By: Khursheed Wani
Holding elections to get a group of legislators and parliamentarians is not new in Kashmir, nor is the effort of the pro-freedom groups to create spanners in the process. The post-partition din of democracy has been continuing since the birth of this state and is deeply ingrained in its political history. After the onset of armed anti-India rebellion in 1989, two years after the rigged assembly elections of March 1987, the complexion of elections and the political activities underwent a drastic irreversible change.
On March 16, three prominent pro-freedom leaders Syed Ali Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Yasin Malik attempted to address a press conference at Hyderpora. The media persons were called on a short notice as Mirwaiz and Malik traveled towards Geelani’s residence. However, a contingent of police barred entry to Geelani’s residence. The police later took the three leaders into custody and even made murderous assault on photographers covering the event.
It was an open secret as to what the three leaders were going to communicate to the media. Ever since the election commission of India announced dates for the parliamentary polls for Islamabad and Srinagar seats, the pro-freedom leaders have been issuing traditional statements asking people to stay away from the poll process. The press conference was aimed at making a formal announcement.
Getting people to sit on designated chairs in the state assembly or the Indian parliament has never stopped, except for seven years between 1989 and 1996 when the state was under direct central rule. The parliament members were ‘elected’ even when coffins were placed outside the polling booths with a message for voters to know their ‘reward’ should they attempt to cast their vote. Most of the polling booths drew blank. The ‘representatives’ were elected even when the army flocked hordes of villagers, irrespective of their age and gender, to cast votes. Nail-parades were conducted in the hamlets to ensure everyone got the ink mark at the polling booth. Those who missed the black spot were beaten up ruthlessly. And, there was also a time when even contestants were not available. The managers of democracy got papers filed by single candidates who were ‘elected uncontested’ and sent to the parliament with this unique qualification.
Interestingly, the situation did not remain the same. I have witnessed long queues of voters on the same polling booth where coffins were displayed at one point in time. Many villagers who dared the nail-parade threats were, at some other time, jostling for the turn to press the EVM button. The watershed 2002 assembly polls, though craftily engineered, changed the people’s response towards exercising the ‘right to franchise’. Except for urban pockets of Srinagar and areas like Tral and Sopore, the people in large numbers cast their votes. The number of contestants and campaigners also increased exponentially. This response of the people to the elections triggered a debate within the pro-freedom circles and consequently widened chinks in their castle. One group refrained from issuing poll-boycott call and sought to de-link it from the resolution-of-Kashmir plank. This was one of the prime reasons for the irreparable split in the pro-freedom camp. The response of the people towards the elections remained mixed in the subsequent assembly and parliamentary polls, especially the ones fought in the backdrop of 2008 and 2010 public uprisings.
Holding elections in Islamabad and Srinagar, four months after a massive pubic revolt had ended, is not a procedural requirement alone for the unionist politicians in the ruling coalition or the opposition. Despite crying hoarse on the situation not being conducive in the south Kashmir region for holding elections, the ECI remained adamant to provide the ‘enforced opportunity’ to the pro-India politicians to approach the people and re-initiate their brand of political activity.
This by-poll automatically became important for the pro-freedom camp, slackly united under the banner of joint resistance forum that spearheaded the 2016 uprising triggered by Burhan Wani’s killing. Going by the groundswell they saw and mastered during the five months of uprising with tens of thousands of people exhibiting their support to their programmes and protest calendars, they would, for the perpetuity of their relevance, like to see a strict poll boycott.
Ideally, the election should have been a level playing field for the players pursuing diverse ideologies whether or not embarking the electoral highway. In Kashmir, the elections do not happen as the battles of ideas. They come amid heavy military presence, detentions, crack down and mysterious killings. The combatants opposed to holding elections target and kill candidates, political workers and campaigners. The entire idea of elections becomes vicious.
The Mehbooba Mufti led coalition made the plans bare. By not allowing Hurriyat leaders to address a press conference is an announcement that they won’t be allowed to carry out the pronounced poll boycott campaign. The passions are high in the entire south Kashmir region and there has been no effective effort to assuage them. Though the Srinagar city did not see the groundswell during the uprising, it won’t respond to the electoral call, both due to its definite impact and the tradition of staying away from the polls. Therefore, in the unfolding drama, the poll managers will concentrate on a few pockets to fetch a semblance of percentage and elect two representatives for the Indian parliament. The low percentage maybe justified under an overall trend for the parliamentary by-polls. And the show will go on.