Oranges in Kashmir

Guest post by K

In the summer of 2008, something impossible happened. To a number of Indians, Kashmir was no longer an atoot ung, an inseparable part of the Indian body politic. That image of Kashmir treacherously manufactured by the Indian state through lies, deceit and the media, was wearing down.

The atoot ung no longer seemed atoot to many voices in India and against all odds the people of Kashmir were changing many hearts and minds in India. The loss of soldiers does not worry India as much as the change in its public opinion on Kashmir. This had to be undone, and undone fast before it spread its tentacles. The evil image of Kashmiris had to emphasized and the  non-violent protests discredited. What better than an election to do the task?

So the results will be out tomorrow, but do they matter?

A Kashmiri survives daily abuses, disappears without a trace, is raped and has no right to move on the roads of his own land, and yet he votes for the same government which inflicts pain on him day in and day out.

I have read that elections are supposed to be the democratic means of voting your representatives to power, but in Kashmir I had never seen anyone walking the road during elections, let alone vote.

In a state where seven hundred armed men are on the ready – men who follow you with the barrels of their guns, click your images while you protest their presence; beat, arrest, torture, maim and kill you – an election in such a place is like growing oranges in Kashmir. Futile.

When one talks about elections and Kashmir in the same breath, it makes no sense. Elections will only further the status quo in Kashmir and if anything, they have the ability to spark gunpowder. Remember Yousuf Shah, who lost the 1987 elections by deceit and fraud of the Indian state machinery and is today called Syed Salahudin, one of India’s most wanted men.

India will flash these elections as the triumph of democracy, but to an ordinary Kashmiri elections or no elections is the same. This eletion will be forgotten as easily as past ones – which were also flashed as victories of democracy but none of them could ever predict the uprising in 1989 or the protests of 2008.

The candidates, 12% of whom are millionaires and some of them haven’t kept heir word about quitting politics, may promise stars, but it is the army that ensures the presence of the people at the booths, often helping them press that button on the electronic voting machine.

On 18th November, the bold headline ‘64% voter turnout’ laughed hysterically at me from my computer screen, almost mocking my very existence. The Indian media played up these numbers, not recalling even once how he same Indian media was arguing in favour of postponing the elections. But that was not to be. India and its democracy had to be won.

And how. The polling in Kashmir was conducted in seven stages, which ensured enough military presence in the constituencies going to vote. What else would justify caging every other district but the one which was going for polls?

Democracy? It is not democracy we are talking about here, it is the sound bites and photo-ops for India. Images of people lining up for voting were splashed all across, telling the world  it need not worry about the Valley. It had democracy. Images of people protesting, being beaten up, the funeral procession of a militant commander that saw more people than all of the voting photographs put together; or people fighting pitched battles with the armed forces – these images did not exist for the Indian media and the Indian state. The news of the 13 year old gang raped by the armed forces for one hour, as her father stood locked in another room, did not ruffle the feathers of any Indian women’s rights groups. India and Kashmir both looked forward to the last day of elections, both for different reasons: India so that it could install a government; Kashmir so that it could breathe easy again.

Like images, numbers were also highlighted selectively. Phases one, two and seven had no more than 35% of the Kashmir region voting. Phases four, five and six had about 60% of the Kashmir division voting. In phase three, all the constituencies that went to polls were of Kashmir division only, no marks for guessing that these constituencies (Karnah, Kupwara, Lolab, Handwara, Langate) border the Line of Control and have a heavy military presence. The largest number of Kashmiris eligible to vote on any given day was about 0.9 million – which dwarfs in front of the thirty million for Madhya Pradesh.

Since June this year we saw the expression of anti-Indian sentiment running deep and wide in the Valley, noticed even by the United Nations Secretary General. But at the same time, it appears that secretly, suddenly and quite strangely people’s patriotism for India was undergoing a re-awakening! This can be the only plausible explanation (other than IB engineering) for J&K having a higher ratio of candidates-to-electorate than even Delhi. 751 candidates in Kashmir and 603 in Jammu and Ladakh, meant 0.02% of the electorate was contesting. In Delhi assembly polls, this was 0.005%.

1354 is twice the number of candidates in the 2002 elections in J&K (709) and roughly two and a half times the contestants in the 1996 (547), 1987 (528) and 1983 (512) elections. So in a year when anti-India sentiment was widely acknowledged to be the highest since 1989, the number of people in the Valley who wanted to dearly contest Indian elections increased manifold!

The surprises do not stop here. Kashmiris also seem to have taken a liking for registering political parties. 27 registered (‘unrecognized’) parties contested this time; compare this to the 8 and 3 such parties which contested in 2002 and 1996 elections respectively. Not a single ‘unrecognized’ party existed before that.

If the number of parties were not enough, the independents contesting baffles the mind, 517 independents are contesting which is twice the number in 2002 (244)! While the figures of 1996 (134) ,1987 (344), 1983 (254) show an understandable increase or decrease, the jump in figures between 2002 and 2008 merit some questions. How many of these candidates were pushed into the fray by the IB to stage-manage a higher turnout?

