Who or What is Kashmir Voting For?
Young voters in Kashmir
NEW DELHI: Jammu and Kashmir elections are drawing to a close and while defeat and victory cuts into the debate and discussion, it does not take away from the Kashmir Valley’s constant assertion: we are not voting for India, we are voting so that our daily lives---flood relief, roads,electricity-- are taken care of by a government.
This has been the source of a constant clash between the electorate in Kashmir and the political parties seeking their vote. The boycott call by the separatists yielded results in the past as the voters agreed with the argument that casting the ballot in large numbers would give credence to New Delhi’s claim that the Kashmiri’s were not alienated and fully supported the central government and Indian democracy.
This time, for reasons that the young people have been explaining to this writer in conversation through the elections, they decided to vote for two reasons: one, unlike the older generation they are not prepared to live in utterly abysmal conditions, and the floods in particular have jolted the need for a government that can provide relief and rehabilitation to the victims who are still waiting to begin their lives. And two, because in their minds the struggle for ‘azadi’ is completely independent of a government in place to provide the “daily requirements” that are necessary to live. The high turnout has emerged, thus, from a pragmatic approach that is laced with the determination to keep the Bharatiya Janata party and its promise to abrogate Article 370 out of the Valley.
Significantly, again Article 370 is not seen by the youth---not even those attached to the mainstream political parties---as an end in itself. In fact as most of them spoken to said in what is clearly a consensus, “we are not interested in this Article, but if it is revoked then the situation will be even worse.” And here most of them pointed to the campaign carried out by the non-BJP political parties speaking of a demographic change in the Valley whereby “outsiders” would be allowed to purchase land and settle within. It must be pointed out that this fear cuts across the mountains with even Himachal Pradesh having laws in place to prevent Indians from other states buying property there.
The voice of the Kashmir Valley of course is not being heard here, and as the statements from senior Ministers shows there is a deep reluctance to understand and factor in the reason for the vote. Union Defence Minister Manohar Parikkar hailed the high turnout as support for India. Minister of state for Parliamentary Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi saw the elections as a “challenge” between peace and terrorism. Prime Minister Narendra Modi told an election rally at Vijaypur in Jammu that the youth of the state don’t want Ak-47s but an Android in their hands. He said that the state voters had shown the world that the ballot is more powerful than a bullet.
The Indian media, taking a cue from the ruling party as it did earlier from the Congress party in government, has also insisted that the voters of Jammu and Kashmir have snubbed the separatists boycott call and voted for Indian democracy. Television channels in particular have been hailing the high turnout as a sign of Kashmiri support for the elections and democracy.
The politicians, perhaps, are right in saying that the youth of Jammu and Kashmir does not want violence. And is not keen to pick up the gun. That has been the case always, except for a brief interlude in the 1990’s which neither New Delhi nor Srinagar has really recovered from. But the youth are absolutely clear in their minds about the reason for the vote, and the fact that the ballot in “no way casts a shadow over the struggle for freedom and rights.” Not a single young person---man or woman---said otherwise, with some of course more virulent than the others. And unlike the older generation the fear that the vote will create ambiguity for the ‘struggle’ does not worry the youth, that is categorical that a government in place “will not take away from our assertion for our rights and our future.”
The regional political parties in the fray have understood this. And both the Peoples Democratic Party and the National Conference have made it clear that they understand the nature of the vote entirely. PDPs Naeem Akhtar rejected the BJP position maintaining, “we do not endorse such a view. We have made it clear in our manifesto that we should use democratic ways to resolve Kashmir problem.” He was clear that the Kashmir issue remained independent of the Assembly elections.
National Conference leader Mustafa Kamal also said even more categorically perhaps, “The fact is that that people have voted for the first time in local elections. They have been doing it since 1947. It is not a vote for Indian democracy.” He said Kashmir is a dispute in the Indian sub-continent and has been recognized as such by the United Nations and the world community. “New Delhi may project elections the way they suit it, but it cannot be substitute to what separatists called plebiscite. I totally reject the view of BJP. No matter what, elections can’t change the disputed status of Kashmir,”he said.
Kamal said the people have turned up in large numbers to vote against the “communal party and its political pursuits” in Kashmir. “We can’t merge with India. The dispute has to be solved between India and Pakistan,” he said.
Significantly, the Congress party that had adopted the same position as the BJP when in power has now joined the others in attacking it. Congress leader Abdul Gani Vakil said, “this voting is not a referendum. It is a vote for development and change. In his view “BJP is living in a fool’s paradise by making such claims.”
This has been the buzz through Kashmir, and over the hyperactive social media. The Kashmir youth have been debating the message from these polls at length, and have made it very clear to the candidates and the political parties in the fray that the reason for their vote has to be respected. The PDP and NC in competitive combat, have openly recognised the barrier whereby the youth have kept the issue separate from the vote. And have been repeatedly saying that they feel the need for a government so that issues to do with their daily lives are addressed more efficiently than in the past.
The voters have also not gone along with the argument of All Parties Hurriyat Conference leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani and other separatists that there is no difference between the BJP and the other political parties. Geelani had told The Citizen earlier that he would insist on the boycott as “we have been opposing all the other parties and if the BJP comes to power we will oppose and agitate against it as well.” The voters, however, have been “wiser” as a Congress leader here said. “They have voted the BJP out of the Valley and thereby prevented other issues such as demography from complicating their already troubled lives,” he said.
The BJP, from reports from the state, is not likely to open an account in Kashmir if Habba Kadal also registers a better turnout than it has in past elections. Reports from Ladakh for the four Assembly seats do not seem to be favouring the BJP either at this point in time. Jammu region thus is important and crucial for the BJP’s standing in the sensitive border state.