Volcanic Verdict

Unprecedented since 1951, the first recorded election, the poll, re-poll and the postponement in Kashmir bypolls is the newest protest that cannot become a police case. The single digit participation has clearly indicated the crisis that could take a dangerous turn if left untreated or pushed under the carpets, reports Masood Hussain

 

In Ireland in 1880, a former soldier was appointed a land agent by Lord Erne. The agent, Charles Cunningham Boycott was tasked to mange the tenants at a time when there was strong movement for fair rent structure, free sale and fixity of tenure. To prevent a famine kind of situation, he was suggested a 25 per cent discount on rent which he rejected. This forced tenants to isolate him by not working on his fields, especially during harvest. Even shops refused to serve him.

Britain had to mobilise almost 1000 soldiers at a cost of 10,000 Pound Sterling’s to escort and protect 50 labourers to harvest a crop worth 500 pounds. This phenomenon against Boycott, covered extensively by the media, gave English language the verb to boycott. It became so powerful and non-violent tool against Britain in Ireland that it led to swift changes within years.

Seemingly, Boycott was in Srinagar, last week. With only 7.12 per cent adults coming out to exercise their right of franchise, an overwhelming majority was on boycott. It was the history’s lowest ever record that ballot created in heart of Kashmir. Interestingly, the costs of the April 9, exercise were no less comparable with what the Queen did in 1880 in Ireland, 34 years after her Viceroy in India sold Kashmir.

Body of Ali Muhammad Dagga being carried by the mourners (KL Image: Bilal Bahadur)

Elections in Kashmir have evolved as intelligent exercises of mass management. It started with denial to people who were willing to participate. In fact none of the members of J&K’s most respected Constituent Assembly was elected.

The stage two witnessed the state using its apparatus to prevent people from participation and the process reached to a new level when Pandit Nehru wrote to Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad that had he lost a few seats, it would have added to his political weight and credibility.

In third stage, the key players in power politics started using deceit to prevent opponents from getting into the assembly. March 1987 polls were the milestone of that stage, following which Kashmir started changing fast.

Then, people were so fed up with the exercise that in 1996 – the fourth stage of electoral evolution – when Lok Sabha polls preceded the state assembly elections; nobody was willing to come out. The state apparatus, this time, used its long hands – the army, and the paramilitary forces – to drag people to the polling booths for votes. Coercion was there but no candidate preference. It was state force-feeding democracy.

While the fifth stage of comparatively fairer exercise exists in patches of 1977, 1983, 2002 and 2014, Kashmir’s electoral politics has abruptly been taken over by the sixth stage that was seen in the by-polls for Lok Sabha in April 2017. As voters stayed indoors, the non-voters took over the streets. In an explosive situation, in three central Kashmir districts eight body bags were lowered within less than eight hours as more than 100 were injured, some surviving blind. “Eight bodies for 7%,” somebody wrote on Facebook.

Four SP rank police officers were given charge of small segments in Budgam. It looked more of a curfew than election. No stone was hurled anywhere. Not many voters turned up. By evening it was one of fairest elections ever.

Some unprecedented scenes of defiance and reaction were witnessed and recorded. In one case a CRPF man was recorded, apparently by a poll staffer, killing a stone pelting boy in Ratsun village from a very close range. In another case, a mob escorted entire polling and security detail to safety while chanting Azaadi slogans. In the latest video, army had tied a boy on the windscreen of their jeep with ropes and moved into a Beerwa village amid announcements that stone pelters will face this in future. Off all this, interestingly, the small cell phone video that caught the attention of media in Delhi was when an angry boy was hitting a CRPF man while the crowd was escorting them out of their locality. In this case FIR has already been registered.

This explosive situation led ECI to cancel the South Kashmir polls, slated two days later, apparently on the request of Tasaduq Mufti, the ruling party candidates and brother of Chief Minister.

Interesting, however, the re-poll at 38 locations, mostly in Budgam did not alter the tally positively. On Sunday 90050 of 1261395 electors cast their votes making the poll percentage of nearly 7.14%. The 38 poling stations, where the re-poll was ordered, are located in one of the militancy free belts of Kashmir. They had polled 970 votes on the day of elections and when re-poll happened, the polled votes was down to 709 votes! 26 polling stations actually sealed the EVM without being used at all as no voter came to visit. With 261 voters boycotting, the final percentage fell to 7.12%.

