A turning point in Kashmir

Published : Nov 08, 2002 00:00 IST

The gains from Jammu and Kashmir's first credible round of elections since 1977 could be lost if the Centre betrays its promise of a dialogue and the State's politicians fail to form a viable coalition.

HYPOCRISY and sanctimoniousness were writ large in the manner in which Farooq Abdullah resigned on October 17 as the caretaker Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, thus precipitating Governor's Rule in the State just as it eagerly waited for a popular government. The ground Abdullah cited for his decision would have sounded less incredible had it not been couched in moralising terms while citing the Constitution of Jammu and Kashmir. "I do not have the moral right," he said, "to continue as Chief Minister since the Assembly by virtue of which my government was in office would cease to exist tonight."

This was rather rich coming from someone who was widely seen to have practised unacceptably immoral and irresponsible governance for six years. That his statement was made within a short span of inaugurating a tournament at Srinagar's posh new golf course and barely 3 km from it only underscored the irony.

For the people of Jammu and Kashmir, the Rs.32-crore golf course is nothing but a symbol of obscenely warped priorities in public spending, and a monument to malgovernance in a State whose economic and social indicators have steadily declined since 1996.

One need not go as far in lambasting Abdullah as the People's Democratic Party (PDP) general secretary Tariq Hameed Qarrah did when he said Abdullah had been "sitting on our head for the past six years without a mandate", but "now he refuses to continue for four more days", thus creating a constitutional crisis. But there can be little doubt that Abdullah waited till the very last day of the term of the Assembly to announce his decision, and then took another 10 hours finally to convey it to the Governor too late for the National Conference's (N.C.) rivals to prepare another course of action on October 17.

Had a certain reading of the Constitution of Jammu and Kashmir alone determined Abdullah's decision, he could have rejected Governor Girish Chandra Saxena's request to act as caretaker immediately after the Assembly election results came in on October 10. He could have told the Governor that his interpretation of the Constitution would not allow him to continue even as caretaker Chief Minister beyond October 17. (It is another matter that this would have given a wholly bizarre meaning to the "caretaker" concept.)

Indeed, Abdullah had a chance to do this one whole day earlier when the Governor formally declared that he would give the main political parties time till October 21 to produce evidence of majority support pending which caretaker arrangements would continue. Questions about Abdullah's motives become all the more relevant because he has been under pressure from within the N.C. and some of his own advisers to make a bid for power in case the Congress(I) and the PDP do not form a government together.

The Governor too should have expected Abdullah's move after his press conference at 11-30 a.m. and taken such "incidental and consequential" measures as he is empowered to do virtually unfettered under Article 92 of the State Constitution. It is regrettable that he allowed Abdullah to spring a crisis on the State in this manner.

The effect of the imposition of Governor's Rule is hard to predict. It can either mount greater pressure on the Congress(I) and the PDP, the two main winners of the elections, to agree to a coalition arrangement. It certainly gives them time to do so well beyond October 21. Or, it can defuse the momentum for political negotiations and lead to widespread cynicism and further erosion of the Kashmiri people's faith in the political system.

One can only hope the second possibility does not become a reality. It would be a shame if the historic opportunity for a political breakthrough in Kashmir that has been opened up by the elections, is lost amidst crassly manipulative politics and cynicism. The mandate is uniquely subtle and nuanced. To start with, the polls themselves were largely fair, probably the fairest since 1977, although they were not quite free.

No election can be fully free which takes place under conditions of violence and intimidation, in which the voter cannot feel that she or he can exercise an unfettered choice. Such conditions have long characterised Jammu and Kashmir, for which both jehadi militants and the Indian security forces are responsible. Nevertheless, the Election Commission deserves full credit for judiciously deploying forces and personnel to minimise interference with the voter's choice, and generally for demonstrating remarkable independence and boldness.

Even the most critical of independent citizens' groups monitoring the elections concede that the E.C.'s role on the whole was praiseworthy. They include the Coalition of Civil Society, formed by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) from the Valley and other parts of India, whose detailed reports do not mince words on the (limited) coercion deployed by sections of the security forces.

The credibility of the elections was enhanced by significant popular participation in rallies, each drawing 8,000 to 10,000-strong crowds. There was even an "election fever" in rural Kashmir, where the turnout was 55 per cent. There was little stuffing of ballot boxes or impersonation (although many names were missing from the hurriedly revised electoral rolls).

The outcome would have been more representative had the hawks in New Delhi not vetoed a pre-poll dialogue with the Hurriyat and had National Democratic Alliance leaders not snubbed groups such as Shabir Ahmed Shah's.

The very fact that the N.C. was reduced to half its strength in the last Assembly, and that the Bharatiya Janata Party was all but wiped out, should once and for all put paid to the idea that the New Delhi and Srinagar governments rigged the elections so their nominees could win.

