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Democratic Process in Kashmir – What the recent crackdown in the valley suggest

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I remember a couple of years back, while having a heated discussion on Naxalism, I had asked the other side “Every movement/struggle has an objective, when naxalism started, it had a certain objective which resonated with the people for a long time, but that objective is neither relevant nor followed by the naxalists anymore, so on this day, what is the objective of this movement?” Not many people responded but one individual got up and said in unequivocal terms “Aazadi”.

I mentioned the above incident because exactly the same can be said about the current situation in Kashmir. Politicians (I choose to use this word rather than leaders) in the valley, due to their myopic, selfish, short term interests, have created a situation where they fight elections under the Indian constitution, accept hefty economic packages from the Indian Government, enjoy their hearts out when they are in power and play the independence politics when out of power. And this cycle has repeated itself for 30 long years wherein two political dynasties emerged to share power every alternate election with the required support from the local Congress leadership to share the perks and benefits that comes by being in power.

While discussing the Kashmir problem, people from other parts of India discuss Pakistan involvement, Delhi’s mistakes, separatists influence, terrorists role and Kashmiri Pandits plight, but one key factor they exclude which is central to the local Kashmiri is the role of local political leaders. To understand this factor, we need to understand the demographics of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. J&K state is comprised of 4 different regions:

Ladakh (including Leh)- roughly 50% of the total area with about 3 lakh population, Jammu – roughly 22% of the total area with about 55 lakh population, Kashmir – roughly 15% of the total area with about 70 lakh population, POK – roughly 12% of the total area with about 40 lakh population.

If you follow the state of affairs in J&K state, you would know that Jammu and Ladakh are completely integrated with the rest of India and there are no independence demands in these parts of the state which means more than 70% of the state and 40% of the population do not harbor any separatists thoughts. In fact there have been demands on the ground to carve out a new state for these two regions to meet the aspirations of the people from these regions as they believe their interests get overshadowed by the situation prevailing in the Valley.

Now coming to the other two regions, being under Pakistani control, POK does not play a direct role in the local Kashmir politics but plays a major role indirectly through terror heavens, launchpads, training infrastructure, etc. Why doesn’t the Indian State nominate MPs from POK to assert its rightful claim on the region is beyond my limited understanding capability. Kashmir, on the other hand, being the most populous region of the state and being the center of the problem, enjoys the disproportionate attention not only in the political course but also in the national conscious. The neglect of the Jammu and Ladakh region among the general populace of the country can only be compared to the neglect meted out to NE states before 2014. NE has finally got its due but Jammu & Ladakh are still hoping “Apna time aayega!”

Coming to the political discourse in the last 30 years since the infamous rigging of the elections in 1980s which triggered the mass insurgency in the state, subsequently nurtured and fanned by Pakistan. J&K assembly under the Indian Constitution has 111 seats out of 24 are in POK which remain empty. Out of the remaining 87 seats, 46 are in Kashmir, 37 in Jammu and 4 in Ladakh. So to reach the magical mark of 44, political parties have no other option but to register victory in the Kashmir region.

Now, there is a famous quote “never underestimate a politician’s desire to be in power”. Politicians in the state, particularly in Valley, have opted for the easiest way to sway the votes towards them, by portraying the party in the state government as Indian sympathizer since it is operating under Indian constitution and thereby, being anti-Kashmiri to polarize the voters among Indians and Kashmiris, thereby creating a distinction between them. And both the dynasties as well as the Congress is guilty of using this cheap brand of divisive politics to win the seat of power.

These politicians, having found the unicorn issue, never bothered about moving to politics of development, performance or integration. They never raised issues about roads, jobs, poverty, local industries, corruption, education, electricity, water, agriculture, tourism, hospitals, and many other issues related to a common kashmiri. Just play the separatists card and ride back to power with the help of hurriyats, Jamaat-e-Islami, and others. Separatist forces enjoyed the fruits of power without ever fighting the elections irrespective of the party in the government. This entire political discourse created an ecosystem of politicians, separatists, terrorists, frontal organization of terrorists, which thrived on the bogey of Kashmir Independence and Self rule.

