14 April 2021 12:16 AM



What 7% Really Means

NEW DELHI: The Anantnag Lok Sabha bypoll has been postponed, and of course, the credit has been claimed by Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti’s brother who was a candidate from that constituency. But whether he had asked, or not asked for it, only a completely foolhardy government would have continued with the poll process after the violence in Srinagar claimed eight civilian lives ( a ninth being a woman who died of a heart attack because of the firing near her house), injured countless others including security personnel, and traumatised not just the civilians but also the administration and the forces struggling to keep the peace.

Protestors, and as the photographs demonstrate, little children really were in the front as crowd protests erupted all across at different points, with the official figure of voters unable to even reach seven per cent.

What does seven per cent mean? What is the fine print that India is still keeping its eyes shut to? Those conversant with Kashmir, and aware historically and politically that the signature of the Valley is necessary for Indian democracy, are experiencing as former Finance Minister and Bharatiya Janata Party leader Yashwant Sinha has written, “immense sadness.” For they know what the governments in both Srinagar and New Delhi have decided to deny, that this seven per cent is a blow to all the efforts made by leaders on both sides to build a relationship keeping in mind the circumstances of history, the promises, and the aspirations of the people. For they knew that the marriage was reluctant, and needed nurturing and a honest fulfilment of the wedding vows to survive, let alone flourish.

Several delegations, individuals, political leaders have been warning of precisely what has happened in Srinagar over the past days for years now. And more so during the last three years, when Kashmiri’s found themselves at the edge of the precipice---being placed there by a government that was no longer even considering the tools of democracy to build broken bridges, restore confidence, and woo back who it claimed to be its own citizens. Instead, aggressive threats, warnings, interventions, agendas were used to provoke an entire Valley, create alienation, and then squash symptoms of that alienation with force.

Aided and abetted most by media, the centre and the state governments succeeded in further marginalising the Kashmiri as the ‘other’: the terrorist, the Muslim, the Pakistan lover---with no effort being made even by the Chief Minister to counter the propaganda with the facts. And all this while all doors remained closed, and efforts by civil society including Sinha, and senior retired bureaucrats like Wajahat Habibullah, to persuade the government to start a dialogue before it was too late came to naught.

The situation went from bad to worse in no time with 2016 registering prolonged unrest. Winter set in, and as soon as the snows melted the upsurge of anger was evident, with the governments having done nothing on the ground to make use of the opportunity offered by nature. Instead even an ‘encounters’ increased dramatically, as did the house searches, and crowds of villagers surged forward to chase away the security forces, or to save their own, or to bury militants and villagers the government decided to continue with the browbeating, and announced bypolls for Srinagar and Anantnag Lok Sabha constituencies. The so called mainstream political parties announced the candidates even as the Hurriyat called for a boycott and the people of Kashmir looked on sullenly. No one in Delhi or Srinagar seemed to have even sat around a table to analyse and assess the past weeks (2016 is probably too long back in what passes for political memory these days) and factor in the huge protests that had erupted all across the Valley, wherein even children and women had emerged from their homes to stand defiantly in front of heavily armed personnel with can only be read as a “shoot me if you dare” message.

For if they had done so, these bypolls would have been preceded with an all out effort to reach out to the people through an institutionalised dialogue with all. As dialogue cannot be by some, with some, if there has to be a real chance of success. It has to be with all stakeholders, by all stakeholders. Of course, conversely there could have been a discussion, an in-depth assessment, and the decision to continue with the ‘Kashmir minus Kashmiris’ policy wherein heavy handedness ---elections whether you like it or not, pellet guns regardless of how many are blinded and hurt, brute force etc---is taken, and implemented as policy.

So against this background what does 7 % and 8 deaths mean?

  • It means of course as many have been pointing out on the social media that the security personnel exercised restraint as otherwise more protestors would have died. But in this is also the message that larger number of deaths would have attracted repercussions---national and international---that the governments might not find easy to counter. And that the restraint is more from the last, than from the lost virtue of compassion.
  • But it also means---and this is the important, urgent message from Srinagar--- that the clock has been turned back in Kashmir, perhaps irretrievably, where New Delhi’s efforts to turn the reluctant--many would even say forced--- marriage into a democratic union have failed. And failed abysmally, as polling day has so clearly demonstrated. And while there have been always some who have opposed elections in the past, there have also been many who have voted enthusiastically, and participated in selecting a democratic option as stakeholders. Their hopes have been belied repeatedly, sometimes when a government in Delhi overturned their choice and imposed its own, and often when who they elected became unresponsive, callous and apathetic. Yes the second happens to all govrnments but remember Kashmir is a border state, with a Pakistan angle, and vulnerable to extremism.
  • The 8 deaths on polling day came from any number of protests and incidents---at least 200 according to the officials---with hundreds of Kashmiris challenging the democratic process. And standing up to the armed personnel, despite the government’s directive “use pellet guns if needed” issued just days before, and despite the very real threat of the use of force. This means that the people have taken an unspoken, but very visible decision, to resist what they believe is against their interests.

For the first time in these decades, Kashmir has moved very determinedly away from the electoral process. There has been low polling often in elections, but never to a point where the percentage is so low that even the ‘winner’ will be without a peoples mandate. The elected representatives of all the political parties have been warning of this for a while. In both Srinagar and New Delhi legislators of the Peoples Democratic Party, the National Conference included, said openly that they had been marginalised, that they could not go out of their homes in some instances, that their voices and views carried no weight, that they basically were ceasing to exist insofar as the people of the Valley were concerned. This, they all warned, in conversations with this writer, was unprecendented and an indication that democracy was going to be hit hard.

That has happened as predicted. PDP legislators admitted that no one was in their own government was prepared to listen to them, even as they pointed out that the Valley was going to witness a mass uprising that would have little to do with Pakistan or terrorism, despite the media propaganda.

The shift has been palpable, indeed visible. Kashmir that had turned away from militancy, where the youth had come out to embrace democracy when they voted in the last two elections for Omar Abdullah, and then for the Peoples Democractic Party, is now seething with anger at what the young people describe as “betrayal” by those whom they reposed faith in. A manifestation of this over the past couple of years was the increase in the crowds attending funeral prayers of militants, last rites where hardly anyone would be present earlier. These crowds grew in numbers to now what are large processions, that can only be seen as a statement of protest.

A recent and far more dangerous addition to this, is the attempt by Kashmiris to stop encounters, and chase away the forces. Hundreds converge on to the encounter site, as soon as news reaches the villages and in the past few months that has become a pattern. There is a direct clash with the forces, civilians die, and the cycle becomes vicious and devastating.

And now is this third element. Of large scale resistance to the democratic process, where a bypoll was turned farcical, and a second postponed by the authorities. The 8 dead have been hailed as martys but feed into a vortex of alienation, despair, anger that is now finding no escape.

(Cover Photograph BASIT ZARGAR)

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