More candidates, more votes. Simple.

Some national parties, like the BSP, alien to Kashmir, fielded 83 candidates, just 2 short of National Conference’s 85. Seven Samata Party candidates have since blown the whistle that they agreed to contest elections, for monetary gains (Rs 5 lakhs), promised by the party leadership at the behest of ‘intelligence agencies’.

While that was one strategy, there was coercion too. The summary of events that took place before and during the polling is a chilling reminder for Kashmir as to what an Army can achieve. The army in a majority of villages paid visits to homes and threatened people to vote or face dire consequences. Anyone who has lived in Kashmir would know it is better to vote than be visited by the army.

The resentment against the army and the Indian rule is stronger in places other than in Srinagar – since the army effects their lives everyday. Yet a higher percentage was managed by threats and coercion in those areas. In Srinagar, which was under curfew and strict restrictions two days prior to the polls, the government declared a 20% turnout, though it was only 8% at noon . In many polling booths no more than 1 or 2 votes were cast and at many places it was the mobile voters who did the honours.

The local media, on whom curbs were put much ahead of the elections in Srinagar, and even some polling agents were not allowed inside the polling stations, only the Press Trust of India was, effectively preventing reporting of the actual situation. For these elections, thousands of troops were deployed all over the valley, in Srinagar alone 30,000 troops were deployed to ensure peaceful elections, another 21,000 were requisitioned just to prevent the anti-election rally to Lal-Chowk.

According to a BBC reporter in Srinagar:

Every 50 meters or so, on every main street, stand several men (or very occasionally women) armed with assault rifles and – more often than not – big sticks. These, it seems, are the only conditions under which elections are possible. [Link]

Kashmir was like a tiger’s cage this election season, in which the caretakers close the part of the cage that needs cleaning or when food has to be put in. Undeclared curfew, considered a psychological barrier by the Indian army, had shut Kashmir down for most of the last month. Human rights activist Pervez Imroz, monitoring the elections, was detained and harassed after the first phase.

As the government tried its best to quell protests, the people of a hamlet in Ganderbal sent a dog covered with buntings of pro-Indian parties to vote . The election month in Kashmir was not just about barricades, curfews and coercion, but also blood. On 22 November, two young people were shot dead by the Central Reserve Police Force. People defied undeclared curfews to protest at several places, but all we saw was images of cheerful Kashmiris voting for democracy. Any attempt at showing the contesting candidates their rightful place was answered with bullets. On 24 November, a 14 year old kid received a bullet wound for being among those who stone pelted a motorcade. Candidates used muscle and indulged in threatening the people.This saga of death continued on and off in Kashmir as Hurriyat leaders stayed under house arrest and an attempt to break their house arrest was foiled by the police.The mainstream politicians who had changed tunes during the course of the protests in Kashmir, are still singing the Kashmiri song, claiming that the resolution of Kashmir has no relation with the polls and the mainstream politicians have been promising olive branches to the people.

If Kashmiris did indeed vote for democracy, why don’t we see Kashmiri bloggers writing on it, as they did during the mass protests? Why haven’t Kashmiri video bloggers uploaded images of the return of democracy as they did during the protests? That is because the elections have been and will be insignificant for the common Kashmiri. Still, as far as India is concerned, now that Kashmiris have voted a democratic government, an violence is at a historic low, what is the need of the 0.7 million troops? Will they be asked to pack off by the new democratically elected government?

The Indian external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee said recently, “The pretence of democracy is not equivalent to democratisation.” He was speaking about Pakistan, but that may as well have been about a claimed part of India called Kashmir.

(K is a Kashmiri and a blogger.)

9 thoughts on “Oranges in Kashmir”

  1. I share some of your skepticism about how democratic elections with such an overwhelming military presence can be I am a little surprised by your reading of the increased number of candidates and political parties. The rise number of candidates, particularly independents and the new political parties could equally have something to do with a disgust for established parties and a desire to provide alternate voices. It would be interesting to see how many non mainstream candidates manage to win. The BSP’s presence is hardly an IB conspiracy, Maywati is also contesting seats in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu where she barely registers a presence.

    The reason why Delhi has fewer candidates and independents could have to do with the greater bottlenecks to entry and a domination of political space by two fairly well functioning parties.

    To be fair, the picture presented by mainstream media is that the increased turnout is because of a concern with local issues. A belief that even if the larger problems of independence or civil liberties isn’t solved, there is a possibility of getting running water.

    Finally, there is overwhelming evidence of there being compulsion to vote but is there any evidence of these elections are being rigged (like the ones in the 80s). Is there some of political choice to be made between the PDP, NC and the Congress, who seem share a difficult relationship with each other. For the entire exercise to be a sham, it would require almost everyone in public life to be part of the IB conspiracy.

    Lastly, I think we of all people should be cautious of how representative bloggers are of anything but themselves.

