Poll Boycott – then and now


And the only way out



The “mainstream” parties, in their own interests and also in the interests of Kashmir, India, and Pakistan, should revisit their political philosophy, i.e., why are they in politics at all


Last Sunday’s – (call it Bloody Sunday) – poll boycott signifies more than what the absolute boycott of Indian Parliamentary elections signified in 1989. Then there was a strong resentment in Kashmir against India because of killings, cordon and search operations, arrests, torture, etc. Kashmiris wanted “azadi” – freedom. This time, April 2017, the reasons for resentment were numerous.

Although the elections were limited to two constituencies, which meant only about two-thirds of the Kashmir Valley was going to the polls, yet the violent reaction of the people in the first phase (Srinagar Central Kashmir) on Sunday 9 April reflected the mood and intention of the whole Valley. In fact it was apprehended that the situation would turn even more violent on Wednesday 12 April in the second phase (Anantnag South Kashmir).

The people were/are extremely indignant because they have come to believe that the New Delhi administration is not sincere in ending status quo on the Kashmir issue. Rather it seems keen on suppressing “azadi” sentiment by finishing the militants and their supporters. The upsurge in counter-insurgency operations during winter months, in which many militants and their supporters were killed and maimed, strengthened these views. The use by armed forces personnel of the extremely deadly pellet guns to blind Kashmiri youth beyond medical treatment has exponentially added to the resentment. The Chadoora encounter on 28 March 2017 in which three boys lost their lives and 14 sustained bullet and pellet injuries proved to be the final spark in the tinder. On that day youth from adjoining villages rushed to the encounter spot at Chadoora to provide succor to the holed up militants. With only stones in their hands they fought pitched battles with armed forces personnel equipped with communication gadgets, armoured cars, automatic rifles, light machine guns, rocket launchers and mortars.

The New Delhi administration, instead of accepting the ground reality, and instead of engaging stakeholders in a meaningful dialogue, has adopted the policy of jettisoning its responsibilities by heaping rubbish on Pakistan to lead the Indian nation and the international community into believing that everything was hunky-dory in Kashmir; that only a handful of mercenaries funded by Pakistan created a law and order situation; and that if Pakistan stopped meddling in Kashmir everything would be okay. In short they tend to convey a feeling that there was no Kashmir Dispute. It was only terrorism instigated by Pakistan of which India was a poor victim.

It is not a secret that Pakistan supports the Kashmir cause in every way being a party to the Kashmir Dispute. But blaming Pakistan for everything is as good as running away from one’s own duties and responsibilities. What India calls international terrorism instigated by Pakistan is to Kashmiris a continuation of the indigenous armed revolt that started in 1988 whose immediate reason was the election rigging of March 1987, which forever shattered their faith, if they had any till then, in Indian democracy; and whose fundamental cause was the 1947 Kashmir Dispute. Instead of resolving that Dispute, India converted Kashmir into the world’s most highly militarised zone where death and destruction became the new normal during the past 30 years.

While as the election rigging of 1987 shattered Kashmiris’ faith in Indian democratic institutions, the 2008-16 phase of “mainstream” politics shattered their faith in the governance apparatus of Kashmir imposed by New Delhi. Despite the fact that New Delhi politicised their election participation and described it on international fora as a referendum in its favour, Kashmiris voted in 2008 and 2014, because in addition to “azadi”, they wanted good governance, they wanted their day to day jobs done, they wanted better roads, supplies, electricity, employment opportunities for their children, etc.

The pro-India political parties exploited this tendency on the part of Kashmiris and sought votes in the name of providing good governance. Once in power they forgot the people who voted them to power, and concerned themselves with amassing wealth and appeasing New Delhi. What to speak of providing good governance, they, like New Delhi, treated death and destruction in Kashmir as something normal. They also blamed Pakistan although Pakistan never stopped them from providing good governance to the people. Meanwhile the state of roads, supplies, and availability of employment opportunities continued to be as dismal as it was before 2008. Also, in 2016 the ruling Peoples Democratic Party reacted to post-Burhan killing protests with a brutal hand conveniently forgetting that during the 2014 election campaign they had promised to work for resolution of the Kashmir Issue. Instead of facilitating a dialogue on Kashmir, they went to the extent of brushing aside peoples’ aspirations by declaring the figures of pro-“azadi” elements to be 5pc of the population. With polling percentage on Sundayto be just 7pc, the truth came out in bold relief. Even majority of the voters were the workers of “mainstream” parties.

The killing of eight and injuring of more than 100 on the election day reflected the changed attitude of the Delhi administration. Previously, the armed forces personnel were given orders to exercise restraint on polling day. In 1996, on the day of election to Srinagar Parliamentary segment, when some youth threw stones on our house at Natipora, which had been converted into a temporary garrison by paramilitary forces because it was located adjacent to the polling booth, the CRPF officer told me that since they could not fire their guns to drive away protesters, not even in the air, because they had standing orders neither to fire guns nor to ogle at women, so would I approach the protesters to persuade them not to throw stones. I told him that it was not my job, and that they would not throw stones on our house if he and his troops had not occupied it. Sitting behind his LMG in the attic he passively watched stone being hurled towards him.

But this time the armed forces killed and injured on a large scale even on election day. This change in the attitude of New Delhi administration (orders flow from there) has begot change in the attitude of Kashmiris. The more the state forces resort to repression the more the Kashmiris become assertive and aggressive. In 1989 they boycotted election at the orders of militants. This time, 2017, poll boycott was spontaneous.

This is a bad omen for future Assembly elections. Normally the voter turnout used to be higher during Assembly elections compared to Parliamentary elections because during the former people elected representative for local administration. Given the failure of both the major pro-India parties, PDP and NC, to provide clean, creative and pro-people administration, it would not be possible for them in future to inveigle Kashmiris into voting even if they resort to talking “separatism”.

The “mainstream” parties, in their own interests and also in the interests of Kashmir, India, and Pakistan, should revisit their political philosophy, i.e., why are they in politics at all, what should be their future vision vis-à-vis Kashmir Issue, and so on? And New Delhi should shun its status quo mindset on Kashmir; it should realise that Kashmir has been a victim of political uncertainty for seven decades; that Kashmiris have suffered enough; that Kashmiris deserve a dignified life; that no matter whether 5pc or 95pc people vote Kashmir would continue to be an international dispute; that only dialogue will save Kashmir from turning into a complete mess; that dialogue not only with Kashmiris but also with Pakistan – (which controls 40pc of state territory and is an essential party to the dispute and, therefore, cannot be written off the broader issue of Kashmir) is the only way out.