November 16, 2008
Lok Sabha member and National Conference (NC)’s nominee from North Kashmir’s Pattan assembly constituency, Abdul Rashid Shaheen, 63, has seen better days in politics. As he sat in his living room to address his half-a-dozen supporters, he became nostalgic about NC’s heyday when the iconic founder of his party, Shiekh Mohammad Abdullah, held sway over the Kashmiris.
“The 2008 elections are a far cry from what we used to have during the Shiekh’s time. Those days gatherings in the rallies stretched into the distance as far as the eye could see,” he said. “It is not the right time to hold elections, the situation has completely changed after the Amarnath land row and the economic blockade.”
Shaheen was referring to protests in Kashmir over the government’s move to allot forestland for a Hindu shrine in South Kashmir Himalayas despite environmental concerns and in violation of the region’s special status. The protests forced the government to rescind the allotment, triggering a counter-agitation in Jammu, where Hindu groups forced an economic blockade in protest.
Shaheen said an election boycott sentiment has swept the Valley and that the things are so bad that political parties are not even holding rallies. A walk around the town is enough to understand Shaheen’s anxiety. Pattan town does not even have a single poster, banner or flag of any political party on display.
Shaheen’s assessment found a sharp echo on a bus en route to Sopore town from Srinagar even as people seemed reluctant to talk about the elections. “We do not want elections as they are no alternative to azadi (freedom). Our struggle for freedom is peaceful and Gandhian in approach,” said Tariq Ahmed Parra, a young farmer. “For us, the bigger issue is to see the back of repressive Army and restoration of our dignity and honour.” But Parra is quick to add that this does not mean that he wants Pakistan to take over. “We will also keep them at an arm’s length.”
Pattan’s apathy towards elections is symptomatic of how dramatically the situation changed after the land row and subsequent blockade. The dispute over forest land near the cave shrine sharply polarised Jammu and the Valley on communal lines and at least 60 people died after the row snowballed into some of the biggest pro-independence demonstrations in the Valley in two decades.
The mood in Pattan is a sharp contrast to the spring of 2006 when people in their hordes turned up to vote in a bye-election to the state assembly. The election, with an unprecedented turn out of about 70%, was dubbed as a watershed and an indication of vanquishing separatist sentiment. Former chief minister Farooq Abdullah’s brother, Mustafa Kamal, defeated influential religious leader, Maulvi Ifthikar Ansari, in the bye-poll.
Prominent separatist leader Sajjad Lone believes that elections in the aftermath of the blockade are a non-issue. “The blockade left a deep psychological imprint on Kashmiris and the subsequent agitation in the Valley re-ignited irreversible separatist sentiment,” he says. “The threat of starvation and disruption of economic activities is now deeply embedded in the Kashmiri psyche.”
Sajjad, the author of a vision document on the resolution of Kashmir dispute ‘Achievable Nationhood’, said the situation is such that voting constitutes a stigma. “I am not saying it. It is there for all to see how the so-called campaigning is lackluster. The force that the state is using against people espousing a boycott is perhaps the biggest indicator of the mood,” he says. “If these anti-election people are not a threat why are they being arrested and barred from campaigning.”
Columnist Prem Shankar Jha, who has in the past been involved in the back-channel talks with the separatists, believes that there will be no or less Kashmiri turnout and that “should set alarm bells ringing for the Centre”. Jha said if there is no Kashmiri participation in government formation then it will be an open invitation to “the Jihadis”. “If the government is formed after a 12% turnout, then the moderates among separatists will lose control over the angry, violent anti-India youth who will become facilitators for Jihadis,” he says. He says there are an estimated 35,000 Baitulla Mashud Taliban fighters in Pakistan and that they would not mind sparing 10,000 “Jihadis” for Kashmir. “This is a disaster in the making.”
But the life goes on as Shaheen puts it saying the mainstream politicians have to get on with the business. “We have to make adjustments in the extraordinary circumstances we find ourselves in.” He said he is trying to mobilise people on the bijli, [electricity] pani [water], sadak [roads] and rozgar [livelihood] issues. “We do not claim that elections will resolve the Kashmir issue. Kashmir is a disputed territory as half of the state is under Pakistan’s occupation.”
In North Kashmir’s Rafiabad constituency, which goes to the polls on December 7, there are also no visible signs of an imminent election. There are no banners, no posters and not even party flags. “The mood is not in favour of elections, the Amarnath agitation has turned the clock back. National Conference and the PDP [Peoples Democratic Party] candidates are not even campaigning,” said Congress leader and the party’s candidate from Rafiabad, Abdul Gani Vakil. “Even I have not been able to hold public rallies and am just relying on door-to-door campaigning.” Vakil, who was a minister in the last government, said he has been seeking votes on the Congress government’s performance and its commitment to the resolution of the problem. “I am promising people that we will try and settle the issue by involving the [separatist amalgam the] Hurriyat [Conference] and Pakistan.
Amid the rumblings of annoyance with the polls, lies an Island of calm, Gundi Boon village in Bandipora district’s Sonawari area. The village, a throwback to medieval times, has no semblance of even basic human necessities. The village has no source of safe drinking water and electricity. “Elections are our only hope. National Conference MLA Mohammad Akbar Lone has done nothing for us and we will vote for a change,” said an unemployed youth, Javed Ahmed Shah, as he listened to Awami League candidate and slain anti-insurgent leader Kuka Parrey’s son, Imtiyaz Ahmed Parrey. “Why do we need freedom; we are Indians and happy with it.”
Going by the boycott wave, Imtiyaz Parrey has managed a decent gather. Amid chanting and singing, he promises the change and draws instant applause. “We should respect elders like Lone but it is time for him to go and the youth like me to change your destiny,” he said to his highly-enthused audience, majority of them women, who sing, “we would not even have our breakfast, the first thing we will do on the polling day is to vote.”
(First published in The Times of India)