Kashmir's democratic catharsis

About the author
Riyaz Wani is a Kashmir-based journalist and reporter for India’s prestigious national daily The Indian Express

In the summer of 2008, Indian Kashmir reverberated with the groundswell of protest. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets, heeding the call of the separatist conglomerate, the Hurriyat Conference. This was the first time after the initial years of two decades of armed conflict that Kashmiris reverted to the method of peaceful political agitation, loudly turning their backs on the gun. (The immediate provocation for the protest was the transfer of state land to a Hindu trust which facilitates the annual pilgrimage to the ancient shrine of Shri Amarnath in the Himalayas. The decision stirred the deep local suspicion of a larger design to undermine the Islamic character of the troubled, Muslim-majority Valley of Kashmir.)

To handle the protests, the state government took recourse to curfews and stringent security measures, which shut the Valley down for almost three months. Yet the most effective way of dealing with the protests - and the underlying mistrust of New Delhi that they stemmed from - was not through the baton but the ballot. Elections for the state assembly in December 2008 were revelatory.

Initially, observers feared the worst for the polls. Major regional pro-New Delhi parties like National Conference (NC - the opposition party at the time), People's Democratic Party (PDP - the then ruling party) and the Congress itself (India's ruling party) squared up for a tough electoral battle. But the seething "separatist" summer seemed to have driven these establishment and more conciliatory parties to the fringes of the Valley's political landscape. Hurriyat, which saw the state polls as designed to strengthen India's "occupation" of Kashmir, called for the boycott of the exercise. In the lead up to the vote on 17 November, it seemed that the force of recent popular protest would leave the polling booths relatively empty. Instead, turnout shocked everybody. Booth after booth, long waving queues of people waited for hours in the winter chill to cast their votes. An estimated 63 per cent of voters (around three million out of the 4.8 million eligible voters) cast their votes, which was by far the highest turnout recorded in the Valley in the past 20 years.

The separatists were stunned, as were most observers of the crisis in Kashmir, a state in the throes of secessionist violence since 1989. The same people who fought the system in the summer voted for it in the winter. The struggle against Indian rule had gone hand-in-hand with participation in democratic elections, even though the former and the latter apparently stood in opposition to each other.

The assembly elections had a significant discourse-changing effect within Kashmiri politics. Suddenly, separatist figures who rode high on the long summer of discontent were pushed to the margins of the state's political life and the pro-India mainstream parties like NC and PDP hurtled back to centre-stage (the NC won the plurality of seats, and formed a coalition government with the Congress). It goes without saying that a free and fair election can usher in profound political transformation in any society. What's more remarkable is that the democratic electoral process within the long-running conflict situation in Kashmir has proven therapeutic too.

The election in December 2008 isn't the only one that nudged Kashmir along a different track. In 2002, Kashmir assembly polls were held in a situation of unremitting militant violence. The state was still reeling from the destabilizing consequences of the short India-Pakistan war in 1999 over the Kargil heights. The continuing insurgency inside Kashmir intensified with fidayeen attacks and suicide bombs becoming routine. But the election in 2002 - which was the first cleanly-held exercise in the state's entire democratic history - made a significant, redeeming difference. In a spectacular change in its Kashmir strategy, New Delhi finally agreed to hold a free and fair election in the state as an effort to both clear its name of past wrong-doing and to undermine the ideology and popularity of the separatists.

Democratic processes in Kashmir at the time lacked all credibility. Successive elections in the state had been rigged to suit New Delhi's chosen allies and political outfits. In 1987, the ruling NC was allowed to manipulate the election in its favour when all indications pointed towards the triumph of Muslim United Front, an alliance of largely religious parties led by the Jamaat-i-Islami. The same practice was followed in 1996, when the Indian army coerced people to vote to boost the turnout in what remained a mostly boycotted election, with less than 20 percent of eligible Kashmiris voting. All the polls from 1953 through 1975 also share in this history of manipulation, with local governments being imposed and dismissed at the will of the Indian government. Such a rich tradition of orchestrating from New Delhi sparked the outrage that fed into a violent secessionist movement in 1989 (which was only abetted and transformed into a more Islamist insurgency later in the 1990s with the spill-over of Afghanistan-hardened mujahideen fighters after the triumph of the Taliban).