“It was a huge security operation,” admitted a police officer, “This was because politicians told the Election Commission that inadequate security arrangements prevented voters from coming out.” To ensure no stones are hurled, the government sent almost three companies, in certain cases more, to every polling station. Four SP rank police officers were given charge of small segments in Budgam. It looked more of a curfew than election. No stone was hurled anywhere. Not many voters turned up. By evening it was one of fairest elections ever.

“Successive governments in New Delhi have interpreted large turnouts – like the one in 2014 – as a sign of normalcy; as Kashmiris embracing ‘India’,” Harinder Baweja, an old Kashmir hand, wrote in Hindustan Times. “Will the government now analyse the 7.14% as a rejection of anything ‘Indian’?”

An image inside the polling booth without voters in Kralpora Budgam  (KL Image: Bilal Bahadur)

In ideologically split Kashmir, everything that goes off the script is usually attributed to the separatist camp, if not Pakistan. Boycott has remained a separatist tool for a long time now. The last campaign they seriously pursued was in 1996 but its efficacy was offset by massive use of security apparatus. In the subsequent polls, the boycott bandwagon either remained restricted to the routine statements or survived as a useless idea in wake of the serious differences within the separatists over its use as a weapon. Improved and voluntary participation between 2002 and 2014 was apparently outcome of this “battle within”.

Though the separatist triumvirate comprising, Syed Ali Geelani, Mirwaiz Umer Farooq and Yasin Malik that, off late, have emerged as tehreek’s new super-structure, rediscovered boycott as a weapon, this season. The situation restricted them to their own courtyards. As they failed to preach it, they would issue routine statements. Most of them were under house arrest or simply in jail. Post-2016 unrest, most of their second line, especially from Geelani camp, is also behind bars.

“Hurriyat cannot be accused of all this, they all were incarcerated, they only issued statements and sponsored strike,” Khan Sahab lawmaker Hakim Mohammad Yasin said. “I do not believe it was an enforced boycott, it was voluntary. In the re-poll, so much of security was there but people still stayed away. Wherever they wanted to vote, they voted.” Hakim said that Kashmir witnessed massive participation in 2014 despite Hurriyat boycott.

But the separatist camp cannot be prevented from sharing the credit. They took the verdict as “perfect referendum” and undoing of the narrative that the state has woven over the decades. They saw it “an eye opener for India”, rejection of “client parties”, a “flop show” and “a befitting reply to pro-India forces”. They asked the pro-India parties in Kashmir to “apologize for wrongdoings” and “join us” to secure their burial place at home.

I do not believe it was an enforced boycott, it was voluntary. In the re-poll, so much of security was there but people still stayed away. Wherever they wanted to vote, they voted

In the 7 per cent plus participation, they saw answers to many of the piercing statements by the incumbent Chief Minister, Ms Mehbooba Mufti. Geelani recalled her statement suggesting, “200-odd gunmen can’t compete her seven lakh forces personnel”. Malik said the verdict explained the 95 versus 5% mathematics that Ms Mufti made so famous last season.

“The courage and resolve displayed by the people by rejecting the election drama has sent a clear message to Delhi and the world that our goal is the right to self-determination and nothing else,” Mirwaiz Umer Farooq said. “Now, the whole world knows that India is unwanted and unaccepted in Kashmir,” added Asiya Andrabi.

Commentary on social websites counted the “defeat” thrice: the day of polling, the postponement of polling in south Kashmir and the re-poll outcome. “People finally emerged the fountainhead of power, LoL,” somebody write on his wall.

A single woman coming out of polling booth in Srinagar after she cast her vote (KL Image: Bilal Bahadur)

So whodunit? There is no clear answer to this complex query. “This loud and clear message that people sent to the Indian state in-spite of Hurriyat has multiple factors,” academic and political commentator Gull Wani said. “Political outreach of Indian state, though not yielding anything substantial in past, indicated a mild engagement has stopped completely.” He said the BJP-RSS efforts at changing the character of Indian state by creating “the other” in Muslims, especially Kashmir, also contributed.

A keen Kashmir watcher, Wani believe this is a rare occasion as the people, for the first time, have taken over as the ownership of the tehreek. “Militancy, Pakistan and Hurriyat could not do it, so far” he insists.

“The general perception that this government is a headless chicken as Ms Mufti is in office but not in power has conveyed that it is playing supportive to the Modi-Doval muscular approach,” Wani said. “Healing touch era apart, there is also a feeling that PDP was creation of the Indian state that helped transfer power to other regions without any changes in the constitutional set-up and now people are feeling helpless and frustrated. They do not see either towards Pakistan or consider talking to Kashmir.”

