A fractured verdict

Published : Nov 08, 2002 00:00 IST

This round of elections was not a sham as in most of the earlier rounds, but it did not reflect the popular will as did the elections of 1977 and 1983. Beneath the hung Assembly of 2002 lies a fractured verdict, itself the result of a fractured process.

THE elections to the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly raise three questions with regard to their quality, their true verdict, and their political impact. Kashmir has a long history of rigged elections, bar the one in 1977. In the 1951 elections to the Constituent Assembly, which drafted the State's Constitution, 73 of the 75 seats were won by Prime Minister Sheikh Abdullah's National Conference (N.C) "unopposed". In the other two elections, the N.C. defeated Independents. On October 18, 1951, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru said that the results showed that the people "were with the National Conference and with India''. It set the pattern for half a century. In 2002, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee sings the same old tune.

In 1957, of the 75 seats 43 of which 41 were from the Kashmir Valley went to Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed's N.C. without a contest. The Sheikh was behind bars since 1953. The technique now used was rejection of nomination papers on flimsy grounds. The N.C. won 68 seats, the Praja Parishad won five.

In 1962, the N.C. won unopposed 32 seats in the Valley and seven in Jammu. G.M. Sadiq, the Chief Minister in 1967, heading a Congress regime, used a different technique. Coupled with the rejection of nomination papers was the arrest of Opposition leaders and cadres. Twenty-two unopposed returns and rejection of nomination papers in 17 others instances ensured an easy win of 39 seats. In 1972, Opposition workers were arrested. The Sheikh and his colleague M.A. Beg were interned in Delhi. Congress Chief Minister Mir Qasim later admitted the rigging in his memoirs, My Life and Times. The Congress secured a cool 57 seats, the Opposition was graciously allowed 17.

Sadiq and Mir Qasim had wound up the N.C. and joined the Congress. Their governments, elected through rigged elections, consented to the erosion of Article 370 of the Constitution by abuse of this very provision guaranteeing J&K's autonomy. (Article 370: Law and Politics; Frontline, September 29, 2000)

The Indira Gandhi-Sheikh Abdullah Accord of 1975 brought the Sheikh back to power. He revived the N.C. to her dismay. In the 1977 elections the N.C. won 47 seats. The Congress won 11. Of the electorate, 67.7 per cent voted. In 1983, Farooq Abdullah led the N.C. to victory, bagging 46 seats to the Congress' 26. In both the cases the electorate defied the Central government. Toppled in 1984, he wormed his way to power in a shot-gun marriage with the Congress in November 1986.

In 1987, blatant rigging was compounded with the arrest, assault and even imprisonment of defeated candidates. Syed Salahuddin, now the Hizbul Mujahideen chief, trounced Ghulam Mohiuddin Shah. Yet Shah was declared the winner. A majority of the leaders of the militancy that followed had participated in this democratic exercise. The N.C. won 39 seats; the Congress (1) 24, the Muslim United Front four, the Bharatiya Janata Party two, and Independents four.

The 1996 elections ensured Farooq Abdullah's return as Chief Minister. He secured 57 seats and 34.7 per cent of the vote. The BJP won eight, the Congress seven. It was a farce. Farooq Abdullah himself thanked the surrendered militants for the results.

Through all these years most of the media were complicit. Rather like the unfaithful husband who denies the present affair while admitting a previous one, the media would certify every new round of elections to be fair "in contrast" to earlier ones. Some sections of the media are at it even now. Beneath the hung Assembly of 2002 lies a fractured verdict, itself the result of a fractured process. The fractures inflicted by the governments at the Centre and in the State were ones which not even the best Election Commission of India has seen since Sukumar Sen was the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) 50 years ago, heal. J.M. Lyngdoh, the present CEC, and his two colleagues deserve praise. Not a single aspersion has been cast on their integrity or competence from any quarter. Ironically, while the past rigging sought to cover up popular alienation, the honest exercise reveals it glaringly. The fractured process demands a nuanced verdict based on close analysis.

If Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee meant to fulfil his pledges of "free and fair'' elections, he would have healed the fractures before holding the elections. Two of the tallest leaders of the Opposition, Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Yaseen Malik, are in prison, besides Sheik Aziz. So is Iftikhar Geelani whose documented analyses of the election process one sorely misses today. In 1999, leaders of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) were imprisoned for exercising their democratic right to advocate a boycott of the parliamentary elections. They were released a few months later. The APHC has been more cautious now.

