POLITICS-INDIA: Separatists Battle Moderates in Kashmir Polls


By Athar Parvaiz |  Inter Press Service


SRINAGAR, Nov 23 (IPS) – India’s Jammu and Kashmir state votes Sunday for the second round of staggered, seven-phase, provincial elections that have pitted separatists against mainstream political parties.

The voting follows violence on Saturday in Baramulla town, 55 km north of Srinagar, where police shot dead two young men participating in demonstrations to promote a separatist-sponsored boycott of the polls.

Separatist political parties have been appealing for a boycott of any electoral exercise until there is a resolution of the Kashmir issue, whereas mainstream political parties are encouraging people to participate in the formation of a government that can negotiate a political settlement.

“More than the government formation these elections are seen as an open contest between the mainstream politicians and separatists who stand locked against each other over the issue of participation or nonparticipation,’’ noted political commentator Mohammad Sayeed Malik told IPS.

“These elections have two strands; one is the wider one involving politics surrounding the Kashmir issue, and the other involves a struggle for power wherein mainstream political parties are contesting for government formation,” he added.

Several separatist political leaders who were running anti-election campaigns have been detained by the government. These leaders include Shabir Shah, Yasin Malik, Nayeem Khan, Ghulam Nabi Sumji and others. Apex separatist leaders Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Mirwaiz Farooq were repeatedly put under house arrest and there have been frequent curfews to thwart anti-election programmes.

While most separatist leaders favour independence from India, some advocate merger with Muslim Pakistan. Separatist politicians and militant groups are opposed to the polls because they believe that elections could strengthen India’s claim over the Muslim-majority territory.

Lying dormant for years, separatism received a shot in the arm about three months ago through a controversial land transfer by the government to a Hindu shrine, triggering regional and communal clashes in the state and revived the freedom movement in Kashmir.

In July, the state was put under direct central rule after the elected government collapsed over the land row amidst mass street demonstrations and clashes with security forces that left some 50 people dead.

Elections were announced in the immediate aftermath of this controversy, though after considerable dithering. Many voices cautioned against holding elections in the state at a time when it was reeling under regional clashes and a renewed freedom sentiment.

In the end, India’s Election Commission, which has a reputation for fairness, went ahead and announced a schedule for the Nov. 17 – Dec. 26 exercise.

It was expected that the polling percentage would be low given the complex setting in the state and the repeated calls for a boycott of the elections. However, the first phase on Nov. 17, covering the three constituencies of Bandipore, Sumbal and Gurez, showed an impressive 65 percent voter turnout.

“This is mainly because the space for mainstream political parties has been increasing ever since the 2002 assembly elections,” says Sayeed Malik. “Political discourse in Kashmir has changed after those elections. Presently there are many common points between the mainstream and separatist politics — both regard Kashmir as a dispute though they have their varied perspectives on it.”

The mainstream political parties in Kashmir are now openly advocating for the resolution of Kashmir issue and maintain that they are only participating in the elections for governance. “We are simply contesting elections for governance; Kashmir issue needs a resolution and the separatists are fighting for that,’’ says former chief minister of the state Farooq Abdullah.

Abdullah’s National Conference (NC), which has ruled the state for about three decades, has unveiled an exhaustive manifesto. “It is for the first time that the NC has come out with an elaborate election manifesto or vision document in which the party talks about the need for the resolution of Kashmir issue through its greater autonomy formulation,’’ says Gul Mohammad Wani who teaches political science in Kashmir University.

“However, in the vision document much space has been given to development and governance issues probably for separating conflict-resolution from governance.”

The other main political party in the state, People’s Democratic Party (PDP), has also come out with an election manifesto in which it has talked about issues ranging from self-rule to the concept of a loose sovereignty and the need for development in the state.

“Broadly speaking, the regional political parties have sharply positioned themselves on several important and critical issues facing the state ranging from good governance to conflict resolution,’’ says Wani.

According to him parties like the NC and PDP have enough stakes in these elections. “NC lost power to the PDP and Congress [combine] in the 2002 elections after ruling the state over decades. So it would be keen to get back to the seat of power. Should it fail to do so, it faces the danger of disintegration,” Wani told IPS.

“Similarly, the PDP, which is a nascent political party and fancies itself as a viable alternative to the NC, badly needs to perform better in these elections for its political survival,” Wani said.

Wani says that the stakes are even higher for the Congress which is a pan-India party. “Congress’s victory or defeat in Kashmir is likely to influence its performance in the parliamentary elections in India next year. So the party is fairly cautious and has, in its election manifesto, not gone beyond the need for decentralisation of power and overall development in the state.”

Smaller parties, apart from laying focus on a resolution of Kashmir issue, have emphasised the need for relaxation of the live border with Pakistani Kashmir, setting up of a commission for disappeared persons and building a consensus in India regarding the Kashmir issue.

The stakes for Kashmiri separatist leadership are also high. “More than anything else, the separatist leadership has its political legitimacy and reputation at stake. They badly need good response from people about their election boycott calls; should people ignore their appeals, it would be quite precarious and embarrassing for them,’’ says political analyst Noor Ahmad Baba who teaches in Kashmir University.

Till the other day, the equation was tilted in favour of the separatists, but after the good turnout of voters in the first phase it looks as if people may participate with enthusiasm in the remaining phases as well.

“It would not be fair to criticise the separatists if people come out to vote. After all, they were not allowed to campaign against the elections and most of them have been put behind bars under false pretences,’’ said human rights activist Showkat Sheikh.

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