A keen Kashmir watcher, Wani believe this is a rare occasion as the people, for the first time, have taken over as the ownership of the tehreek. “Militancy, Pakistan and Hurriyat could not do it, so far” he insists.

Core Kashmir narrative that evolved over the years apart, there are two major factors that have played a key role. Firstly, the 2014 assembly elections that was perhaps the second most-participated elections after 1987 – the mother of all elections. In 1987, 80 per cent of adult voters exercised their right to vote. In 2014, it was 65 per cent, the second highest.

In anticipation to the elections, the threat of BJP taking over Kashmir was seriously packaged in such a way that PDP made people believe that it only can stop the saffron brigade. Once it emerged majority, it stitched an alliance with the same party, taking the Jammu mandate and indivisibility of the state, on basis of a common ground. More than two years in power, it has not been able to even get a bit of its Agenda of Alliance implemented. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had the only two options to offer to Kashmir in his last visit: throw stones or make tunnels, opt for terrorism or tourism.

The second major contributor is the rise of youth. They started reshaping things quite early but came in sharp focus only with the rise and fall of Burhan Wani, the key factor behind 2016 unrest. They killed the fear first and now started devouring the institutions that lent legitimacy to the system. In conflict spots, the authority revolves round the dichotomy of power and legitimacy. Last week, they gave a serious dent to latter.

Government forces pattrolling the streets in Budgam on the polling day (KL Image: Bilal Bahdur)

But how did the people in Delhi took the surprising developments? States do not think publicly but individuals always had their say.

“We are loosing Kashmir,” former Home Minister P Chidambaram was quoted saying, insisting the “muscular policy” was perilous. “We are going to face even more difficult times in Kashmir.”

The first provocation was the very formation of the PDP-BJP government, according to the Congressman. “It was regarded as an unholy alliance and the people rejected it,” he said. “Second is the PDP’s forgetfulness or the PDP ignoring its own promise that the way forward is to engage all stakeholders. The path that the government of J&K and the central government has taken is a perilous path. This path will not lead to any kind of peace or any kind of engagement of the people.”

Former Minister and BJP leader Yeshwant Sinha, has had quite a few visits to Kashmir since 2016 unrest. He wrote an emotionally charged piece on a website insisting that Modi led BJP government has failed on its own commitments which are part of the Agenda of Alliance.

You will see a transformed Kashmir in a year,” Singh surprised the participants at Lokmat Maharashtrian of the Year Awards in Mumbai. “No matter how the change occurs, one thing is certain, that there will be a change in Kashmir in a year’s time

“The Lok Sabha by-poll in Srinagar has turned out to be a violent farce. The circumstances under which the Election Commission went ahead with the conduct of this election should be subject of an enquiry. Fortunately, good sense has prevailed and the Anantnag by-poll has been postponed. Such elections can only lead to loss of face for us before the world community. My appeal to the Election Commission is to countermand the Srinagar by-election and hold fresh elections for that seat also as and when the situation returns to normal,” Sinha wrote.

“The silence of the government of India on the issue of dialogue is deafening to say the least,” he said, pleading, “For God’s sake, please start talking.”

But it seemed the Home Ministry had deliberately skipped the message. Though power on Kashmir front flows more from NSA than the north block but Home Minister is still a big powerhouse.

“You will see a transformed Kashmir in a year,” Singh surprised the participants at Lokmat Maharashtrian of the Year Awards in Mumbai. “No matter how the change occurs, one thing is certain, that there will be a change in Kashmir in a year’s time.”

But he did not stop at that. He attacked Dr Farooq Abdullah for supporting stone-pleters and threw his weight behind the statement of Army Chief General Bipin Rawat. On the eve of the re-poll, he concluded by a threat: “Those doing such things (stone pelting) will have to face the consequences.”

Next morning, there was no stone pelting in a vast, literally garrisoned Budgam. Of 35169 registered voters, only 709 reported to 11 of 38 polling stations recording the lowest ever participation of 2.2%.

A protester hitting at SRTC bus used in election process on April 9, 2017 (KL Image: Bilal Bahadur)

The pain is felt by Kashmir’s unionists, the pro-India parties, usually being seen as the mainstream. “It is a major setback, perhaps the first major after 1947. It is an alarming situation that has global consequences,” Hakim Yasin, the Khan Sahab lawmaker, who personally boycotted the election, said. “It is rejection of democracy, it is a new chapter that takes away legitimacy from the mainstream.”

