Six years ago, Abdul Ahad Pandit threw a burkha over his clothes and darted down the narrow lane leading to the polling Station. His wife, Saeeda Pandit, followed. "We sat up awake for the next three nights", Pandit recalls, "waiting for death to knock on our door, a Kalashnikov in hand."
Back in the autumn of 2002, just five Yaripora residents cast their votes in the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) Assembly elections, which brought the Congress-People's Democratic Party (PDP) alliance to power — every one of them hidden inside the all-enveloping cloak for fear of being identified. Nestled below the southern reaches of the Pir Panjal mountains, Yaripora was, for all practical purposes, ruled by jihadis. Both the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HM) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) had put up posters warning that those who voted would be shot — and had demonstrated their ability to deliver on the threat, killing dozens of political activists across the region.
But this month, hundreds followed where the Pandits had led: almost three in four registered voters in Yaripora — 1,481 of 2,073 (71.44%) — cast their vote, in a graphic demonstration of just how the decimation of jihadi groups in J&K has transfigured the State’s political life.
Across J&K, voters have startled experts both through the intensity of their participation — over 55 per cent in Kashmir, and upwards of 60 percent in Jammu — and a verdict that debunks the notion that this summer’s violence over the Amarnath Land issue had sundered the State into hostile ethnic-religious blocks, one of them irreconcilably hostile to India.
Just weeks ago, a successful election seemed improbable. On November 21, Mirwaiz Umer Farooq, Chairman of the separatist All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) had insisted that "we are sure there will be 100 per cent poll boycott". Most experts agreed. In an October 31 article, commentator Hassan Zainagiri reported in Greater Kashmir that Kashmir’s "people are quite jubilantly supporting the boycott schedule of the Coordination Committee." (The separatist J&K Coordination Committee had issued the call for a poll boycott). Eminent journalist and author Prem Shankar Jha prophesied, "the Government will be lucky if they get more than 10 percent of people to come out and vote."
Understanding the J&K election results requires jettisoning the notion that the State consists of three monolithic ethnic-religious blocks — or that its political life is primarily driven either by India-Pakistan conflict or ethnic-religious competition. Both the National Conference (NC) and the PDP have demonstrated that they have primacy in sub-regional zones in Kashmir; the Congress and BJP that they, in turn, speak for parts of Jammu.
Northern Kashmir’s mandate has been divided between the two major Kashmir-based parties. While the NC has taken seven seats, the PDP has secured six, leaving one to the Congress and another to independent candidate Abdul Rashid Sheikh, who broke ranks with the secessionist People’s Conference and stood for election from Langate.
In central Kashmir — the agglomeration of fifteen seats between Kangan and Ganderbal on the one side, to Khansahib and Chrar-e-Sharif on the other, with urban Srinagar at its core — the NC has reigned supreme. Here, the PDP could take just three seats, those of Chadoora, Khasahib and Beerwah. NC leaders succeeded in beating off competition in the region’s rural constituencies — competition which cost NC leader Omar Abdullah the Ganderbal seat in 2002 — and also capitalised on low turnout in the eight urban segments, which gave the party's committed cadre electoral primacy.
In stark contrast, the PDP has dominated southern Kashmir, losing just four of the region’s sixteen seats — two to the Congress and one each to the NC and Communist Party of India – Marxist (CPI-M). Here, the PDP succeeded in widening its constituency among political Islamists, often supporters of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) — a constituency the party had begun to court in the run-up to the 2002 elections, when it succeeded in securing the backing of key regional commanders of the HM.
While the NC’s efforts to leverage Islamist issues and themes to their advantage does not appear to have helped the party in southern Kashmir, the PDP’s more resolute ideological opponents appear to have held their ground. The Congress has retained both the Dooru and Kokernag seats, despite a PDP-led Islamist campaign that linked the Congress candidates to an emotive 2006 prostitution scandal in Srinagar. In Kulgam, CPI-M veteran Mohammad Yusuf Tarigami — again a hate-figure for Islamists — was re-elected for a third time running. Interestingly, the sole NC win in southern Kashmir was registered by Sakina Itoo who, as a single woman professional, has been a favourite target of Islamist ire. In 2002, her campaign was targeted nine times by jihadi groups.