Yet the effect of the 2002 polls was striking. The election for the first time dislodged the NC and ended its fifty year-old monopoly over Kashmir. And the beneficiary of this urge for change was the PDP - then just six years old - led by a former home minister of India, Mufti Muhammad Sayeed. The result was cathartic for the long pent up democratic aspirations in Valley. The realization that Kashmiris could actually change governments through the ballot gave the otherwise alienated people a fresh stake in the system. Everybody in the Valley expected the NC to ride back to power on New Delhi's support. But relatively high turnout (44 percent) set in motion a sea change in Kashmiri politics.

While the verdict of the election came as a relief to Kashmiris, it was something of the opposite for many politicians. Realizing that political power in Kashmir was now flowing from the people rather than from the will of New Delhi, politicians had to become more responsive to local issues and aspirations. Political parties which until now exclusively represented New Delhi 's interests in Kashmir began to better accommodate the Valley's grassroots discourse. The PDP, which was part of a six year rotational coalition government with Congress, focused on improving governance and security while deftly straddling the Valley's mainstream-separatist political divide.

The separatist strand, as embodied by the likes of the pro-Pakistan Hurriyat Conference, remained important within Kashmir's political landscape. But pro-India mainstream parties, particularly PDP, made deep inroads for the first time into undermining the political appeal of the separatists. They incorporated much of the agenda of the separatists, but stopped well short of the conventional rhetoric that calls for independence from India. PDP was in the forefront of this new politics, criticising the much-loathed Armed Forces Special Powers Act, seeking a reduction in the security presence of the state and demanding an acceptable settlement between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. The reconfigured platforms found resonance with Kashmiris, and helped consolidated a mainstream mass base in the state.

PDP rule resulted in the rise of a representative political mainstream with strong indigenous moorings, that responded to local discussion and debate and helped dissipate the accumulated public anger which decades of political stonewalling had created. The party worked to make the security forces more accountable for their treatment of civilians. It also reined in the dreaded "Special Operation Group" of the Kashmir police which was responsible for gross human rights violations in the state. It released a number of detained separatists as part of its "Healing Touch" policy. Under the weight of increasing democratization within Kashmir, the hardline positions of several separatist parties began to crumble. Unnerved by the resurrected relevance of the mainstream parties, separatists have steadily moved towards a more pragmatic articulation of their demands.

It has become increasingly common to hear talk of flexible solutions to the Kashmir crisis, which accommodate changing global realities (including India's rise on the international stage and Islamabad's growing willingness to compromise on Kashmir ). And one major separatist Sajjad Lone, hoping to remain relevant, controversially decided to enter electoral politics, unsuccessfully contesting in the recent national parliamentary election.

The past seven years of the democratic experience in Kashmir - albeit still flawed in many respects - encourages the belief that an environment of conflict and division can be improved if a democratic outlet is made available. Democratic processes may not overhaul the fundamental crisis or counter the daily motions of insurgency and repression, but they have more subtly softened the sources of discord, tempering their intensity.

In India's case, Kashmir may not be the only example of the utility of democracy within conflict. Seventeen years ago, an election in Punjab - the western Indian state that endured an armed, separatist Sikh campaign through the 1980s - made a substantial difference to the affairs of the troubled state.

This change was duly noted in the contemporary readings of the poll, and a parallel was forged. As Sumeet Ganguly writes in Crisis in Kashmir, "The (Punjab) state elections of 1992, which followed five years of insurgency and direct rule from New Delhi , resulted in extremely low voter turnout but did bring to power a legally constituted government. The subsequent local elections produced extra-ordinarily high turnouts - more than 80 per cent of the eligible voters". This is a trajectory that emerged in Kashmir too, with the middling turnout in 2002 polls leading to more than 60 per cent polling in the 2008 assembly polls. A democratic process that has generally made right and responsive noises, delivered on broad parameters of governance - no doubt with some glaring failures now and then - has simultaneously engaged and battled the separatist discourse. This has even caused the separatists to begin to find their own democratic moorings and appreciate the new ground realities. Now it is incumbent upon India and Pakistan , the state stakeholders in the conflict, to build on these developments and pursue a meaningful settlement.