Pandits Can Alter Valley's Poll Dynamics

14 November 2014
The Tribune (Chandigarh)
Sumit Hakhoo

New Delhi: Though they have small vote share in 44 Assembly segments in the Kashmir valley, political parties, including the National Conference (NC), Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), are making all efforts to lure 92,000 displaced Kashmiri Pandit voters in the Assembly elections in J&K. Scattered across the Valley, Pandit voters can decided the outcome of several Assembly constituencies if the election boycott call of the Hurriyat Conference has any effect on the polling percentage. They will cast their franchise for constituencies they belong to in the Valley through postal ballot or at 26 special polling stations set up in Jammu after their exodus in 1990 following the eruption of separatist insurgency. The community vote can alter the dynamics in Srinagar, Sopore and Anantnag where they have some advantage to alter the winning margins of the candidates. 'Most of the voters are keenly observing the political parties and their manifestos as for the past two decades they have been waiting for the implementation of plan for their return to their homeland. Though previous governments announced rehabilitation and employment package for the community, no step was taken to start the process,' said Ravi Kiran, a young voter living at Jagti. From the day J&K acceded to the Indian Union, their choice has remained either Congress or National Conference (NC) being two notable parties in the state post 1947, but in the past few years community voters are moving towards the PDP and BJP. Kashmiri Pandits since 1947: Since 1939 when the Muslim Conference (MC) was transformed into the National Conference (NC) by Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah to include minority groups in its fight against Maharaja Hari Singh, Kashyap Bandhu, Jia Lal Kilam, Sudama Sidha and Prem Nath Bazaz were prominent Pandit faces of the NC who shaped the political thought of the community. Since 1957, Kashmiri Pandits had a minister in each government which was formed in the state. Notable players between 1950 and 1970 were Durga Prasad Dhar and Makhan Lal Fotedar, both of whom also served as Union Ministers in the Indira Gandhi government. Dhar had played an important role in assisting the Indian Army during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1947. After the accession, he was appointed the Home Secretary and then the Deputy Home Minister of Kashmir in 1948. DP Dhar had won from Habbakadal, a bastion of the community in the 1957 and 1962 elections. Fotedar, who served as Union Minister and is still a confidant of the Gandhi family, won the Assembly seat from Pahalgam in 1967 and 1972 as Congress candidate. In late 1970s after the fundamentalist groups like Jamaat-e-Talaba came into existence with their pro-Islamist and Pakistan agenda, Pandits, particularly the youth, gravitated towards the Jana Sangh and later to the BJP. Since the formation of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in 1999, it has found support among the voters particularly in south Kashmir. In J&K, prominent Pandit face of the NC was Pyare Lal Handoo, who served as Law Minister during the Farooq Abdullah government in 1983, 1987 and 1996. Manohar Nath Koul of the Congress was also elected in 1983 from the Devsar seat. In 2002, Raman Mattoo, an Independent, won the elections and was sworn in as Minister of State in the PDP-Congress alliance. In 2008 for the first time in its history, the J&K Legislative Assembly did not have a representative from the Pandits. Later, the NC nominated former J&K Chief Secretary Vijay Bakaya as Member of Legislative Council (MLC). For the past two decades, the overall number of electoral members of the community has dropped considerably from the voter list of the state. During the 1996 Parliamentary elections, there were 1.47 lakh voters which dipped to 1.17 lakh in 2002. However, in the 2009 Assembly polls their number went further down to 71,000. The deciding factor: * Scattered across the Valley, Pandit voters can decide the outcome of several Assembly constituencies if the election boycott call of the Hurriyat Conference has any effect on the polling percentage; * They will cast their franchise for constituencies they belong to in the Valley through postal ballot or at 26 special polling stations set up in Jammu, Udhampur and New Delhi; * From the day J&K acceded to the India Union, their choice has remained either Cong or NC as these were the two main parties in the state post 1947. However in the past few years, Pandits are moving towards PDP and BJP; * Habbakadal, Ganderbal, Kulgam, Anantnag, Tral, Amirakadal, Sopore and Khanyar have considerable number of Pandit voters; * Rehabilitation and employment are major issues confronting Pandits; * They are perhaps the only people in India who vote to choose their representatives while staying away from their constituencies.