Terror and democracy

Published : Sep 14, 2002 00:00 IST

Even as more people fall victim to the anti-election campaign of the terrorist organisations in the Jammu region, indications are that those who have realised the benefits of participating in the democratic process might not hesitate to exercise their franchise.

TERRORISTS campaigning against the coming Assembly elections have built their anti-election campaign around a simple slogan: member ka sar; voter ka ghar (candidates will be beheaded; voters' homes will be destroyed). The residents of the mountain hamlets scattered across rural Jammu know that unlike politicians, the armies of the Islamic Right intend to deliver on their poll-time promises.

Late on the night of August 23, a Lashkar-e-Toiba unit walked into the hamlet of Dodasan Bala, near Thanamandi in Rajouri. One by one, eight people were marched into a dank hut in a corner of the village and beheaded. The next morning, neighbours found the mutilated bodies of Abdul Karim, his wives Razia Begum and Shamim Akhtar, local school-teacher Babar Husain, his wife Sabza Begum, Mohammad Shafi, Mohammad Ashraf and Mohammad Hafiz lying in a bloody heap. A piece of paper was found on the pile of bodies. The note accused the family of having led security forces to arms dumps and claimed that the three women, in particular, were informers who had helped the security forces to sanitise the area ahead of the Assembly elections. It also warned that all those who participated in the elections would meet the same fate.

The Dodasan Bala killings are just one in a series of recent atrocities intended to intimidate voters in rural Jammu, a region which has seen a high turnout in several past elections. On September 1, terrorists arrived on the fringes of Gounthal, near Surankote in Poonch, and asked for Mohammad Qayoom. Qayoom, a Revenue Department official handling election-related tasks, was not at home. His children, however, were. While 12-year-old Zaheen Akhtar and her 10-year-old brother Ruksar Ahmad were shot dead, their youngest sibling, eight-year-old Ruksana Kauser, survived multiple gun-shot wounds. Just three days earlier, the same family lost Mohammad Latif, Mohammad Rashid, Zitoon Begum and Mohammad Rashid. Their crime was that they were related to a constable in the Jammu and Kashmir Police, again posted in the area on election security detail.

While many victims of terrorist killings have been proclaimed to be informers, the sheer brutality of recent executions suggests that the murders were intended to intimidate village communities as a whole. On August 26, 15-year-old Samia Begum and her elder brother, 17-year-old Abdul Gani, were kidnapped from their high-altitude pasture at Ganthak Dhar, above Bhaderwah in Doda. While Samia Begum was tortured and eventually beheaded, her brother's hand was cut off with a knife. Amazingly, he survived. The same day, Mohammad Ibrahim, who had made the mistake of working as a daily-wage porter for Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel on election duty, was executed in the nearby village of Beoli. Three days later, terrorists killed Jamal Din, along with his relatives Shaheena Begum and Shanu Begum, again on charges of collaborating with security personnel.

Almost 30 such election-related killings of Muslims have taken place in rural Jammu since mid-August, scattered across the districts of Rajouri, Poonch, Udhampur and Doda. Other forms of intimidation have also been used, less bloody but equally effective. For example, village residents have been told not to apply for voter identity cards. Terrorists often search for cards in villages and beat those who are found to have defied their anti-election edicts. On September 5, passengers on a bus from Surankote to Poonch were stopped by terrorists, segregated on the basis of their religion to emphasise their vulnerability, and then lectured about the consequences of voting. At least four Pakistan-based organisations have issued public threats against people who participate in the electoral process. While the Harkat-ul-Jihad-e-Islami has said that candidates and their supporters would be treated as "traitors", the Hizbul Mujahideen has said that they would be "punished by the inheritors of 90,000 martyrs". The Lashkar-e-Toiba and al-Badr too have issued similar warnings.

ONE feature of election-related violence in Jammu is of particular significance. Unlike in the Kashmir Valley, there have been almost no attacks on candidates and political workers. Apart from the Congress(I) nominee contesting in the Surankote constituency, Choudhari Mohammad Aslam, whose home was fired at on September 5, no candidate has faced an armed assault. Explanations for this phenomenon vary. Police officials in Poonch point to the exceptional successes the district has had in anti-terrorist operations. About 520 terrorists were killed in Poonch in 2001, almost a third of all terrorists, and 231 had died by the end of August this year. Kamal Saini, Senior Superintendent of Police, Poonch, says: "Our weapons recoveries have also terminated the offensive capabilities of the terrorists. We've hardly had one instance of the use of weapons like rockets this year."

Another possible explanation is that political activists in rural Jammu have long moved to relatively safe urban areas. For example, the Member of the Legislative Assembly from Surankote, Mushtaq Ahmad Bukhari, spends the nights in the town, rather than in his nearby village home. The large influx of rural wealth into urban centres in Poonch has had an unmistakable impact on the region. While one shop on the main road in Surankote recently went, if local rumour is to be believed, for Rs.22 lakhs, a one-marla (about an acre) plot in Poonch cost above Rs.10 lakhs. The prices are comparable to those in some parts of New Delhi. The security-related consequence of this development is that candidates and political workers are harder to hit than in Kashmir. Outside the towns, most important villages have armed Village Defence Committees, which again makes assaults on local political workers relatively difficult.

