Democracy at gunpoint

Print edition : August 31, 2002

In the run-up to the elections, terror stalks Jammu and Kashmir, particularly in its rural areas. Its perpetrators, remote-controlled from across the border, are attempting to intimidate civil society more than politicians and party activists. Yet there is no dearth of potential candidates in most constituencies, in stark contrast to 1996.

"HOLD on a second," says the affable cigarette-store owner near the bus stand at Tral, "I'll come show you the way. Whose house did you say you were looking for, again?" But mention the name, and the offer of help instantly evaporates. Even showing a stranger the way to Mohammad Subhan Bhat's home could invite serious trouble.

In April 1991, the 75-year-old National Conference (N.C.) district president was dragged out of his neighbourhood mosque by an al-Jihad hit squad, and shot dead in public view. The former MLA's crime was that he had dared to criticise in public terrorist violence. Most N.C. leaders, from Farooq Abdullah downwards, had long before fled the State. Then, in 1995, talk of elections began to do the rounds. Many people believed that one of Bhat's children would contest. This time, his youngest son Shaukat Ahmad, a final-year college student, was kidnapped and tortured, and his body was thrown outside the family home. Six years later, in the build-up to the next round of Assembly elections, terrorists struck again. In July, the Urdu newspaper Al-Safa reported that Shaukat Ahmad's older brother Fayyaz Ahmad, a government official, was the front-runner for the N.C. nomination from Tral. On July 31, the father of two children was ambushed on his way to work, and his body riddled with 26 bullets.

Congress(I) activists during a procession in Srinagar on August 19 demanding the imposition of President's Rule in Jammu and Kashmir, which will have Assembly elections in October.-NISSAR AHMED

Few families here have paid as much for their political convictions, but the story of Mohammad Subhan Bhat and his sons illustrates just how dangerous supporting democracy can be in Jammu and Kashmir. Forty-one members of the mainstream political parties had been assassinated by August 3, and another half-dozen joined the list of the dead over the following two weeks. The trends suggest that the 2002 Assembly elections will claim an even heavier toll than those held in 1996, when a record 75 political activists were assassinated. When Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf claims that these coming elections will be a farce, he is right. What the General chooses not to discuss is that the farce bears a made-in-Pakistan label. Major terrorist groups operating from bases in Pakistan, notably the Hizbul Mujahideen and Mushtaq Ahmad Zargar's al-Umar, have issued warnings that those participating in the democratic process will be punished. For all of Musharraf's pious declarations of anti-terrorist commitment, he evidently does not have a problem with cold-blooded murder.

Much of the intimidation directed at political activists is taking place in rural Jammu and Kashmir, ignored by much of the media and top-level politicians alike. On July 7, for example, terrorists pasted pamphlets on walls in the village of Larnoo, near Kokernag, demanding that six local N.C. workers apologise for their membership in the party. All six of them made their way to a local mosque, and did as they were told at gunpoint. The same night, terrorists reached the home of N.C. activist Nooruddin Kohli at nearby Ahlan Bala. They failed to find Kohli, but ordered his family to lock their home and leave the village. They did, however, find Shabbir Ahmad Kullai, a contender for the Shopian Assembly seat. On August 3, Kullai was marched to his village mosque at Bangam, near Shopian, and ordered to declare that he had no interest in politics and would not contest. Soon afterwards, he along with his family left for Srinagar.

Such attacks are intended to do more than intimidate politicians: their real object is the intimidation of civil society as a whole. Srinagar-based journalists have reported at length on alleged efforts by the police and the Border Security Force to compel voters to acquire Election Commission identity cards. Not a word, however, has been said about enterprises to deny individuals this right. In several villages in rural Shopian, village officials have been marched into mosques, and made to promise that they will not cooperate with the project. "I've tried several times to get a card made," says Zaban-Matipora fruit merchant Mohammad Zubair, "because the police in cities I travel to outside Jammu and Kashmir often demand official identification. But the numberdar sends me to the tehsildar, the tehsildar to the district authorities, and then they send me back down the ladder again."