Yasin said the youth are frustrated because there is neither any effort to talk about the main issue nor any indication that the government is serious in managing the chronic issues like unemployment. “The boycott was voluntary and widespread,” he insisted.

But why did not he vote on Sunday or in the re-poll, two days later. “My party had already decided to boycott after the worst incident in Chadoora in which the youth were killed so inhumanely that it pained the entire area,” Yasin said. “These brutal killings had an impact on the polling too.”

Ali Mohammad Sagar sees people being “fed up with us” because Delhi has not made any move that would address Kashmir in its “historical and constitutional background”. Besides, there was state government that spoiled the broth by mismanaging almost everything

In historically low poll, NC veteran Dr Farooq Abdullah sees a situation in which India could lose Kashmir. “You are losing Kashmir. You better wake up, and start thinking on not a military solution, but a political way,” Dr Abdullah shouted at a TV anchor.  “And come down from your high horses…I am seeing a very bad situation. The youth is on boil, which I have not seen before.”

Ali Mohammad Sagar sees people being “fed up with us” because Delhi has not made any move that would address Kashmir in its “historical and constitutional background”. Besides, there was state government that spoiled the broth by mismanaging almost everything.

“Earlier, there was a windows in Delhi where Kashmir policy was discussed thoroughly but that system has been withdrawn,” Sagar said. “Now Army Chief and Police Chief say it is law and order problem and everybody there (Delhi) starts believing in it.”

Rather than Srinagar, Sagar sees problems in Delhi. “They did not give us autonomy despite the two third assembly supporting it, but they did not accede to even Agenda of Alliance either,” he insisted, admitting that the verdict pushed “Kashmir mainstream to a minority”.

“It is a clear message that you cannot take Kashmir for-granted,” Communist lawmaker Yousuf Tarigami said. “This is outcome of the distrust that Delhi ruling elite created with the support of its local ally.”

Insisting that most of the elections in past have remained “popular exercises”, Targami said some of the boys who were on the street on Sunday or in 2016 were with us in 2014 because they felt the election will offer them some exit from the situation they have been living in for such a long time. “Then we resorted to absolute brutality in 2016, went to Jammu for winter and returned with the election bandwagon,” the comrade said. “When was the last time that we could sit with the people, listen to them and get the government at least address the basic issues.”

He said in such a state of inaction, not holding polls would have kept Kashmir calm. “It is nobody’s defeat and nobody’s victory,” he said. “But situation is getting highly complex and it is just not a law and order issue.”

 

 

A damaged EVM lying in the pool of water (KL Image: Bilal Bahadur)

Ruling PDP is unwilling to talk. “Does anybody know that nothing happened since Vajpayee era?” a senior minister, who agreed to speak off record, said. “Many things happened in between 2017 election and 2004: two summer unrests, Afzal Guru hanging and now a new India is in place that has created a new normal. So whatever devastating has taken place in last week is cumulative impact of many years.”

The minister who said that while NC and others are talking about talks with Pakistan and separatists, nobody asks why there was no follow up to the process initiated by Vajpayee? “This I am saying while I believe that Delhi is deliberately de-legitimising nationalist forces in Kashmir. I consider our party as the biggest victim,” the minister said. “Developmental activities are taking place but it lacks the political ingredient that was normally done in Vajpayee era. Kashmir is a place which cannot be de-politicised.”

However, the minister refused to accept that “mainstream” was reduced to a minority. “I admit it was the strongest protest that Kashmir can ever have but my worries are how Delhi will respond to this catastrophic event,” the minister said. “The larger question also is whether Kashmir can create the capacity to engage with a new India that has established new normal which were quite unconceivable a few years ago?”

Her government has bungled the entire exercise and I believe for the safety of democracy, she must go home

He said Kashmir, at the end of the day, requires self-resect, dignity, some kind of acknowledgement of its historic reality and talks to Pakistan. He fears the tensions could escalate at Kashmir cost.

Congress state chief G A Mir, who is pitted against Tasaduq Mufti over the Lok Sabha berth Ms Mufti vacated, sees the low poll as anger, mismanagement and policy failure of the two governments. “Our chief minister is a risk for the democracy,” Mir told Kashmir Life. “Her government has bungled the entire exercise and I believe for the safety of democracy, she must go home.” Mir led a delegation of his lawmakers to Raj Bhawan to make the demand.

The writing on the wall has gone beyond the graffiti on the old city shop-shutters that police erases during nights. Last week verdict is so overwhelming that it can neither become an FIR nor a Public Safety Act dossier. It is just not a warning. If not tackled positively, it could turn into volcano.

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