South of the Pir Panjal mountains, the Jammu region has also demonstrated that no one party can claim to speak for the entire region. Of the eleven seats in the Doda-Udhampur belt, the NC and Panthers Party have taken two seats each, while the Bharatiya Janata Party has won one. However, the Congress has profited from former Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad’s developmental record in the area, picking up seven seats. Azad himself has won with a staggering margin of over 29,000 votes from the mountain constituency of Bhaderwah.
In the nineteen-seat cluster from Bani to Naushera, with urban Jammu at its centre, the BJP has picked up ten seats. However, its opponents have also done well, with the Congress taking four seats, the NC and independent candidates two each, and the Panthers Party one.Finally, in the six seats of the Rajouri-Poonch belt — often the site of tense Hindu-Muslim relations — the PDP, Congress and NC have each won two seats.What lessons ought politicians to be learning from these results? Perhaps the most important is that competitive ethnic and religious chauvinism of the kind that threatened to rip J&K apart this summer, doesn't pay.
For the PDP, the returns from the incendiary communal campaign it ran this summer, as well as its efforts to reach out to secessionists, have been disappointing. Despite securing the backing of the JeI’s rank-and file, the PDP’s hopes of emerging as the principal political voice of the Kashmir region have been squarely thwarted. The party has succeeded, it is true, in winning 21 seats, up from 16 in 2002. However, this increase is less remarkable than it might at first seem. In the 2004 Lok Sabha (Lower House of India’s Parliament) elections, after all, the PDP registered wins in 25 Assembly segments. In order to make a bid of power, the PDP will need allies and partners — allies and partners who will not be forthcoming unless the party moderates its polemic and builds bridges across religious and ethnic lines.
Despite the apparently dramatic improvement in the BJP's fortunes — which have taken it from just one seat in 2002 to 11 now — Hindu chauvinism hasn’t yielded exceptional pay-offs either. Claims that the BJP has ridden a communal tide in Jammu are empirically unsustainable. First, the ultra-right Jammu State Morcha had broken from the BJP on the eve of the 2002 elections. Had this division of votes not taken place, simple arithmetic shows that the BJP would then have won eight seats. As such, the 2008 results mark an improvement in the BJP's fortunes, but a relatively modest one.
More important, most of the 2008 victories have come in areas where the Amarnath Shrine movement remained at low ebb. The BJP’s efforts to capitalise on the movement have, for the most part, ended in failure. Kirti Verma — the wife of a protestor who dramatically committed suicide — has been defeated in Vijaypur; the State’s BJP’s chief, Nirmal Singh, also suffered defeat in Samba, which saw some of the most intense violence in Jammu this summer. Most of the BJP’s victories came in areas which saw relatively little violence during the Amarnath Land agitation, but where voters were dissatisfied with the developmental record of incumbents rather than their commitment to religious causes — a lesson the party would do well to comprehend if it wishes to expand its state-wide reach in the future.
The election results have also undermined conventional wisdom on this summer’s violence in the State, and demonstrated, rather, that the protests revolved around communal anxieties which had little to do with the secessionist cause. Kashmir’s civil society has long been anxious of its future in a Hindu-majority State. On a visit to New Delhi soon after Independence, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah candidly underlined the relationship between politics in Kashmir and Indian communalism. "There isn't a single Muslim in Kapurthala, Alwar or Bharatpur", Abdullah said, noting that "some of these had been Muslim-majority states". Kashmiri Muslims, he concluded, "are afraid that the same fate lies ahead for them as well."
Fears like these — fuelled by the discrimination the region’s middle-class encounters outside of the State — acquired some legitimacy after Hindu communalists in Jammu announced an economic blockade. Despite its marginal impact, many saw the blockade as an existential threat; a precursor to a large-scale communal onslaught that would deprive Kashmir’s people of their land. In June, Geelani had charged the Indian state with working to "alter the demographic character of our State," adding further, "I caution my nation… that if we do not wake up now, India and its stooges will succeed and we will lose our land forever." Until state action ended the blockade, the Islamist leader’s charges appeared legitimate to some segments of the population.
Interestingly, though, the anti-Amarnath Shrine Board protests were not secessionst-led, outside of the principal urban bases of the secessionist movement — Srinagar, Baramulla and Sopore. A 5,000-strong June 30 gathering at Sheeri, for example, was led by local NC activist Abdul Qayoom and PDP dissident Ghulam Mohiuddin. Local Congress leaders burned effigies of PDP patron and former Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Saeed at Wandi-Viligam on June 30, while NC activists were the principal leaders of the protests in Paibugh.
