Rekha assesses reasons behind the surprising high participation in recent polling
(Prof. Rekha Chowdhary, 55, was born in Jammu and has been a university teacher for the past 30 years. She is currently the Professor of Political Science, University of Jammu. During her distinguished teaching career, she was the visiting Fellow under a Ford Foundation grant at the Queen Elizabeth House, Oxford, in 1992-1993; winner of the Commonwealth Award availed at the University of Oxford, 1997-1998; and the Fulbright Fellow availed at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at the Johns Hopkins University, Washington DC, in 2005.)
The riddle of the Valley
The electoral response in the Kashmir valley during the first two phases of assembly elections has surprised many. The political environment that prevailed here during the last few months did not have much space for electoral mobilisation. The ascendancy of separatist politics during the Amarnath land agitation had given the impression that the electoral space had shrunk again to the level of early period of militancy when electoral politics was totally rejected. The reference point was the 1989 parliamentary elections, when the voter turnout of around five per cent had rendered the whole exercise farcical, or the 1996 assembly elections which due to lack of legitimate political space, had to be conducted under the shadow of the gun (not only of the security forces but also of the surrendered militants). The boycott call by the separatists this time, therefore, seemed to carry a lot of weight. Given the massive protests and the mood of people as it was reflected on the streets of the Valley during the last few months, it appeared as if not much effort was required to convince voters to boycott elections, it would be voluntary!
What is significant about the electoral response so far is not that people came out in large numbers to vote (not only in peripheral areas like Gurez where separatist politics did not have much appeal but also in areas like Bandipora, which saw massive protests during the land agitation) but the enthusiasm which they showed in their act of voting. Everywhere, it was the same sight — large queues of people braving the winter chill. There were no allegations of coercion or security presence. One could clearly see that the boycott call by the separatists had failed.
How does one explain this shifting response? The same people who endorsed the expanding space for electoral politics by attending massive rallies organised by the political parties before June this year, had gone into a different mode of azadi politics during the last four months or so; now, once again, they legitimised the electoral space through their voluntary participation.
Certainly there is a sense of discretion and prudence that is reflected in the popular response. One can read a lot in the way the common Kashmiris are responding — there is a continued sense of alienation and anger against the Indian state, and yet there is an urge to move forward. While the first response perpetuates the separatism, the latter urge leads them to clutch at any opportunity that will take them out of their stalemate. They have come a long way away from the early militancy period when they believed that azadi was around the corner. Disillusioned by armed militancy and violence, they have responded positively not only to the peace process but also to the politics of ‘governance’ — a label assigned to mainstream politics to emphasise its difference from the separatist politics aimed at “the ultimate resolution of Kashmir problem”. The parallel existence of the two kinds of politics is so commonly understood and accepted in Kashmir that one can see its reflection in the political discourse of both mainstream and separatist leaders on the one hand, and the political phraseology used by the masses on the other.
The separatists’ boycott is thus out of sync, and does not reflect the popular urge for forward movement. It was the same urge to move on that helped separatists mobilise people during the land agitation. It is a common understanding that, more than the land, it was the accumulated feeling that the fundamental issues were not being addressed and the Kashmiris were not being engaged that brought people to the streets. It is the same feeling that is making people reject the boycott. With endless ‘chalo’ calls (Muzzafarabad chalo, Lal Chowk chalo etc.), no vision for the future, and most importantly, with nothing to offer to take people out of the impasse, the separatist leadership is as much in question as the government of India is.
For the Delhi government, it is important to put the electoral response in a proper perspective and to learn from the developments that have taken place in Kashmir since June this year. The rejection of the boycott call is not a rejection of separatist sentiment, nor it is, in the least, an endorsement of the Centre’s approach vis-à-vis Kashmir. Separatism will remain intact, good electoral response notwithstanding. It is important to address basic grievances, and the bare minimum required is greater momentum in the peace process and minimum tolerance for human rights violations.