Challenges before Kashmiris

Much-publicised state legislative assembly elections are due this September in the Indian-Occupied Jammu and Kashmir. The most influential political alliance of the state, All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC), has already ruled out any chance of participation in the forthcoming polls as it describes New Delhi as an oppressor. Thus, refuting the validity of the Indian constitution in the disputed state. APHC seeks resolution of the dispute through trilateral talks between Pakistan, India and the Kashmiris.

The Hurriyat used the same plea to boycott the last assembly elections held in 1996. Still, some Hurriyat leaders have expressed their conditional willingness to participate in the polls, if managed by an independent, neutral commission. The other main condition seeks the Indian yes for the elected representatives the right to discuss the future fate of Kashmiris in terms of their geographical and political association. However, none of these moderates is ready to contest polls under the aegis of Indian election commission. Former APHC chairman Mirwaiz Umer Farooq believes, “The Kashmiris have been totally disillusioned by the Indian election commission.”

New Delhi and Farooq Abdullah have always been challenging the representative character of Hurriyat since long. The Indian establishment portrays that the APHC has no popularity among masses and the 23 party alliance is merely a Pakistan-sponsored organisation. The western capitals and media have partly bought this Indian plea. To counter the challenge of credibility and popularity, on February 12 the Hurriyat conference announced to form a six-member independent ‘Jammu and Kashmir People’s Election Commission’ to supervise private elections in the J&K state. The Indian government did not accept the challenge by rejecting the commission. New Delhi termed the proposed elections and election commission ‘outside the constitutional framework’.

As a matter of fact, all pro-freedom political parties had been contesting elections. Even Syed Salahuddin, supreme commander of Hizbul Mujahideen, himself contested election in March 1987 from a Srinagar constituency. The Indian government made a blunder by putting all such leader behind the bars.

The ground was left open for Farooq Abdullah who became the chief minister after massive rigging at the behest of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

The 1987 election rigging sucked all the faith the Kashmiris had in the Indian election commission and democracy. The younger generation opted for gun while their elders started political resistance against New Delhi rule. The Indian government used all available resources to clamp down the resistance struggle. This time, India had lost the game. It failed win over the public support since then.

However, India seems to have learnt from its earlier blunder. The BJP regime has given the 2002 state assembly elections a central place in its ‘control-Kashmir’ strategy. It is in this context that Delhi is employing some softer techniques to gain maximum from some frustrated elements in the pro-freedom camp. The focus is to make the elections process credible and broad-based. In the same connection, head of the Kashmir affairs at Prime Minister Office who is a former RAW chief, A S Dullat, held many round of talks with some Hurriyat and other pro-freedom elements during a recent visit to the valley. Dullat offered them handful of incentives. He tried to play the autonomy card with the pro-freedom leadership. He offered them the same if they participate in elections. India had already rejected the autonomy demand of the National Conference.

Delhi also offered the APHC leadership to form a government of their choice if they participate and win the elections. Speaking about the J&K state assembly polls, the Indian Prime Minister promised on August 15, 2001 to “ensure free and fair elections”. The Hindu newspaper quoted Mr. Vajpayee on May 12 as saying, “The coming elections to the Jammu and Kashmir Assemble are not only free and fair but also include every shade of public opinion that wishes to be involved in the democratic process.” British Foreign Secretary Jack straw added a new dimension to the election issue when he said “I believe that the Indian government understand this- that they are held in a climate of peace and security and with proper facilities for external monitors.”

This time, India is in slightly bitter position to improve the turnout compared to the past a Delhi has been investing huge money and human energy to convince people to cast their votes. The Indian government, thus managed to create a minority group comprising frustrated and status-seeking elements. Some senior Kashmiris in the valley believe that APHC boycott announcement would not earn landslide following unlike the past owing to a host of factors.

In this backdrop, the bigger challenge before Hurriyat is to convince the world capitals of its demand for the boycott. As after September world is not in mood to differentiate between the genuine resistance and armed struggle. They are all pressing Hurriyat to participate in election and prove its following and its right to speck on behalf of the people. On the eve of 1996 elections, US Deputy Foreign Secretary Robin Rafael personally intervened in the issue and tried her best to convince the Hurriyat to participate in the state elections. Now US Ambassador to India Blackwill has been repeating the same line of action. Strangely enough, Michel Krepon, a US expert on South Asia, met Abdul Majeed Dar for three hours in Srinagar. Insiders say that Krepon tried to convince Dar to join the mainstream politics and contest elections. This gives an impression that the Americans are giving assurances, at least privately, to militants for safety of their lives and political career if they join mainstream politics. Krepon has become the first American to have openly interacted with a militant Kashmiri leader during the last 12 years old freedom struggle.

It is emerging as a likely development that some key pro-freedom elements may participate in elections if they find some reason to justify their followers.

Within the state, Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah seems the happiest man on the decision of APHC election boycott as it provides him a yet another chance for safe ride to power. As part of his strategy to continue his rule in the state, Farooq has been arresting the second line leadership of the Hurriyat for the last many month under different draconian laws like POTA and Public Safety Act.

Interestingly, hopes are high in the Indian establishment that militants would not be able to sabotage the state assembly elections as Pakistan is under the international pressure to cooperate in ‘war against terrorism’. At &the same time, the human cost for a militant to cross over into Indian-occupied Kashmir is fast escalating with the provision of sophisticated surveillance equipment by the US.

With all eyes of the state assembly elections, the month of September brings opportunity for both India as well as Kashmiris. If the Kashmiris accept the APHC call and make the boycott a real success, the Indians will fail to impress upon the world of their occupation of the state.

The writer is a specialist on dynamics of Jammu and Kashmir conflict and India-Pakistan relations. He has recently visited Indian-Held Jammu and Kashmir.