Elections are undoubtedly the soul of democracy. As the electioneering process for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections is in full swing, it may not be a bad time to ask a pertinent question in the context of Kashmir: Have the elections in Kashmir done anything “soulful” for its tumultuous political and economic conditions?
The political history of the state shows that in some instances, the elections here have brought political vacuum, institutional crisis and total estrangement. Memories of the elections of 2014, 1996, and 1987, or even most of those in the 1960s and 1970s, often come to mind. Mainstream politicians continue to hold that the polls are about issues of development and livelihood and have nothing to do with the Kashmir dispute, while the Indian government cites the polls as an alternative to the “plebiscite” and “referendum” for Kashmiris’ faith in Indian democracy and thereby in the Indian republic itself. It is an idea for another day to debate whether the polls actually alter the very complex dimensions of the Kashmir conflict.
Even if the voter turnout is significant this time, which seems highly unlikely given the current situation, will it make a difference to the life of a common Kashmiri whose dignity, peace and existence have been held hostage to a stalemated political conflict? Can democracy flourish in a place which has one of the highest military concentrations in the world? Add to that these forces are armed with draconian powers like the Armed Forces (Special Powers Act), which gives them impunity to catch and kill anyone and thereby, trample the rule of law and human dignity.
In this scenario, elections seem a forced marriage between militarism and democracy, which is nothing but a farce. At the moment, the apprehensions haunting every Kashmiri’s mind are whether s/he is the one who is adamant on the boycott call, or, the one, who throngs the poll booth defying militant threats.
Today, mainstream politics in Kashmir stands more discredited than ever despite the rise of many new political parties. The reason is the repressive policies of the Indian state towards Kashmiris and the inability of mainstream politics to do anything substantial for them in that regard.
The reality of mainstream politics becoming discredited may have sharpened in recent times, as a new, enraged generation of Kashmiris takes political centre-stage. But there’s a history behind it which, as the historians of modern Kashmir would tell us and as the popular Kashmiri imagination also upholds, is essentially a saga of a series of betrayals that continue till this day.
Since 1947, the political history of Kashmir has been typified by an assortment of political betrayals in which the key mainstream parties have played a pivotal role. The semblance between the two presumably plural and secular orders was projected as the raison d’etre of Kashmir’s union with India, which itself took place through the much-contested Instrument of Accession. In the immediate aftermath of this, the Indian government, through Jawaharlal Nehru’s repeated proclamations, both inside Parliament and outside it, decided that “Kashmiris will decide their own future”, but till date this promise has never been fulfilled.
However, the relative autonomy that Kashmir enjoyed was diluted gradually. In 1953, Jawaharlal Nehru, betraying his own affirmations and trashing Kashmiris’ aspirations, removed Sheikh Abdullah, the democratically elected Prime Minister of Kashmir. In an instance of blatant political backstabbing, a new political faction, borne out of defections from National Conference and comprising Sheikh’s former companions, was installed as the new government.
After 1953, the degeneration of mainstream politics in the state got exacerbated in the form of widespread corruption, misrule, maladministration, patronage politics, opportunistic moves, swatting of allegiances, backstabbing of allies, muzzling of legitimate democratic voices, sell-outs, and above all, engineered chicaneries of New Delhi. In March 1965, the Centre changed the designations of head of state and head of the government, respectively, from “Sadar-i-Riyasat” to “Governor” and from “Prime Minister” to “Chief Minister” and the then mainstream politicians, barring Sheikh Abdullah who was in prison, accepted these changes. Then, in 1974, Sheikh Abdullah himself, with all his opposition to the Central government’s authoritarianism, did a volte-face by capitulating to New Delhi through the infamous “Indira-Sheikh Accord.” Against the people’s wishes, the agreement firmly endorsed the terms of Jammu and Kashmir’s full “integration” into India. In Kashmir, the accord, at that time and even now, is perceived as a betrayal of the people’s cause.
In June 1984, Farooq Abdullah’s government, having won a decisive mandate in the 1983 elections, was brought down by a plot of defections, dictated by the Indira Gandhi-led Congress government. A new government of defectors was installed, led by Sheikh Abdullah’s brother-in-law and one-time general secretary of the plebiscite front, G.M. Shah. However, in line with the usual quibbling that characterises New Delhi’s approach vis-à-vis Kashmir, the Shah government was dismissed in 1986 on the basis of Article 356. Again, in a startling about turn, Farooq Abdullah ended up signing a deal with the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress, the same party that had toppled his legitimate government two years ago. Under the terms of the deal, Farooq Abdullah was installed as chief minister until fresh Assembly elections.
Another betrayal was the theft of people’s mandate through the rigging of the 1987 elections and the subsequent imprisonment of Muslim United Front candidates. The Indian establishment had kept on enacting chicaneries and political selling to erode Kashmiri aspirations and trust. The 1987 election was the climax of betrayals, which ultimately spurred the armed conflict.
Even now, these things keep occurring with same pattern and regularity. One such act was what occurred in 2008. As Congress had been traditionally responsible for the political backstabbing of its bête noir-cum-brother-in-arms, National Conference (NC) many a time, until, in an almost ironic reversal, it got a taste of its own medicine in 2008 from its political progeny, the new opposition, People’s Democratic Party (PDP). This particular instance was just a symbolic illustration of the intrigues of mainstream politics in J&K.
Again in 2014, PDP sought votes in the valley to keep a check on the intrusion of Right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and, as the typical betrayal plot proceeds, the rest lies before us. After the death of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and the subsequent delay in government formation, the alleged emergence of a coup within PDP to form a government with BJP was another vindication of the vaudevillian character of our mainstream politics.
What is more bemusing, but quite in line with the politics in the state, is what PDP did to its ally Congress in 2008, was repeated by BJP suddenly in the middle of 2018 when it withdrew support from PDP, which brought the state under Governor’s Rule and subsequently under President’s Rule, which continues till this day. Since the end of its alliance with BJP, PDP has been hit by defections and a number of its leaders have joined other parties.
Amid all this trickery, mainstream political parties of the state have always been in the vanguard. All this has come at a serious cost -- the unabated suffering of the Kashmiri people on all fronts. This saga, one is afraid, will continue to unfold, with or without elections.
The writer is a blogger and activist based in Kulgam, Jammu & Kashmir. The views are personal.