HOW does one account for the extraordinary ferocity of this summer's anti-election terrorist campaign? The official explanation is that the killings are part of a Pakistan-directed anti-election project. The claim, though true, is facile. The real reason lies in the deepening of a mass constituency for peace in rural Jammu and Kashmir. Much of the urban middle-class has, paradoxically, benefited from terrorism. Land-owners have seen prices shoot up as a consequence of massive hawala inflows to terrorist groups while businessmen have gained from government projects and contracts handed out by the security forces in Jammu and Kashmir. Salaried employees, for their part, are relatively well insulated from the economic consequences of violence, notably strikes called by terrorists or secessionist political organisations. Well-connected and affluent, the urban elites also have considerable protection from state atrocities, such as beatings or illegal arrest. "Most people from this class," points out Communist Party of India (Marxist) MLA Mohammad Yusuf Tarigami, "have very little reason to call for peace."

In much of rural Jammu and Kashmir, very different sets of considerations operate. Consider, for example, the case of Mohammad Pora, one of the most affluent villages in the Shopian apple-orchard belt. In April, the local Lashkar-e-Toiba unit, led by a Pakistan national code-named Abu Maaz, lost two cadre in an encounter. Convinced that they knew who had provided the necessary information to the security forces, the Lashkar handed out summary retribution. Bilal Ahmad Bhat, 15, was forced to watch his 16-year old brother Javed being hacked until he bled to death. Then, Bilal Bhat was shot at point-blank range. Two months later, the same village was subjected to mass beatings by the Army and Special Operations Group after two troops were killed in another encounter. Village numberdar Bashir Ahmad Mantoo says his home was ransacked by security force personnel, and that valuables including his television set were stolen. "They even arrested two young people who had nothing to do with terrorists," he says, "and then demanded bribes for their release."

Neither of the Mohammad Pora outrages made it to the newspapers. Here, political representation seems to offer a way to seek protection from violence, inflicted either by terrorists or the state. "At least democracy has given people the opportunity to be heard," says CPI(M) activist Mohammad Amin Dar. "Under Governor's Rule, who in these villages had any access to the powerful? That is why at all our meetings I keep telling people that they must find the courage to use their votes, whatever the risks. We have to speak out, we have to make our voice heard, or we will continue to suffer."

It is a sentiment widely voiced in the countryside, where even the elite have been hard-hit by violence. The village of Kader produces one of the finest qualities of apples grown in the Kashmir Valley. Violence, however, has ensured that the belt has no cold storage or processing facilities. Farmers must therefore sell their crop in New Delhi. Since apples perish quickly, wholesalers in New Delhi are quick to cash in on glut conditions. Even a landslide on the Srinagar-Jammu highway can wipe out a season's profits. "We need peace," says Zubair, "if we are to prosper. If things continue this way, we will be wiped out by produce from other States and countries."

Whether such sentiments will prompt people to come out on voting day is, however, unclear. During an August 19 visit to Srinagar, Chief Election Commissioner J.M. Lyngdoh made clear to officials that he did not want to see the Army operating in the State during the polls. That, in effect, rules out the kind of controversial persuasive activity which enabled many otherwise-terrified voters to exercise their franchise in 1996. There was relatively little pressure on voters actually to come out in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, and as a consequence the turnout was very low in many of the areas worst-hit by violence. A low turn-out, interestingly, would most likely benefit the N.C., which has a well-structured cadre capable of ensuring that committed supporters will come out irrespective of the consequences. By contrast, mainstream Opposition groups like the Congress(I), Mufti Mohammad Sayeed's People's Democratic Party and the CPI(M), have a less well-organised election apparatus, and would lose out in the event of voter turnout being low.

