Where is Kashmir’s Much Touted Normalcy?

Syed Ata Hasnain

The challenges of conducting elections in Kashmir’s turbulent scenario are in multiples especially when many a paradox exists

For some months now, the media and influential members of Delhi’s civil society have been speaking of the return of normalcy in Kashmir. In pure security terms ‘normalcy’ could be defined as the relative absence of violence, the enhanced confidence of society and the rekindling of hope.       

On all three counts the situation in Kashmir, a day prior to the first polls in the Valley, does not appear to inspire too much confidence. There has been more violence than even in the Maoist areas in the run up to the elections; and the northern passes have yet to open so this violence has not been executed by fresh inductees but rather by the residual terrorists left over from previous years.    

Sarpanches, the ones who still have the courage to remain in their pseudo posts are resigning, threatening to resign or making a beeline to the nearest police stations to remain secure.  A Kashmir English media publication has this to say this morning – “On the last day of election campaign on Tuesday, not a single political party managed to organize an election rally in any part of the South Kashmir except Noorabad, where Chief Minister Omar Abdullah addressed an election rally amid tight security”.      

Where are we and where are we heading, I often ask. As a veteran of many an election in Kashmir I can vouch that such a situation possibly did not exist even through 1999 to 2011 when in the early period militancy was at its peak and later civil strife the order of the day. Kashmir watchers the world over, the serious ones, must have waited for this moment to ascertain the validity of their assessments or otherwise. Most had predicted continuing stability and returning normalcy based upon the age old parameters of assessment; security related statistics, residual strength of terrorists etc. They would be a mite disappointed by the events of the last week which have upset all such deductions and appear to be pointing back to the Nineties.  

The situation isn’t really so bad and election time is a period of emotions and frayed tempers. In Kashmir, these take a higher than usual level. The political alignments don’t find approval of the traditional supporters which has added another factor to Kashmir’s complex political scenario. What is the purpose of the violence and who needs it? This does not appear to be catching the interest of mainline media given the obsession with personalities in Election 2014.  

In yester years the violence at election time was a statement of the anti-national elements – the nexus of separatists, terrorists and cross LOC agencies – that the writ of the state did not exist. It was important to show this to the international media whose attention was focused on the elections in much greater degree than at other times. It was also a message to the people to stay away from the polls and display their solidarity for separatism, anti-Indianism or even pro-Pakistan leanings. In Kashmir’s strange political and electoral equations low turnout was always to the advantage of a given party in a given area. When you take a good and hard look at the election scenario 2014 nothing seems to have changed except that there was a vain hope that things would pan out differently this time; this belief was based on decreased parameters of violence and presumed increasing political footprint with six years of rule by a single Chief Minister in a supposed era of returning ‘normalcy’. For a casual observer without an ear to the ground of reality in an externally sponsored internal conflict zone it is easy to believe this but Kashmir’s security scene is more subtle and needs below the skin observations to get the right picture.  

There have been some very courageous politicians who have risked movement (recall the BJP’s Ghulam Hyder Noorani who was killed in an IED blast on 8 Sep 1999) in the rural countryside and continue to do so at most times. However, apart from this minority, political activity remains relatively restricted to the urban belts where small closeted groups of party workers meet their leaders. The will to include and encourage more common people to participate in elections remains restricted to those parties who assess better prospects with higher turnout. The use of violence to restrict polling in identified areas remains a major electoral ploy to gain advantage and encourages even mainline parties to garner services of brokers of violence.  There is sometimes a strange paradox; that the very party which is in power and whose success at normalization of the situation is measured in terms of the ability to ensure a high voter turnout, is also the one which benefits from a lower percentage of voting. 

 High voter turnout is a message to rest of India about the success achieved in governance and security related domain; this is relatively less important compared to ensuring tactical victory at the polls. Isn’t the paradox clear? Exploitation of low voter turnout by a political party is tantamount to it not having a broader and more inclusive political base. I wish voters could understand this before an election.      

Who is responsible for the conduct of peaceful elections? This is hardly different to any other part of India. The Election Commission is the umbrella organization which has a complex set of functionaries under its control but perfect non-partisanship of the functionaries can always be suspect depending upon the wiliness and strength of political personalities and their parties. In a large multi-party democracy non-partisanship becomes even more difficult to guarantee. In an unstable security environment such as that of the Kashmir Valley security becomes the most important facet for free and fair elections. While the local police forces generate intelligence and oversee the whole exercise it is the armed police and the CPOs which provide point security at the polling booths  and personal security to the participating candidates. The threat lies from the elements who reside in outlying areas or in safe houses emerging at such times to strike and create a fear psychosis in the hearts of the potential vote banks of opponents to their sponsors. 

 It is the Army’s responsibility to ensure that there is sufficient domination of the outlying areas to disallow anti-national elements the confidence to disrupt polling. The Army usually remains outside the one kilometer exclusion zone around the polling booths so that it is never drawn into accusations of partisanship. Its successful domination should encourage voters to move unrestricted access to polling booths but in the process it is often drawn into controversies of favoring one or the other party depending on who benefits from greater or lower turnout. This remains the scene even in 2014; nothing really has changed except the high pitched demands to return to the barracks the only organization on which everyone depends for the peaceful conduct of the elections.

Having examined the dynamics of the current elections in Kashmir it is important to remember that through the rest of 2014 Jammu & Kashmir will be in the throes of an assembly election year. Will the current polls have any effect on later dynamics in Nov-Dec 2014? Kashmiris in discussion with me perceive that interest in the current election is relatively low and therefore the propensity to take the separatist advice is higher. However, they also feel that in the assembly elections the electorate is unlikely to be tethered to the separatist advisory and will look to coming out in larger numbers. Which party benefits from which trend is a matter of conjecture? However, on the current winds of information flowing from the Valley it appears that the PDP will ride high in South and North Kashmir with a closer contest in Srinagar. Much will depend, ironically on the ability of the Army’s hinterland deployment to prevent obstacles in the ways of voters. Even more ironical is the fact that in 2010, at the height of street turbulence, the Army’s role was to use its goodwill to prevent people surging from the countryside to the highways. That is how paradoxes work in Kashmir. 

Regarding the effects of the current polls on the situation in Kashmir in the latter half of the year, that remains a subject of another analysis contingent upon the degree of violence we witness around the three polling days in the near future.

 

(The writer is a Senior Fellow of the Delhi Policy Group, Visiting Fellow of the Vivekanand International Foundation and former Corps Commander of the Srinagar based 15 Corps.)

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