The N.C. was severely punished for its thoroughly opportunist alliance with the BJP, its monumental corruption, its betrayal of its own "autonomy" platform, its malgovernance and its unresponsiveness to the people's basic needs. The BJP's defeat is particularly important because it marks the rejection by Jammu region's predominantly Hindu voters of the regional and religious-chauvinist platform.

It is disingenuous for the central leadership of the BJP to argue, as it does, that the party fared badly because of the division of its votes owing to the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh's sponsorship of the Jammu State Morcha. On the ground, there was good coordination and seat adjustment between the two. It is heartening that Jammu's electorate voted against the BJP after the Akshardham incident in Gujarat. That event, the BJP had predicted, would turn the tide in its favour. This only goes to show that the people of Jammu and Kashmir, who know what it is to live under the shadow of violence, are far from gullible and are highly discriminating.

Among the other big losers were the jehadis who had said the elections were an affront to the people of Jammu and Kashmir who, they predicted, would boycott them en masse. The next loser was the Hurriyat itself, some of whose leaders feel chastened and privately concede that the election boycott was a "mistake". There is strong evidence that the Jamaat-e-Islami, a major constituent of the Hurriyat, and with an organisational base in the Valley, secretly campaigned against the N.C., and for the PDP, especially in southern Kashmir.

THAT said, however, it would be thoroughly mistaken to regard the verdict as an endorsement of New Delhi's Kashmir policy and its "anti-terrorist" measures, or a vote for a categorical "integration" of Jammu and Kashmir with the Indian "mainstream". More than anything else, the Kashmiris showed a strong urge for a return to more peaceful, less violent, normal life, and for the restitution of human rights and the rule of law.

Political leaders and civil liberties activists such as Yusuf Tarigami the Communist Party of India (Marxist) MLA who has emerged as an outstanding leader and Kumar Wanchoo are agreed that the Kashmiri people "unmistakably voted for an unconditional dialogue with all shades of opinion in the State, the scrapping of draconian laws, including the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), and the release of detenus languishing in jails". The electors' main intent was to install a new administration that would be more responsive to their immediate needs related to issues such as water supply and provision of jobs, roads and hostels.

That is where the formation of a government with a popular mandate becomes crucial. The Congress(I) (20 seats) and the PDP (16 seats) are ideally suited to form the core of such a government. They have pledges of support from the independent Democratic People's Forum (six MLAs), the CPI(M) (two), the Panthers Party (four), and some other groups, totalling well over the majority figure of 44 in the Assembly.

The PDP leadership has so far been the main obstacle in the formation of such an alliance. It advances the rank regionalist argument that it must lead the alliance, and not the Congress(I), because it alone represents the people of the Valley, to which all its 16 MLAs belong, whereas the Congress Legislature Party leader, Ghulam Nabi Azad, is from Doda in the Jammu region.

This reasoning is specious. Azad is a Kashmiri settled in Doda. Although Doda is on the other side of the Banihal Pass, it has historically been culturally close to the Valley. Besides, the PDP's argument amounts to an attempt to resurrect regional chauvinism that was so strongly rejected by the electorate in Jammu and the Valley. Nor can the PDP claim to be the exclusive or principal representative of the Valley. It holds barely a third of the region's seats. (The N.C. has three more than its 16). Independents and others hold a sizable chunk too.

In reality, PDP leader Mufti Mohammed Sayeed seems to be advancing the regional argument because he is allied with forces both at the Centre and in the Valley who are pursuing a parochial agenda and want to keep "national" parties (barring the BJP) out of power in Srinagar.

The Congress(I), for its part, is reluctant to make Mufti Chief Minister out of fear that he would play into the hands of the Union Home Ministry hawks and, at the same time, encourage Kashmiri-chauvinist forces in the Valley. The Congress(I) has declared its commitment to the repeal of repressive laws like POTA, to the release of political prisoners, to strengthening the State Human Rights Commission, and to disbanding the Special Task Force/Special Operations Group of "surrendered" militants that has committed excesses under the N.C.'s patronage. Sonia Gandhi in her (well-noticed) public speeches in Jammu and Kashmir said so in so many words, while endorsing a dialogue with all currents of opinion. However, the Congress(I) would like to negotiate the pace and timing of these moves.

The Congress(I) and the PDP must resolve these differences through mutual negotiation, and if necessary, external political mediation, for example, through V.P. Singh. If they fail to form a coalition in consonance with the electoral mandate, they will earn popular anger and disgust.

Nothing that has happened in Jammu ad Kashmir is a substitute for a genuine broad-based dialogue with all shades of opinion in the State, and with Pakistan. The case for a dialogue unscarred by violence both from the State and militant groups remains overwhelmingly powerful.

A setback to democratisation at this delicate stage will cause enormous damage in Jammu and Kashmir. Domestically, a historic opportunity to begin the process of healing and reconciliation could be lost. Internationally, the gains from the credible elections would be frittered away. A fateful opportunity to find a long-term solution to the Kashmir issue will slam shut.

Kashmir is delicately, perilously poised. Any resort to knee-jerk habits of crass realpolitik and parochialism will send it back into the abyss.

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