Kashmir must be the only place in the world where elections are held though civil liberties are denied and the political process is not permitted. "We are not allowed to hold political rallies, talk to our people, to hold political programmes," Mirwaiz Maulvi Omar Farooq has complained. Arbitrary arrests, a host of special laws and repression over the years created a clime of fear. Fear of militants who threatened to punish those who voted did the rest. The election was not a sham like the ones of 1951, 1952, 1957, 1962, 1967, 1972, 1987 and 1996. Neither did it reflect the popular will as did the ones of 1977 and 1983. The mechanics, put in place by the E.C.'s devoted labours, were competent. Missing was the political lubrication which would have ensured its proper working.

It worked in places where the people wanted to vote for reasons of their own. To cite two critics, the Mirwaiz himself noted the turnout in Kupwara, Handwara and Budgam and attributed it to local factors. Two responsible dailies from the State put things in perspective. Greater Kashmir, published from Srinagar, said (September 18): "For starters, let us make a frontal admission that a good number of voters in the far-off country-side good only by the standards of Kashmir participated willingly in the exercise. In areas of larger population concentration they vengefully avoided polls. And it was at many such places the security forces took to their now infamous drill of forcibly dragging people out to polling booths."

Kashmir Times, published from Jammu, made (September 20) the following points. Voters were intimidated by the gun, wielded not only by the militants but also by the security forces. There was a total boycott in places such as Sopore, Baramulla and Sengrama. Enthusiasm in some places was due to "local issues". "The polls clearly had nothing to do with the political aspirations of the people, but were only linked to their day-to-day needs... . The people of Kashmir have not exercised their vote in favour of either India or Pakistan... The Centre is politicising the polls and using it as a tool to project a false notion of success before the international community. This could only deepen further the alienation of the people."

It explained that "the enthusiastic participation of people in some segments of the Valley'' do not "negate the people's longing for a dialogue for peace and setling the basic political issue." A tribute to their perspicacity that later developments confirmed the views of these dailies.

We have reports of four institutes of repute to draw on. The Director of the Institute of Social Sciences (ISS), New Delhi, Dr. George Mathew, released on October 9 a report by the ISS' 47-member study team, titled "Fair Elections Under the Shadow of Fear". Dr. Mathew said that the polls endorsed the importance of the democratic process but cautioned against "taking this election as a plebiscite" (The Hindu, October 10). He is astute enough to know that it would be so projected. While the detailed analyses of the poll process and the voting behaviour are awaited, the study team has come out with certain conclusions. The team comprised social scientists, journalists, civil rights activists and concerned citizens besides the ISS' faculty members and researchers.

The study covers all the 14 districts. The team visited 56 constituencies and oversaw the voting in about 450 polling stations. The team received full cooperation from the E.C. Forty-six individual reports and group reports by teams were analysed to come to certain conclusions.

The elections were "fair but not necessarily free". It holds that "the majority of Kashmiri people are in favour of azadi; but they are not very clear about the nature of the azadi they desire. To some azadi, is a cry for good politics and good governance; to others it is freedom from both India and Pakistan." This is very glib. Azadi, a simple Urdu word, means freedom and has been a slogan in common use since 1989. No one has had any doubts as to what it spelt. Least of all, the security forces.

The press release on the report notes: "Coercion by the security forces is a complaint members of the study team who visited the Valley frequently heard. In several places people complained that they were forced to vote by the security forces. In Sopore town, our team reported that they landed in a big demonstration of people in the New Colony, face-to-face with gun-toting BSF, with armoured cars standing in position. People told them that at 3 p.m. on the voting day (September 16) the BSF had announced from the mosque that only one hour was left and people should go to vote. It was reported to the team that when people did not vote, the security forces went door-to-door asking them to come out. `Some women showed us scratches on their shoulder, some men beating signs, one bleeding from teeth,' said the report. Since nobody saw the security forces beating the people we have to leave these statements as it is, entirely to the credibility of those who said it." But, surely, the team itself could assess credibility.

And, is it any consolation that the forces merely demanded that the people vote and did not favour any political party? The turnout was the desired goal, combating the APHC's boycott and popular apathy. In 1996 it was the N.C.'s victory. The assertion that "coercion will be marginal" to the outcome is not shared by others, as we shall see. It is a useful document, nonetheless.

