watershed but the turnout witnessed is still less than what was seen in 1987, when more than 70 per cent of the electorate came out to vote. 1987 was a watershed election because that is where the downward slide in the state all began. The results were rigged and played a major role in fuelling the insurgency which followed. Security officials now are more than willing to concede that India scored a massive own goal that year. Had the pro-secessionist Muslim United Front been allowed to win the seats they were winning, they would, by most assessments, have got around 13-14 seats. “I don’t think that would have been the end of the world”, one official told the Hindu on condition of anonymity.

In their approach to the elections, it is apparent that people in the valley made a distinction between the ‘masla-e-kashmir’, or the problem of Kashmir, and ‘kashmiriyon ke masail’, or the problems of Kashmiris. The latter need immediate redressal through the political process. It is possible the former could also be addressed through the normal political process but only after people regain their confidence in the robustness and democratic nature of the system, including its ability to exercise control over the security forces. To that extent, we are back to 1987, when people decided to trust the process. In 1987, that trust was betrayed at the polling station itself. That has not happened this time and observers here hope it won’t happen later once the new government takes charge. “The Centre has no coherent strategy. They are only reactive”, said Mr. Mohiudin. “Now that the elections have been a huge success, I hope the old mindset doesn’t come back. It is very easy to say ‘people have voted against the separatists and for India’, and that all we need to do is throw funds at the new set up’. I think this would be a big blunder on New Delhi’s part”.

The approach Mr. Mohiudin favours is one where the Centre continues to engage with the separatists, now that the latter have been chastened to a certain extent, in a process that fully involves the mainstream parties of the state as well. The elections have made the resolution of the ‘Kashmir issue’ a little more easy, but it would be a mistake to assume the issue itself has now been voted away.

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