Perhaps predictably, the N.C. is attracting a flood of candidates despite the enormous risks involved. Within a day of Fayyaz Ahmad Bhat's assassination, the N.C. tehsil president Ghulam Hassan Jan made clear his willingness to take up the challenge. He, too, was assassinated, just seven days after the murder of his predecessor. Even now, however, N.C. sources told Frontline, four candidates have applied for nomination from Tral. In stark contrast to 1996, most constituencies are witnessing bitter fights for nomination, and dark rumours are circulating that some seats are being sold off to the highest bidder. Such election-time intrigue suggests only that the N.C. has succeeded in using power and patronage to widen its influence. Senior Ministers Mushtaq Ahmad Lone and Choudhari Ramzan have both faced demonstrations from party dissidents, and at least a dozen sitting MLAs, party sources say, could be replaced. Many of the changes could take place in rural Jammu, where the party hopes to make significant gains.

Opposition groups have also shown considerable vigour. The Congress(I), energised by the appointment of Ghulam Nabi Azad as its State chief and the induction of former N.C. leader Saifuddin Soz, is expected to make significant gains in Jammu. Observers point to the Bharatiya Janata Party's dismal showing in recent byelections to the Jammu Lok Sabha constituency as a sign that its core urban Hindu constituency is alienated from the party. The decision in July by the Jammu Morcha, a federation of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-backed groups committed to dividing Jammu and Kashmir along communal lines, to fight the elections had also threatened the BJP. The Morcha and the BJP have now, however, struck a seat-sharing deal, through which the BJP hopes to win back its ultra-right backers.

All three secular Opposition groups would benefit significantly from a seat adjustment arrangement, but Sayeed has been rejecting the proposals put up so far. Both the Congress(I) and the CPI(M) had suggested using the results of the 1999 Lok Sabha elections as the basis for a deal, but Sayeed has rejected out of hand what seems to be a sensible formula. Should a seat-sharing arrangement fall through, the Opposition as a whole could suffer serious damage. The threat of fragmenting Opposition votes has been underlined by the creation of a 13-party "Third Front", led by Jamaat-e-Islami rebel Mohammad Khaliq Hanif. While the one-time secessionist parties that make up the "Third Front" have little real presence on the ground, they could draw just enough voters away from the larger oppositional parties to benefit the N.C. in several constituencies. Parties of one-time terrorists, again, have limited pockets of influence in constituencies such as Anantnag and Bandipora, and this will enable them to undermine the prospects of mainstream Opposition groups.

The wholesale slaughter of political workers that is under way in Jammu and Kashmir makes it clear that Pakistan is determined to ensure that Musharraf's claim of a farce is rendered a prophecy. Strangely enough, this seems to be an enterprise that the Union government is complicit in. Former Union Law Minister Ram Jethmalani's quasi-official Kashmir Committee signalled to secessionist groups that New Delhi believes they, and not the elected representatives, have the power to shape Jammu and Kashmir's future. Jethmalani's August mission served only to breathe life into the near-marginal All Parties Hurriyat Conference, and undermined public faith in the mainstream Opposition. For much of the past six years, the Union government has done little else. Committee has followed committee, seeking to persuade everyone from the Hizbul Mujahideen to Shabbir Shah's Democratic Freedom Party to participate in the polls. Power built on terror has been legitimised; power forged through peaceful struggle devalued. With its political enterprise now bankrupt, the Union government needs to find new ways to ensure violence does not continue to shape the terms of discourse.

None of New Delhi's committees met Noor Husain Gujjar; neither will the journalists and diplomats, who have booked every upmarket hotel room to watch the theatre in Jammu and Kashmir unfold. Soon after he stood for election as a panchayat member in the summer of 2001, he was tried and punished by a Hizbul Mujahideen court. Noor Husain's ears and nose were chopped off, and a hand almost severed by a single blow with an axe. Here, fighting elections is a big mistake - and winning them an even worse one.

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