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REUTERS/DANISH ISMAIL
Poll plank.
FAITH IN DEMOCRACY?

Most Kashmiris feel they’re a “campaign prop”, but still vote

Umar Lateef Misgar
By Umar Lateef Misgar

Ranjan Jyotshi, who works for the Social Welfare department in India’s Jammu & Kashmir state, sits in the lawns of a transit camp in the state’s Anantnag district. The grey structure is one of the many that the government has built to enable the reintegration of migrant Pandits like him into the Kashmir valley.

As the race for the general election, scheduled for April-May, heats up across India, Jyotshi rues the labyrinthine bureaucratic process that eligible Pandits have to go through to cast their votes.

The Pandits, as the region’s minority Hindu Brahmins are known, are among the victims of the region’s conflict—forced into exile in the 1990s.

“Our primary demand is rehabilitation in a true sense, not merely cosmetic,” says Jyotshi, sporting a woollen pheran—Kashmir’s signature winter coat. “Everything else is secondary”.

Jyotshi believes the suffering of Pandits has always been abused for electoral incentives. “We are merely a campaign prop,” he says. According to Jyotshi, his living quarters inside the transit camp, located in the heart of Anantnag, are not adequate to even house his wife and children, whom he has left behind in Jammu. “We have always participated in the elections, but only faced disappointments from successive governments,” Jyotshi told Quartz.

A frenzied event

Elections to the state assembly, as well as the Lok Sabha, the lower house of India’s parliament, have always been a contentious issue in Kashmir.

While both the separatist groups and armed militants have consistently called for their boycott, in terms of numbers, the participation of locals in the elections has varied. The days of polling are often marked by violent clashes between security forces and protesters. During a parliamentary by-poll held in April 2017 in Srinagar, Kashmir’s summer capital, at least eight civilians were killed when security forces opened fire on protestors.

In recent times, the Kashmir valley has also recorded limited voter turnouts during local elections. The municipal and panchayat elections, that were conducted last year, saw a low participation of 4.27% and 41% respectively.

Almost every young Kashmiri that I talked to, expressed dismay at the current course of New Delhi’s policies towards the region.

“The Kashmiris, especially post the start of armed insurgency, have believed the participation in elections reinforces the Indian state’s narrative vis-à-vis Kashmir, that maintains that the region is an integral part of India. That is why we see a significant number, and sometimes even most of the Kashmiris, shying away from casting their votes,” Aamir Ali, a freelance journalist, told me.

A number of people who vote, do so out of economic concerns.

According to Ali, a number of people who vote, do so purely out of daily economic and developmental concerns like employment, better infrastructure, potable water, and electricity supply. “A situation of dependency has been created in Kashmir, where the provision of even the most essential services like electricity remains politicised. So, naturally, many people would prefer to vote and elect their preferred candidates,” said Ali.

Increased security

In anticipation of the Lok Sabha elections, to be held in five phases in the region, security has been beefed up.

While speaking to the local media recently, the director general of Jammu & Kashmir Police, Dilbagh Singh, revealed that although there was no concrete input on militants planning to disrupt the polls, more companies of paramilitary forces are being flown into the valley, in addition to over 400 extra companies that remain deployed in the region since last year’s Panchayat elections. Singh also said that over 80% of the polling stations in Kashmir have been deemed “hypersensitive” and these areas have already been “dominated.”

In Kashmir, this pre-election tightening of security has also taken the form of a sustained crackdown against various separatist groups, socio-religious organisations as well as religious clerics.

The Jamaat-e-Islami group, was recently banned under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. “The reason (for banning the organisation) is their anti-election stand,” a police officer based in the valley told the news website Scroll.in, recently. Since the ban was imposed, hundreds of Jamaat members have been detained and their offices sealed shut.

The young representatives of regional political parties, however, believe these actions may undercut the essence of electoral democracy in Kashmir. “Although I understand that there are sensitive issues related to law and order in the region, it is difficult to campaign and convince people to vote in an environment wherein Kashmir has been turned into a sort of open-garrison,” said Imran Nabi Dar, the provincial spokesperson of the National Conference (NC) party.

This was seconded by Najmu Saqib, an additional spokesperson of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). “We have always said that customised democracy will never work in Kashmir. It has to be a broad-based, inclusive democracy where everyone can voice their opinions freely,” Saqib said.

The manifesto

According to Nabi Dar and Saqib, for both their parties, the most important issue heading into the Lok Sabha elections would be what they believe is a sustained assault by the central government against the special constitutional status of Jammu & Kashmir. The said provision, enshrined in the Indian constitution, grants greater administrative and legal autonomy to the region.

The NC had recently declared that the revocation of the Public Safety Act (PSA) would be high on the party’s agenda if elected to power. The PSA, which Amnesty International recently deemed as a “lawless law,” enables the state to detain an individual without proper trial.

When asked if the NC’s promise is a maximalist claim, Nabi Dar remained defiant, saying the revocation of the draconian legislation would be consistent with India’s constitution.

Najmu Saqib of the PDP also believes the PSA has been heavily misused across Kashmir and needs to be done away with. “It is good that a conversation around the revocation of this law is beginning to take shape,” Saqib said. “But what we have to also ask is how the National Conference aims to bring this about when they couldn’t even revoke the ban on SMS messaging during their rule.”

Disbelief

Many in the volatile southern district of Pulwama, however, believe all the regional political parties are relying on hollow rhetoric to gain an upper hand in the elections. “They will, of course, promise the moon and the stars before the elections but, while in power, everyone is the same. The violence and heavy-handedness of security forces will continue unabated and the next government will even fail to address the developmental issues,” Shahbaz Ahmad, who works for a private educational firm said. “In this situation, we are bound to boycott the elections. At least I will,” he added.

Mass boycott of elections only enables the central government to take an upper hand.

Soleha Sabroo, who works as a counsellor in a local NGO, seconded this. “Whether it is the Congress or the BJP, nobody wants to engage with the Kashmiri people. They only want to hold the land, and these local political parties aid them unconditionally,” Soleha said.

When asked whether the Congress party, if voted to power, will go through with the amendment of Armed Forces Special Powers Act and limited demilitarisation in the region, as promised in the party’s recently-released manifesto, Soleha believes even if its tries to, the BJP will fight it tooth and nail. “They will unleash hell upon the Congress by playing the nationalist card and make any such amendments politically impossible,” she told Quartz.

Others, like Nabi Dar, meanwhile, believe the mass boycott of elections only enables the central government to take an upper hand and arbitrarily impose their most favoured candidates upon the people. “As we saw during the recent panchayat elections, many candidates were selected (unopposed) rather than elected, which ultimately hurts the interests of the entire state. All the outstanding issues plaguing Kashmir can only be resolved through meaningful participation in the elections,” Nabi Dar said.