Sept 16 elections of Kashmir

As the September 16 approaches fast, the Kashmiris worldwide and the key international players anxiously monitor the election scene in disputed Himalayan state. Its voting percentage would determine the fate of Indian administrative control as well as pro-freedom forces in the state. The Indian officials and resistance leaders are trying hard to turn the tide in their respective favours. The Indian establishment is seeking to make elections a substitute to plebiscite by showing the willingness to have dialogue with the elected government for settlement of Kashmir dispute within the country’s constitutional framework.

For that matter, the Indian government has adopted a multi-faceted strategy to prove the elections credible, fair and free. Very recently, New Delhi formed a Kashmir committee headed by former Law Minister Ram Jethmalani after failing to benefit from the services of KC Pant, A S Dulat and Wajehatt Habibullah. Despite the fact that certain Kashmiri and Indian experts are pinning hope with the new talks committee, the Hurriyat is still miles away from Delhi’s desired plans.

In fact US Secretary of State Colin Powell gave a new hype to election during his recent visit to region. He told a news conference in Delhi that Washington wanted the upcoming elections in Jammu and Kashmir to be held in a peaceful atmosphere. He identified it as the “first step towards a broader dialogue” on the Kashmir issue between the nuclear adversaries, India and Pakistan. He also conveyed to the Indian leadership that the election process would only get the credibility if the people show confidence in the much-publicized exercise. Kashmiri people should be able to participate in the elections “without endangering their lives”.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw also expressed somewhat similar remarks during his July visit. Moreover, United States and Britain officially urged the Hurriyat and other resistance leaders to participate in the elections. The August 27 visit to Srinagar by Lisa Curtis, an advisor on South Asian affairs, was one the many moves the Americans are making to expand the canvass of the political process. Strangely though, US and UK have been endorsing the Indian position on J&K elections, thus ignoring its long-term negative implications for permanent settlement of the dispute.

It is in this backdrop that the controversial state elections have become a test case for both, Delhi as well as the resistance leaders. Now the state election process is being been watched with great eagerness around the globe. America, European Union and UK are more than just watching the developments in this regard. It does not require a genius to say that the Indian victory in holding fair, free and credible elections would be a big gain for the country. The anti-Indian organizations like Hurriyat etc would be isolated in the key world capitals.

On the other hand, the Hurriyat conference and other pro-freedom groups have categorically refused to participate, directly or indirectly, in the elections. Meanwhile, the APHC had already started campaign for election boycott. The common Kashmiris are very desperate to see the result of their sacrifices given during the last decade, which they cannot find in the polls. They excitedly know the meaning of elections as prominent Indian writer A.G. Noorani says “It (India) seeks to stage the polls, with all the mechanics in place amidst noises of `a fair and free poll’, in order to legitimize the status quo and declare the Kashmir issue `closed’.” Kashmir Observer September 11.

Some member parties of the Hurriyat are not only very well knit but also enjoy strong support at the grass-roots level. Some of them have influence in cities and majors towns of Jammu and Kashmir. Such a political network is seen as a nightmare for the Indian think tanks as well as political chess players.

One cannot ignore the key role played by the militants in giving the Kashmiri politics its existing face. The United Jihad Council (UJC) has already issued an appeal to Kashmiri masses to boycott the elections. Obviously, UJC enjoys a great amount of influence in the society and there is a likelihood of positive response to this plea. However, any political killing in the current scenario would damage the freedom fighters. If the past experience could be any guide, the anti-Indian forces should apply physiological pressure alone instead of violence.

Quite a number of indicators point to the indifference of Kashmiri people towards the elections drama. A fresh study by New Delhi-based Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS) focusing on the first and second weeks of August finds 84 per cent of the Kashmiris not likely to participate in the elections. Out of these, 74 percent would not show up due to the fear of rigging.

Yet another survey conducted during the same period by The Week (18 August 2002) reveals that 81 per cent in the Valley feel that the forthcoming elections would be rigged. The majority of the Kashmiris believe that the elections in Kashmir have always been rigged.

The IPCS revealed some interesting facts in its recent report on elections. The report says that unlike people outside the Valley, the common population does not have faith in the Election Commission of India. Their main disillusionment is the fruitlessness of the elections. The report says they have achieved nothing by voting in the previous elections. They see the National Conference as corrupt and inefficient. They also are said to believe that the Union government is insincere and selfish in its dealings with Kashmir dispute.

The reports by the Indian media as well as the think tanks clearly indicate to the Kashmiris lack of faith in Indian democracy and election commission. There is a greater possibility of Kashmiris boycotting the polls. Still, there are certain factors with a potential to benefit India. For instance, three Hindu majority districts of Jammu region and one of Ladakh are completely isolated from resistance struggle and they are most likely to participate in elections. However, the region is home to less then 35 per cent of the total state population.

Above all, the ruling National Conference is the only hope for New Delhi. The party has enjoyed enormous backing of the Indian establishment, army, intelligence and political elite since long. However, since the 1990 uprising, it remains the lost option for India as the freedom movement has marginalized other pro-such forces in J&K. The other factions including J&K BJP have long been demanding Governor rule to hold free and fair elections. None of the pleas were accepted by New Delhi so far. Interestingly, since the upcoming elections are not going to be held under Governor’s rule, the opposition groups believe that the NC would use the state machinery to rig elections. Apparently, the NC would be winner in the elections as Indian government has little choice. The losing parties may also refuse to accept the results, thus discrediting the whole exercise.

The Indian media and NGOs are very vibrant as they have the guts to speak loud against the government’s abuse of authority. They have proven their credentials in Gujarat and hopefully, would not allow the state machinery to suppress Kashmiri masses by making coercive participation in the elections. Moreover they know that the participation or abstention from elections is a recognized democratic right of the people. This right should not be snatched from the people by the state. Similarly, New Delhi would fail to dodge the international media and human rights watchdogs.

Undoubtedly, it is an established fact that India could not resolve the dispute permanently despite holding nine state elections plus making agreements with rulers of Kashmir including Sheikh Abdullah on four occasions i.e. 1947, 1952, 1953, and 1975. Another election drama would again prove India’s control over the territory of Jammu and Kashmir lacks the confidence of the people.

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.