The third possible explanation for the absence of violence directed at politicians is that many have made local-level deals with terrorist groups. Local recruits working for terrorist groups in Jammu often do not share the Islamist agenda of their counterparts in Kashmir, and considerations of local politics, caste and ethnicity shape their operations. For example, Gujjar youth might join one terrorist group if members from the ethnic-Kashmiri or Rajput communities have joined the other. During the panchayat elections held in the region two years ago, local members of terrorist groups often backed relatives or influential members of their caste-communities in defiance of their organisational agenda. While several newly-elected sarpanches and panchayat members were killed and mutilated, several of these attacks could be traced to village-level feuds, with one terrorist group or the other being used to settle the dispute. As a result, supporters of most mainstream political parties today have enough local influence to contain attacks.

Such localised deal-making is the outcome of intense jockeying for power among the various rural communities in Jammu. The powerful Gujjar community, long marginalised in the political discourse, has been increasingly asserting itself. Although the community is believed to have a decisive political role in at least 15 of the State's 87 Assembly constituencies, the Cabinet of Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah has only two ethnic-Gujjar Ministers. Ordinary Gujjars have been incensed by their perceived lack of representation in government jobs and are also apprehensive that should Jammu and Kashmir receive greater federal autonomy, the community might be deprived of its Scheduled Tribe status. Predictably, in the face of Gujjar mobilisation, other communities too have responded by making local alliances, again in an effort to secure benefits for themselves.

ALTHOUGH it is hard to say who might benefit from this charged competition for power, most observers agree that the National Conference (N.C.) might have a more difficult challenge than anticipated earlier. The N.C. succeeded in winning the Jammu Lok Sabha constituency byelection early this year mainly because Bharatiya Janata Party supporters in Jammu City chose not to vote. The outcome also reflected the consolidation of Muslim voters in Rajouri and Poonch to defeat the Hindu Right. However, during the Assembly elections, such considerations are unlikely to play a decisive role because multiple secular parties are in the fray. The Congress(I) has the support of the Gujjar United Front, a coalition of seven Gujjar and Bakkarwal organisations with a considerable presence in Kathua, Udhampur, Rajouri, Poonch and Udhampur. Gujjar support to the Congress(I) could lead to the defeat of the N.C. in several constituencies it won in 1996, such as Darhal, Surankote, Mendhar and Poonch-Haveli.

However, Congress(I) politicians are worried about the refusal of former Union Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed's People's Democratic Party (PDP) to agree to a seat-sharing deal with their party. On September 3, after weeks of quiet negotiations, Sayeed announced that "there was no question of any alliance as we do not want to dilute the regional character of our party". While Sayeed said that the PDP would only field candidates in seats where it was confident of victory, the party had, in fact, put up nominees in several Jammu seats where its only role would be to fragment the Opposition vote. Although opinion is divided on what real impact the PDP will have in Jammu, the fact remains that even a few hundred votes could be crucial in several tightly-fought contests. However, one sign of the fluid contest is the recent defection of the N.C.'s sitting MLA from Amirakadal, Mohammad Shafi Bhat, to the Congress(I). Before that, Congress(I) leader R.S. Sharma had defected to the N.C.

The BJP, for its part, seems to be headed towards a spectacular debacle. The party, which won seven seats from Jammu in 1996, has been hit hard by its failure to deliver on promises to end terrorism. Even its alliance with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-backed Jammu State Morcha (JSM) has done little to revive its fortunes. The JSM, which is campaigning on a platform of turning the Jammu province into a separate state, is now engaged in a head-on conflict with the BJP over seat sharing. One major issue is the JSM decision to nominate its leader Mangat Ram Sharma from the East Jammu seat, which the BJP wants. There are few signs that the JSM campaign has had any serious impact on Jammu's political landscape, and many core BJP voters seem to believe that the creation of the outfit is simply intended to deflect attention from the BJP's larger failure to combat violence in the Jammu region. The BJP has also suffered from the defection of two of its MLAs, Prem Lal and Piara Singh, to the N.C. A senior BJP leader said: "Everyone thinks the BJP has traditionally had a strong hold in Jammu. But, in fact, we were nowhere on the scene until the 1990s. People voted for us because we said we would finish off terrorism. Now, the local party will have to pay for the non-performance of our leaders in New Delhi."

In the final analysis, the intense political competition in rural Jammu will only realise itself if people feel free to vote. Should turn-out in the more remote areas of the region be low as a result of persistent threats and killings of civilians, the N.C. and the BJP, with their relatively well-oiled party machinery, would obviously benefit in their respective strongholds. However, the fact remains that, even under difficult circumstances, voters in Jammu came out in large numbers to vote in both the 1998 and 1999 Lok Sabha elections and this year's byelection. The reason for their defiance is simple. The 1996 elections made clear that the political system could help improve the lives of ordinary people. Where atrocities by both terrorists and security force personnel were ignored through the mid-1990s, today protests greet both in the most remote corners of the region. This time around, many seem to wish to use their franchise to secure further developmental and political gains. The State seems set for a frontal contest between bullets and ballots on September 14.

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