Srinagar: What happened last Sunday during the by-elections for Srinagar’s parliamentary constituency refreshed my memory of November 1989 when the then Farooq Abdullah government went ahead with the elections for two constituencies, Baramulla and Anantnag, at the beginning of the armed rebellion. The anger against the Indian state had yet to coalesce as the gun-toting Kashmiri boys had just raised their heads with an elected government still in power. Nevertheless, the militants managed to ensure that only five percent of people vote, sending Saifuddin Soz and Pyarey Lal Handoo to parliament from Baramulla and Anantnag, respectively. In the case of Srinagar, fear had forced all the candidates, except Mohammad Shafi Bhat of the National Conference, to run away from the contest, thus sending him up uncontested.
As a trainee reporter with Samachar Post, then the only English daily from Srinagar, I was frightened to see almost every booth attacked either with a bomb or a bullet. An Over 100 attacks took place in these constituencies which kept the people indoors. The seeds of the full uprising were yet to bloom but the militants had definitely announced their arrival on the scene. Despite huge security deployments, they registered their presence and forced a total boycott.
When I was watching the day’s developments on April 9, those scenes were being recreated in my mind. It was a similar situation and at the end of the day the turnout did not even reach 8 percent. The actors were different this time. Of course, the militants are still very much a part of the picture, taking on a more indigenous shade over the last two years but the plot for Sunday’s bloodbath was played out by civilian actors this time. If in 1989 it was the young Kashmiri who had embraced the gun, today it is a new generation with the stone. An overwhelming number of people came out to thwart the election, taking on even the police and paramilitary forces and scattering polling staff. Interestingly, the elections held after 2002 have been largely peaceful and fair and whoever did not want to take part decided without duress. When they were conducted in 1996 after a six-year-long hiatus the elections stood out for the coercion by security forces. However, in subsequent elections when people voted and turnout went as high as a magic 65 percent, it was trumpeted as a verdict in favour of India with the people reposing their faith in Indian democracy.
But what happened in the election of April 9 raised more questions on the ground reality. Acts of violence in some places must have held some people back from taking part in the exercise. But one cannot ignore the level of anger and resistance against the Indian system that has made itself well known during 2016. Resisting the elections at this level is a big political statement that was acknowledged by the government that deferred the by-polls for Anantnag which were to be held on April 12. If it was a militant who had directly subverted this process in 1989, today it is by and large a commoner who does not want to be seen endorsing it. Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti’s brother and candidate for Anantnag wanted the Election Commission of India to postpone it and it was. This coming directly from a candidate from the ruling party sends a loud message.
New Delhi would have made much ado of a high turnout interpreting it as an endorsement of its rule, but what will it say with such a low percentage? If one explanation holds good when people come out for vote, then the converse should be seen as a verdict against it. The argument that Pakistan and the militants have created a hostile atmosphere is not completely true; we have seen in the past many months that the local populations have been audaciously coming out to defend the militants and help them escape. Those who have covered Kashmir at the peak of its militancy are wondering how people are now running to sites of encounters in contrast to running away from them in the early 1990s. With the failure of the electoral process, the theory that people only elect their representatives for the purpose of governance has also been debunked. The mainstream political parties (the National Conference, Peoples Democratic Party and Congress) were not able to campaign as they have in the past. This was a clear indication of what was happening on the ground. The killing of eight civilians is a huge price for a parliamentary seat. It is a moral dilemma for a victor to occupy it and not just because of the low turnout.
Apart from the “Azadi” groundswell that is very much evident, it is the abject failure of the administration as well. For a long time, they were aware of the situation but mishandling Kashmir has become their hallmark. And given that there was an absence of accountability, the bullet that was aimed at killing and not scaring protesters away has become the first option. The impunity with which the police and paramilitary forces have responded to situations in Kashmir from 2008 onwards has helped them to become indispensable because the political leadership has always shielded them. With this killing spree, the anger and agitation has become a dangerous combination that has worked to convert the youth to militancy.
Now the question arises: By deferring the polls, has New Delhi given up and accepted defeat on the ground? Apparently this decision will embolden those who have been challenging the writ of the government. The Joint Hurriyat Conference, which spearheads this new face of “resistance” (irrespective of the fact whether they completely hold the key), has claimed a moral victory and rightly so. Delhi’s surrender before this agitation has made it vulnerable. So far it had been positioning itself differently and selling to the whole world that democracy was “flourishing” in Kashmir. After the by-polls on April 9 and the decision to postpone the other, it will have to explain what this turnaround means. Even people such as Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah and Congress state president GA Mir have acknowledged that the mainstream has completely lost the ground. So the writing on the wall is clear.
Kashmir has not been averse to any democratic exercise. The period from 2003 and 2007 stands testimony to the fact that they believe in a process that is aimed at finding a solution to the problem. However, the past eight years have shown that New Delhi only wants to make itself strong in Kashmir through the barrel of the gun. Threats and provocations in the last two years have complicated the situation. The message that Jammu and Kashmir is a law and order issue has not gone down well on the ground. Today’s youth in Kashmir does not shy away from saying “I am not Indian” and faces off with a paramilitary soldier with a stone, daring him to “kill me”. How can this be tackled? Obviously the absence of political engagement has made Delhi pay a heavy price. But if the political grapevine is anywhere closer to truth, it (Delhi) does not think in terms of a political solution but believes that even if unrest, it is only a Kashmiri who loses his life. An election boycott and violence that forces Delhi to postpone voting is a huge political statement about its strength in Kashmir and that can hardly be ignored.