Kashmir Turnout and Results Rebuff Separatists and their Mentors

Published: December 28, 2008 - 23:44 Updated: January 8, 2009 - 13:47

By Sanjay Kapoor Hardnews New Delhi

More important than the election results to the contentious state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) that were declared today (which produced a hung assembly with the National Conference nosing ahead) has been the voter turnout. If 62 percent of Kashmiris chose to defy the boycott call given by secession breathing Hurriyat Conference, then it clearly indicates that the people of the state, unlike many Muslim societies that reel under authoritarian rule, are willing to pay their allegiance to the Indian constitution if it means participating in a robustly free and fair election to elect a government.

The separatists, as the Hurriyat Conference and their supporters are routinely called, have boycotted elections knowing that their participation would show them as reposing faith in the Indian democratic process- an impression that could knock the bottom off their political raison de etre, and antagonize their patrons sitting in different world capitals. This rag-tag group of Kashmiri leaders has been looking at the United States government and Pakistan to play the midwife to help the land locked state gain azadi or independence. The messy and protracted stand-off in the early part of the year over grant of land to Amarnath shrine pilgrimage trust helped in reviving the dwindling fortunes of the Hurriyat Conference.

By showing up the Central government as communal, the Conference managed to tell its fatigued supporters that they had hope in the mistake ridden bumbling Indian government. Days of agitation accompanied by stifling curfew reinforced the belief in the Hurriyat conference leadership that the majority was with them and de-legitimization of Kashmiri political parties would follow a successful boycott of the elections. Even the Indian government was in dithers whether to postpone the assembly elections or hold it even if voters decide to abstain in response to the call given by the separatists.

Hardnews was informed by sources that it was Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s insistence to hold the polls on time that set the ball rolling. His faith in the fairness of Election Commission and the feedback that he was getting from the ground proved more correct than many of those who were shouting “postponement of the polls.” Interestingly, candidates, during the campaigning, realized that the ground reality had changed. More people were coming out to take part in election meetings and there was no large scale violence. It seemed that the feared militants, a major factor in Kashmiri politics in the last 20 years, who had given spine to the anti-center agitation in the early part of the year, had either become irrelevant or they were told by their handlers to stay quiet. Former National Conference Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah, after the results were declared and his party emerged as the single largest in the new assembly, thanked the militants and even Pakistan for allowing peaceful conduct of the polls. Quite clearly, Abdullah was being realistic, as an uneventful elections was not possible if Islamabad did not want it.

The question is how does Islamabad’s conduct in Kashmir square with Indian government’s allegations of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies involvement in the Mumbai atrocities? It is difficult to answer, but if the Pakistan wanted to give flesh to the militant’s motive to attack Mumbai then it could have ensured a more disrupted and violent poll process. So clearly, there were two opposing line of strategies that were played from the Pakistani soil. However, the stirring turnout of voters and the return of parties that look for solution to the Kashmir issue within the framework of the Indian constitution would be a setback for the separatists as well as academics based in Brookings and other think tanks. Many of them look for answers beyond the one played out in the conduct of the latest assembly elections. President-elect Barack Obama, during the run-up to the elections had hinted at paying a closer attention to the Kashmir dispute so that the Pakistani army could focus its ample energies to fighting the Taliban in the FATA province. There were also suggestions that former President, Bill Clinton, may be appointed as the emissary to mediate between India-Pakistan. For all these years, India has been resisting third party mediation in its dispute with Pakistan and surely mention of Clinton’s name was like a red rag to them.

The Mumbai terror attack and the strenuous effort of the Indian government to garner world opinion in its favor allowed US government an opportunity to show they were standing shoulder to shoulder with India. This also gave space to old time Democrats like Zbigniew Brezinski to attribute the Mumbai terror attacks to Kashmir imbroglio and the sorry state of Muslims in India. Such associations, even if they are true are quite disquieting for many Indians. And more so when they are informed that Brezinski advises Obama on foreign policy. While Muslims experience discrimination at different levels, but universal adult franchise in India allows them to make their considerable impress on politics. Muslims, though in a minority, are really big in numbers. Facile generalizations that attribute rise in terrorism to growing grievance amongst the Muslims harm Indian efforts at building a secular nation. The results of the Kashmir assembly elections are heartening for the United Progressive Alliance government from different standpoints.

Not only would they be part of the new coalition government, actively wooed as they are by two suitors, but New Delhi also gets a chance to show up to the world community how its democracy roadmaps solution to an old dispute. High integrity of the poll process strengthens these claims. Indian government of Manmohan Singh is not really using the high turnout and the results to shut up American diplomats from using the Kashmir-word, but it surely would be an ace up their sleeve when it comes to establishing the terms of discourse with the incoming Obama’s administration. What would also be interesting to watch is how the new coalition government in Srinagar responds to the demand in the state for more autonomy as well as new US administration’s endeavor to broker an agreement between India and Pakistan over the Kashmir dispute. Separatist Hurriyat Conference’s future moves to remain relevant would also be watched with great interest. (Ends)