They never bothered to inform the Kashmiri people what is it that will change if they get independence? Will they get better roads? Better Infrastructure? Better Jobs? Better amenities? Better governance? And who is stopping them from doing any of it now? Aren’t they in power and most of the local administration comes under their control? Forget about these, they never bothered to explain their people whether peace would be achieved after independence? Will Pakistan stop abetting terrorism after independence?

Growing up listening to the mainstream media discourse on J&K, I used to believe that the J&K leaders, unlike other politicians from India, are honest, moral and statesman with no corruption in J&K state. For me, J&K was a model state with just a small problem of convincing people how great the Indian democracy is which I felt should not be a big task for these honest, dynamic politicians from the state as what is it that the state would be able to do differently if independent which they can’t do while being under the Indian Union. Later after reading and understanding the issue in depth, after my misconception shattered to pieces, I asked myself just one question “Indian Goverment provides the maximum economic package to J&K state, where does this money go?”.

The political game being played by these dynasties and parties can be gauged from the fact that since 1951, the assembly elections have always been held on time apart from the single instance after the massive rigging and militancy uprising in the state after 1987. Same is the case with general elections since 1967 when they were held for the first time. Contrast that with municipal and panchayat elections which have been held only a minuscule number of times that too with marred with issues like violence, killing of candidates, boycott calls by separatists and terrorists groups. When we can have peaceful assembly and general elections in the state with voting percentage in excess of 60-70%, why suddenly the situation changes in case of local body elections? How do we expect the local administration to work effectively when there are no representatives to address the administrative and governance challenges at the ground level?

This is nothing but an attempt to make sure that true democracy never flourishes in the state, democracy never reach the grassroots level, no new leaders emerge in the state politics so that the hegemony of the dynasties, politicians, separatists, terrorists remain unchallenged and the ecosystem thrives. For the first time in the history of Kashmir local elections were conducted in 2018 without any major incidents and with a decent voter turnout of around 30-40% with some places being much lower owning to multiple challenges.

We saw how these mainstream state political parties decided to boycott the elections! And now are desperately asking the central government to held the assembly elections as soon as possible. Irony died a million death! We also saw how many members of these parties called their bluff and parted their ways to fight the elections and be a part of the Indian Democratic process.

I believe 2019 will be a landmark year for the J&K state. I think Narendra Modi and the BJP have understood this political game being played in the state to maintain the hegemony of few. With the defense forces launching the final assault to free the valley from terrorists and on the back of the success of peaceful local election process, central government would be confident of conducting peaceful, free and fair assembly election in the coming months. And given the dominance of BJP in Jammu and Ladakh, new political leadership emerging due to local elections and increase in influence of Sajjad Lone, this election could very well end this political master game being played in the state for last 30 years. I, for one, is hoping for the same.

And it is in this context that we need to see the crackdown on separatists and the ban on Jamaat-e-Islami, the frontal organization for Hizbul-Mujahideen. Seeing the response of the local populace towards the election process, center seems to be confident that this crackdown will not lead to mass protests in the state specially when the state is under Governor’s rule. The center has used the time wisely to fundamentally change the state politics and throw open the field to multiple aspirants rather than the closed gate democracy being followed previously.

There is a buzz in the Delhi corridors of power that Hurriyat will also be banned in the coming days. If center can bite this bullet and actually go through with this, it can go a long way in conducting a completely free and fair elections in J&K with no threats or fear. If center can actually pull this off, this can very well start a new chapter in the history of the state with dynastic politicians being shunted out and a new politics of aspirations and performance emerging in the state. Then and only then, can we start bridging the gaps between Kashmiris and the rest of the Indians. That would pave the way in solving the Kashmir Problem as true grassroot democracy is the only answer to the issue of Jammu and Kashmir.

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