High Voter Turnout Doesn’t Mean J&K Issue Is Resolved17 May 2011
Srinagar: In Jammu & Kashmir, a three-month long, 16-phase panchayat (local) elections are under way. On May 12, marking the ‘successful completion’ of half the electoral exercise, about 76.8% of the voters participated in eighth phase of the election. The panchayat elections, scheduled to be held last year, were postponed owing to the civilian unrest. The 2010 uprising had shaken the state administration, which was unsure about participation of the electorate. For this reason only were the panchayat elections split into 16 phases spread over three months. The All-Party Hurriyat Conference faction of Syed Ali Geelani described participation in the elections as a “betrayal of the martyrs” and asked the people to stay away from the panchayat elections. Contrary to all apprehensions and emotional blackmail, people of the valley so far have participated in a big way. The participation of the rural masses in the keenly contested elections even surpassed 80% of the total electorate in the earlier phases. It is not for the first time that the people have rebuffed the boycott call of the separatists. After the divisive Amarnath land row of 2008, which had almost torn apart Jammu & Kashmir on communal lines, a very low voter turnout was anticipated in the valley. Barely three months after the land row, the serpentine queues outside polling booths surprised many Kashmir watchers. Chief minister Omar Abdullah has, in a way, declared the present elections as a rare event, when he said: “In reality this is the first panchayat election after 33 years. [The panchayat elections of] 2000 was only on paper; more than half the seats remained empty.” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh too has described these elections as “a matter of great happiness” The prime minister’s keen interest in the panchayat elections being held in Kashmir and his appreciation that “70 to 85% polling shows that people want to decide their fate themselves and are capable to do so” sounds unusual. Omar Abdullah has cautioned that the ongoing panchayat elections should not be taken as a ‘referendum’ on the Kashmir issue. Actually every election since 1989 has been turned into a sort of referendum on the Kashmir dispute. Separatists, including militants, have on the eve of every election made all-out, rather desperate, efforts to deter the masses from participating in the electoral process. However, the people’s participation has gradually increased after every other election taking place in the state. The government is also to be blamed for over-reading the people’s participation in the elections as a verdict against separatism in Kashmir. Manmohan Singh, from the ramparts of Lal Qila (Red Fort) in his Independence Day speech of 2009, had declared: “The people of all areas of the state have participated vigorously in both the [assembly and Lok Sabha] elections. This is a proof that there is no place for separatist thought in Jammu and Kashmir.” Going by this yardstick of people’s participation in elections indicating the “end of separatism in Kashmir”, there should have been no 2010 uprising, in which more than 110 innocents lost their lives. There seems to be two parallel processes simultaneously at work. Disregarding threats by militants despite some person even getting killed, the people have usually participated in elections. And in spite of people’s participation in the democratic process, the deep alienation with the state and the system is a reality in Kashmir, which cannot be wished away easily. People with a superficial understanding of the Kashmir scene may construe it as a confused state of mind. There is nothing extraordinary in participating in elections and at the same time vying for a permanent solution of the Kashmir problem. It is not possible for the people to suspend their day- to-day life while anticipating the resolution of a long-drawn-out political problem. Meanwhile, the election of Ashaji, 52, a Kashmiri Pandit woman as a panch [council member] in Wussan village of Baramulla district has attracted the attention of the media. Ashaji, unsure of her win initially in a Muslim-dominated village, is overwhelmed. “All the votes cast in my favour belonged to Muslims,” she pointed out. Out of the 10 Pandit families in Wussan, five migrated out after trouble began in the state. Asha’s family was among the five that stayed back. “Even in last three agitations, we were not touched. Life was tough, but Muslim brothers and sisters were with us,” she said in praise of her neighbours. Asha, true to the meaning of her name, has emerged as a flicker of hope; she wants the pandits living outside the Valley to return immediately, “They should come home”. Certainly Kashmir is eagerly waiting for the Pandits to return. The time has arrived to turn a glimmer of hope into a beam of light.