What one would like its fuller version to note is that the modus operandi of the security forces was the very one the team reported loudspeakers blaring from mosques at the instance of the security forces with an air of menace. Greater Kashmir of October 9 reported from Srinagar: "Mediapersons witnessed unwilling people being forced by persons to vote. At Hali Maidan, announcement was made on mosques' loudspeakers asking people to immediately come out for voting."

NEXT comes the report by the Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra, Dehra Dun, titled "J & K elections 2002: How free how fair", by a 22-member multinational team. Its conclusion was nearly the same as the ISS': "The extent of freedom to vote that people could exercise is debatable."

There is also the joint survey conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi and the Department of Political Science, University of Jammu. It was supervised and coordinated by Prof. Rekha Choudhury of the university. A preliminary report which Yogendra Yadav and she wrote in The Indian Express (October 9) makes important points. The polls were "substantially fair" but were not "free". Militants apart, "the security forces also contributed to making the people's choice unfree". There was, however, in all respects a definite improvement on the 1996 polls.

They write: "Notwithstanding the many warnings given by the Election Commission, the security forces engaged in many irregular activities. Our investigators recorded in 20 out of the 44 constituencies surveyed in the Valley that security forces were forcing people to come out to vote. It is not clear how much this use of force influenced the final turnout figure. The turnout in these 20 booths was merely 21 per cent as compared to 35 per cent in the remaining booths in the Valley. There were many cases of security forces entering polling booths very often, something they were not supposed to do. We also came across 10 instances of security forces checking the finger mark after polling was over. But it must also be recorded that our investigators did not come across a single case of security forces asking the voters to vote in favour of a particular candidate." It bears mention here that an Associated Press correspondent in Baramula (September 17) saw "soldiers walking door to door urging people to vote".

The three Interim Reports on the three phases of the elections by the J & K coalition of civil society have been little unnoticed in the national media. It comprised, among others, Parvez Imroz, a lawyer dedicated to human rights, other noted lawyers, journalists and academics. Their remit was two-fold. "Use of coercion" and "interaction with electorate to find out why they participated or abstained". The first report found "widespread coercion by the security forces on the people to cast their vote... in many instances, announcements were made from the village mosques at the instances of the security forces asking people to go out and cast their vote''. This reveals a pattern and the pattern betrays decision at a fairly high level to use the security forces to secure a turnout for face-saving. It is no consolation that their object was not to save the Abdullahs' skin. Specific instances are cited. "A large number of those who voted told the members of the team that they did so with absolutely no prejudice to their respective positions on the way forward to seeking a just solution to the future of Kashmir." The team witnessed Army personnel of the Rashtriya Rifles taking people to a polling booth. Minors also voted. The report on the second phase found the same feature. "Those who went to cast their vote voluntarily and affirmatively said that they were doing so either to defeat the National Conference or to back a candidate who they believed would address long-standing local issues."

Among the outstanding individual reports is one by Kalpana Sharma in The Hindu (October 6) on an aspect that tends to be ignored: Why the women voted. "Many of the women openly told us that they would vote. They knew the name of the candidate they wanted to support, they said they wanted him not just to win but to become a Minister so that he could really do something for their area. And what were their needs? `Water, health care and education', in that order... What is evident from conversations with ordinary voters is that they wanted to have a say in local governance and that they saw no contradiction between voting in an election and at the same time demanding `azadi'."

The Hindu's conclusion would come as news only to those who refuse to face the truth known to the wide world. "If there is one thing the elections have shown us, it is that the Indian government has lost the battle for the hearts and minds of the people of Kashmir. Election turnouts and voting figures do not tell the real story of what has been happening in that State during this past month." So deep is the alienation.

REPORTS in the national and international media confirm these observations. But assessments are shaped by faulty perceptions. A noted television correspondent who covers Kashmir found it "paradoxical" that people should cast their votes in Handwara and yet cry "azadi". Rather like a British reporter who once found it "paradoxical" that Congress leaders like Nehru, Patel, Pant and Rajaji took power under the Government of India Acts, 1919 and 1935; took an oath of loyalty to the King-Emperor and remained nationalists, ready to die for India's freedom. In both cases the ignorance underlying the perception of a "paradox" was colossal. Supporters of Qazi Mohammad Afzal, who defeated Omar Abdullah in Ganderbal, shouted "Pakistan Zindabad", (The Asian Age, October 11).