Kashmir secessionists, it is rarely understood, represent specific social classes — not a generalised, free-floating ‘sentiment’. Most major secessionist leaders were members of the Muslim United Front (MUF), a political coalition that represented an alliance between the urban petty bourgeoisie and rural orchard-owning elite. Both classes had seen their pre-independence influence decline through years of NC rule — a rule founded on an alliance between the small peasant, on the one hand, and a new elite of contractors and capitalists, on the other. Islam, for the classes which backed the MUF, was an instrument to legitimize the protest of a threatened social order against a modernity poised to obliterate it.
In Srinagar and other urban centres, this coalition succeeded in securing the support of disenfranchised youth — the children of the city’s traditional bourgeoisie, who are witnessing the inevitable death of the artisanal and trading occupations of their parents, but have neither the skills nor resources to compete in the new world emerging around them. Kashmir’s Islamist-led secessionist movement became a medium for their rage at being denied entry through the gates of the earthly paradise before them — a phenomenon which formed the most visible part of the street protests during the Shrine Board movement. The notion that the street protests reflected pan-Kashmiri sentiment was a fiction.
Where might events go from here? Part of the reason for the surprise generated by the Kashmir election is the influence of a discourse that, a priori, casts Kashmiri secessionism as the authentic sentiment of its people. Thus, high voter turnout in the 1996 and 2002 elections was widely (though inaccurately) attributed to coercive pressure from Indian troops, rather than the political influence of the candidates. Without dispute, Indian Army troops did ask rural residents to vote in both 1996 and 2002 — actions which must be read in the context of jihadi groups threatening them with death if they chose to do so, and killing dozens of political activists to demonstrate their seriousness of purpose. However, careful study of voting patterns demonstrates that there was no demonstrable relationship between this persuasive activity and voter turnout. Zero voting took place in some areas where troops were reported to have pushed voters; some areas which saw no coercion at all, conversely, reported high turnout.
Now, though, even the Islamists cast as ‘authentic’, have begun to join the election process — a phenomenon that bodes well for the long-term re-institutionalisation of competitive democracy. Journalists observing voting patterns in southern Kashmir have noted that large-scale participation by JeI cadres drove high turnout in the secessionist strongholds of Shopian and Tral. In Kulgam key JeI figures like Mohammad Amin Naqashbani, Sonaullah Kojar, Abdul Rashid Chehlan and Masood Sheikh were out on the streets, (unsuccessfully) persuading voters to defeat Communist Party of India (Marxist) legislator Mohammad Yusuf Tarigami.
For anyone not ideologically committed to the idea of Kashmiri independence, the writing has long been on the wall. Back in February 2008, J&K JeI amir Ghulam Hassan Sheikh — the chief of the political formation which gave birth to the HM — had announced he would not participate in a secessionist campaign seeking a boycott of Assembly elections scheduled later in the year. "I am at variance," he argued, "with leaders and organisations who over-emphasise the election boycott campaign, which may sometimes prove counterproductive… Elections do not have any impact on the status of the Kashmir issue. If people cast their votes in the elections, it does not mean that they have given up their freedom struggle or accepted India’s domination of Jammu and Kashmir." Others in the Jamaat pointed to a 2004 resolution of its Majlis-e-Shoora (central consultative council), committing the Islamist group to "democratic and constitutional struggle".
Ghulam Hassan Sheikh was eventually compelled to back down and support the secessionist boycott campaign in the run-up to the elections — but the party itself, it is clear, intends to leverage the democratic process to the advantage of its constituents. JeI supporters are likely to have backed the PDP, giving the party more representation in the Assembly than expected — or that its own leaders had hoped for. In time, it seems probable, the PDP will secure the support of the classes who backed MUF in 1987. If so, the classes who drove the course of the long jihad in J&K will have returned to the democratic fold.
Politicians in J&K have intuitively sensed this possibility, increasingly casting their parties as credible forces who can, through dialogue with New Delhi, resolve the conflict in the State. Both the PDP’s calls for self-rule, nebulous as the concept still remains, and the NC’s demands for maximal autonomy, are steps in this direction. As the Congress secures a presence in Kashmir, it will point to the existence of a third constituency, which sees the debate itself as misplaced.
In January, J&K will have a new elected Assembly. New Delhi would do well to engage with the multiple voices it will contain, rather than reach out once more to a secessionist leadership that has been humiliated by the peoples it claims to represent.
Author is Associate Editor, The Hindu. By arragement with Institute for Conflict Management.