  2. This conspirational post refers to Kashmir and India as though they were two different countries. Jannat ki hakikat to sabko maloom hain Ghalib, lekin dil behlanay ke liye khayal achcha hain!

  3. That 62% of Kashmiris voted in the 2008 elections is a hard fact. So say that they did it to embrace the Indian democratic system, however, is ridiculous.

    Had people in Kashmir not voted in such huge number, nothing would have changed. Some political party would have come to power, a new government would have been established, a democratic set up would stilllll have been followed.

    So how on earth does their voting or abstaining from it flag a victory for the Indian democracy?

    Bye the way, Kashmiris did refrain from voting in the two previous elections. Did anything change. No. Will anything change, now, that they have. Indeed NO!

  4. Rohit:

    I share some of your skepticism about how democratic elections with such an overwhelming military presence can be I am a little surprised by your reading of the increased number of candidates and political parties. The rise number of candidates, particularly independents and the new political parties could equally have something to do with a disgust for established parties and a desire to provide alternate voices. It would be interesting to see how many non mainstream candidates manage to win.

    The only change we look forward to, is a change in the status quo – which seems to be fine with everyone but the Kashmiris. Alternate voices is a progressive term, a term that signifies change to people living in free societies; however in a state where even debating politics in schools, colleges and universities is not allowed; alternate voices, as all Kashmiris know, do not dare to come up and if they do, they do not survive. The fact that just 4 of the 517 independent alternate voices who contested won justifies that. If people wanted altenate voices, why did they not vote them to power? The major share of seats were, as was expected, won by the dynasties (NC, Congress, PDP)

    The reason why Delhi has fewer candidates and independents could have to do with the greater bottlenecks to entry and a domination of political space by two fairly well functioning parties.

    You presume the existence of bottlenecks in Delhi but not in Kashmir! The political space of Kashmir is as much dominated by major, honest to Delhi, parties than the likes of Geelani, as it is in Delhi or the other states of India.

    To be fair, the picture presented by mainstream media is that the increased turnout is because of a concern with local issues. A belief that even if the larger problems of independence or civil liberties isn’t solved, there is a possibility of getting running water.

    That might have been the case for a percentage of the population – but how at all can you justify elections when the brains in Delhi and brawns in Kashmir seem to decide who wins, even if we ignore the very core of the Kashmir problem – that of a desire for ‘azadi.’ however difficult it may be to define ‘azadi’ but it sure does not mean continuing to live with India. Some of the candidates are already crying of being used as tissue papers!

    Finally, there is overwhelming evidence of there being compulsion to vote but is there any evidence of these elections are being rigged (like the ones in the 80s).

    Elections are rigged only when to a large extent they are held freely and fairly and the master chefs in Delhi fear ‘alternate’ voices – as they did in 1987. When you compel someone to vote, you do that not in an attempt to install a democratically elected government but in an effort to justify your presence where you should not be at all. Musharrf was voted to power in an referendum in Pakistan, as are many other dictators- that is not because he could not stay in power, but just because he needs to flash the image of ‘democracy’ throughout the world, and then the debate whether the dictator should be there at all subsidises and a new debate takes place. That is what happened to Kashmir. If it were not the elections, perhaps even I would still be writing about the protests that stormed Kashmir a few months ago.
    Sometime back, the National Conference, ruled out any alliance, even though preparations were being carried out for that a long time ago and we already knew who the Chief Minister would be, that is rigging of elections in Kashmir.

    For the entire exercise to be a sham, it would require almost everyone in public life to be part of the IB conspiracy.

    You would need to have lived in Kashmir to understand what living there means. The fear instilled through years of oppression can get many things done from a people and the elections being hardly the toughest. Mufi Sayeed claims that the numbers were out before the polling had even begun. Lastly, I think we of all people should be cautious of how representative bloggers are of anything but themselves.
    I wish you think the same about our ‘elected’ leaders in Kashmir as well. A lo

    A lot about these elections will become known in time to come, but that won’t effect any change – a government is installed for years to come! A look at the stats also provides an interesting outlook on the exercise called ‘elections’ held in Kashmir.

  5. Dear K and others,
    I have been following your comments and other reports on kashmir elections elsewhere in media with interest. I would like to make following:

    1/ The people of kashmir may not like the Indian state, but they seem also to be tired of the abstract demand of azaadi being made by seperatists, many of them are highly authoratarian, undemocratic and to a large extent religious-fundamentalist. People like geelani, Asia Andraabi, Mirwaiz, Yasin Malik etc no political agenda other than anti-India.

    2/ With all its shortcomings, the democracy/voting in India allows people to engage with issues of politics in daily life. After initial euphoria, it is far more appealing than radical/violent/angey vocies of the seperatist that.

    3/ This is not to deny that Indian troops have not commited human rights crime, past elections have been rigged, rape of women, dissappearences etc etc etc. The fact is that when start seeing the potential of democratic intitutions, then even if they are angry with state and aware of its past atrocities, they participate.

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