Marking the changes in Kashmir

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 November, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 November, 2008, 12:00am

The high turnout in the Kashmir elections has left jaws gaping. The politicians, experts, and separatists were all proved wrong. No one had predicted the long lines of bleary-eyed men and women rising at dawn and braving the snow and biting wind to cast their votes.

Even the security officials manning the polling booths have been taken aback by the endless queues. Like everyone else, they too had expected a trickle.

After all, the mood in the mainly Muslim Kashmir Valley, where more than 42,000 people have been killed during a 20-year revolt against Indian rule, was meant to be angry and violently anti-Delhi.

Just two months ago, the state saw some of the biggest anti-Indian demonstrations in years as a sea of angry men took to the streets shouting pro-Pakistan slogans.

The demonstrations were sparked by a government decision to provide land for a Hindu shrine, a decision that was later rescinded.

When the election date was announced, the main umbrella separatist group, the Hurriyat, ordered a boycott. The separatists see elections as merely giving 'legitimacy' to Indian rule.

The Election Commission had good reason to worry that the atmosphere in the state might not be conducive to holding polls. Campaigning in the troubled state was subdued, with few rallies, and there was little of the usual noise and rambunctiousness of Indian elections.

Then, unusually heavy snow fell, cloaking the orchards and forests, making it even more unlikely that voters would be lured from the warmth of their homes.

Yet they came out in force. The first phase of polling for elections to 10 seats in the Jammu and Kashmir state legislature saw a 64 per cent turnout.

Of the three districts - Gurez, Sonawari and Bandipore - the turnout in the first, Gurez, was not a great surprise because separatist sentiment has never been strong there.

But the turnouts in Sonawari and Bandipore, the latter a former militant stronghold, startled observers.

'My husband supports azadi [freedom]. But I want electricity and a decent road so that my son can go to school on a bus instead of walking 3km,' said carpet weaver Nafisa Butt, who voted in Sonawari.

Ms Butt's neighbour, shawl seller Ashraf Sayeed, had his own reason for voting. 'People were campaigning hard for the other candidate and his supporters were going to be out in force for voting. I had to vote too so that the candidate from my community didn't lose,' he said.

Once supporters of a particular party came out to vote, backers of the rival party realised that they, too, had to vote. Like it or not, people became entangled in the political process.

The explanation for the unexpectedly high turnout runs deeper, experts say, and appears to lie with the fact that Kashmiri politics appears to be operating on two parallel levels.

Yes, azadi is a nice idea. But it's something of a fantasy and won't be achieved in the near future. In the meantime, roads, schools, electricity, water and jobs are needed. The only way to get them is to engage with a local representative.

'Voters seem to have realised that political engagement is the only way to satisfy their needs for basic amenities, just like voters anywhere else in India. They know they need to vote to elect a local person, someone they can meet to press their demands,' said Jammu University vice-chancellor Amitabh Mattoo.

The high voter turnout this time can also be attributed to the absence of violence. Previous elections have been marked by attacks by separatist militants.

This time, it has been peaceful and Kashmiris have been able to reflect on local issues and what they want to get out of the elections.

While the turnout has been significant, it is too early to draw a definite conclusion about whether Kashmiris are inclined to run back into New Delhi's arms and accept its rule.

Nor can it be said that Kashmiris have repudiated the separatist movement, militant leaders say.

Six more phases of voting in 46 more constituencies still have to take place. The voting has been staggered so that the security forces can move from place to place to ensure there is minimal violence or disruptions.

In the later voting, in areas such as the state's summer capital Srinagar, a militant bastion, the turnout is expected to be lower. 'Let's wait until it's all over. Only then will we get a coherent picture of what's happening throughout the state,' separatist leader Mirwaiz Omar Farooq said.

For separatist hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani, chairman of the Hurriyat, the high turnout in the first phase was meaningless as polling took place under 'an army siege and suppression'.

He challenged New Delhi to remove the army - which has a heavy presence - from Kashmir and then hold elections.

'You try holding elections without soldiers around to coerce voters and then you can celebrate even a low turnout - but this is a travesty,' Mr Geelani said.

While the behaviour of Kashmiris may seem to indicate contradictory desires - nurturing the azadi dream and also participating in India's democracy - they are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

'After 20 years, they can see they have nothing to show for all that militant violence,' political analyst Satish Jacob said. 'India, meanwhile, has moved on. There is more prosperity. The country is on the move. Kashmiris want to be part of that. That doesn't mean to say they can't, at the same time, dream about independence.'

Similarly Ms Butt sees nothing contradictory in her husband attending pro-azadi rallies two months ago and her decision to vote.

'The two things are unconnected. I want my basic needs met, my needs as a citizen. But that doesn't mean I have to push the dream of azadi out of my mind,' she said.

Political commentator Prem Shankar Jha, who has been involved in informal discussions with the separatists, is relieved at the high turnout. 'If it had been low and there was no Kashmiri participation in the government formation, it would have left a vacuum for the jihadists to fill,' he said.

If the first phase has demonstrated anything, it is that the separatists seem to be out of touch with the popular mood.

For example, traders and horticulturists have been delighted with the reopening last month, after 60 years, of an old trade route across the Line of Control that divides Indian-controlled Kashmir from its Pakistan-administered counterpart.

Apple orchards have been in Altaf Ghani's family for generations. He hopes to make more money now that he can send his fruit to Pakistani Kashmir on the all-weather Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road. The roads linking Srinagar with India are cut off when it snows.

'If this trade grows, people will be better off and less interested in the separatist groups. As it is, many people are disillusioned with them for living in big houses and sending their children abroad to study,' said Mr Jacob, the political analyst. 'They seem to have done well for themselves while ordinary people have suffered terribly.'

For many Kashmiris, elections are only one part of the political equation. Alongside elections, they want New Delhi to deal directly with the separatists and thrash out a lasting settlement.

'It will be unfortunate if the government projects the turnout as a victory and ignores the importance of a dialogue with the separatists,' vice-chancellor Mr Mattoo said.

Omar Abdullah, head of the pro-India National Conference which seeks autonomy for Kashmir, also said the elections should not be misunderstood.

'The elections serve to elect a new government to run Kashmir and represent the will of the people. But they are not linked to resolving the Kashmir dispute. That is a separate matter,' Mr Abdullah said.

India and Pakistan began talks in 2005 to resolve the Kashmir issue - but they led nowhere. The result has been frustration in Kashmir.

Experts say that the initial turnout is a cause for qualified optimism and, if it continues in the remaining phases of polling, it will take some of the sting out of the independence movement.

What steps New Delhi will take after the elections are over is hard to predict. One factor in its post-election stand, according to Suba Chandran, assistant director of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi, will be the recent explosion of fury over the transfer of land, which jolted the Indian government.

'All it took was one crisis to throw the state back by a decade,' said Dr Chandran. 'It shook the entire administration.

'Because of this new sense of fear, New Delhi may be less inclined to take things for granted in Kashmir. There may be a greater inclination to talk to the separatists.'