Anjali Modi reported in The Hindu (September 29): "... in places where people stood in long queues to cast their vote, and the turnout was well over 40 per cent, voters also wanted the media to `tell the truth... we are voting... but we want azadi.' She added: "This has been a steady undercurrent in an election that New Delhi insists is a `befitting rebuff to Pakistan'. According to a senior Srinagar-based journalist, `it is nothing of the sort. If New Delhi believes this is a vote for India it is living in a fool's paradise.''

What emerges from all the reports shows how utterly false are the conclusions which Prime Minister Vajpayee and Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, drew. Vajpayee said in Nicosia on October 8, two days before the counting began: "People of Kashmir have made their wishes known in these elections that they will be with us at any cost." Advani said on October 13 that "the real winner in this election has been India" and its democracy. He promised to hold talks on devolution of power to the State; not on restoration of its autonomy. Talks would be held with the militants "if they shun violence," he said (October 9). No such conditions are imposed on Naga militants.

Even Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal, an able professional, said on October 4: "Our hope is that they (Pakistan) will see reason, accept the results of these elections, cease cross-border terrorism and see whether a way can be opened to a resumption." Thus, New Delhi screams "victory" and offers surrender terms to both Pakistan and the separatists. This validates the Hurriyat's stand. Had it participated in the polls, New Delhi would have bound it to the oath unlike the British rulers and argued that the Kashmir issue was settled. That self-styled Indian practitioners of the so-called track two should have thought to get the APHC to participate in the polls is understandable. They simply wanted to promote themselves and were merely acting at New Delhi's behest. Some of these self-important busy-bodies reported to the PMO's A.S. Dulat, others to L.K. Advani. The foreigners, official or others, who tried to pressurise the APHC, sought to earn brownie points with New Delhi and betrayed crass ignorance of the actual situation, especially of the Government of India's mindset and their own impertinence. Both sets had their own axes to grind. The agenda was New Delhi, not the lot of the Kashmiris.

Kashmir Times, founded by the veteran socialist Ved Bhasin, is no separatist, only a realist. Its verdict is damning. "The participation of a sizeable section of the voters in the polling despite threats, was hailed by the leaders in New Delhi as their rejection of the demand for azadi, their faith in India and their rebuff to Pakistan and the militants from across the border. It is also being hailed as the marginalisation, if not elimination, of Hurriyat Conference and other engaged in the ongoing struggle for azadi... The hawks are already shouting for blood and raising their jingoistic slogans as if New Delhi has already won the hearts and minds of the estranged people of Kashmir. The demands are already being made to take military action against Pakistan sand pursue stronger and more ruthless measures in Kashmir to put down violence. The election to the State Assembly for them is a part of their jingoism," (October 5). The stark reality is that the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh driven-Bharatiya Janata Party government has no hand to play at all, nothing to offer to win an alienated populace to the Union.

The Congress (I) has not much to offer either. Ghulam Nabi Azad said: "We are not for pre-1953 status." He stands put on the 1975 accord. The Congress (I)'s 1991 election Manifesto criticised the "shameful violation of human rights".

The 1999 manifesto was silent on that. It said: "The Congress is open to dialogue and discussion with any group within the framework of the Constitution." Advani would heartily agree.

The People's Democratic Party's (PDP) manifesto is different. Mehbooba Mufti rules out plebiscite but advocates talks with the militants and conciliation with Pakistan. The manifesto promises dismantling of the apparatus of a repressive state. How far will the Congress go along with that? Unless the Congress and the PDP forge a coalition, along with the dedicated Mohammed Yusuf Tarigami of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), to provide a truly caring government, the prospects for the people of the State are bleak. Farooq Abdullah sought to hinder India-Pakistan rapprochement. The new government should encourage it.

Contrary to the Congress(I)'s stand, on October 11 Mehbooba Mufti said: "If we are in the coalition, our first thing would be for the negotiations with the people of Kashmir to settle the Kashmir issue with order and dignity. The militant groups and their political leaderships as well as other leaderships" should be involved (Greater Kashmir, October 12, 2002).

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment