Civic poll boycott should force a rethink on Kashmir policy by New Delhi, Ahmad Riyaz writes

People casting their votes during ULB polls in Kashmir. Pic credit: Basit Zargar

A predominant boycott of the municipal bodies polls in Kashmir has yet again underlined the deep sense of alienation prevailing in Kashmir. Despite all the government preparation and security bandobast, barely one percent of people exercised their franchise in Srinagar. There was some meagre polling in other parts of the Valley too. Only exception was the north Kashmir district of Kupwara, townships of Sumbal and Uri. Still, the average percentage of polling in Kashmir valley has been abysmal.

This was despite the fact that from second phase onward, the government decided to start polling at 6 am to enable people to vote in secrecy. The idea was that more people would be encouraged to vote under the cover of darkness. But it still did not work – albeit it did help the percentage lift by a few infinitesimal percentage points.

Some facts about the first phase were shocking: No vote was cast in 92 of the 149 wards. In 69 wards, candidates were elected unopposed. There was no candidate in 23 wards.

One thing that stands out is that the civic polls have been largely boycotted in the Valley, if not in Jammu and Ladakh regions. And this is something that has not happened in the Valley since 1996 when Assembly elections were held first time after the outbreak of the armed separatist movement in 1989.

Interestingly, there was overwhelming participation in Assembly polls held immediately after the mass unrests of 2008 and 2010. In fact, more than 80 percent of the people cast their ballot during Panchayat polls held in 2011, defying Hurriyat boycott call. This was stunning considering only a few months ago, the Valley had witnessed a five-month separatist revolt in which 120 youth lost their lives.

Only exception to this rule was the last year’s Srinagar parliamentary by-poll when not only did people largely boycotted but the exercise was also resisted, leading to the killing of eight people. That too happened in central Kashmir’s Budgam district which has largely been peaceful over the past decade.

True, boycott of the exercise by the National Conference and Peoples Democratic Party was a factor, but not necessarily in terms of ensuring the boycott. The boycott of polls is occasioned by the politics of the conflict and a conscious decision of the people to stay away from the exercise to make a political point. And this time the people have been loudest in declaring where their sympathies lie.

This is a profoundly telling development. If anything it starkly shows how the policies of the BJP-led government have completely alienated Kashmir. Four-and-a-half-years is a long time for a policy to bear fruit. And if we go by the current situation, the Doval Doctrine has only ended up deepening the disaffection in Kashmir. Never before has the gulf between the government and the people widened to such an unbridgeable level.

The widespread poll boycott has now put a question mark over the next year’s general election. There is a fear that if the grassroots exercise like municipal and panchayat polls go un-participated, it is unlikely that the Lok Sabha elections will see any voting.

This should be a moment of introspection for New Delhi. The boycott of elections in Kashmir is now more a result of the people’s own initiative than a response to the boycott call by the Hurriyat and militants.

This calls for a serious rethink by New Delhi about its approach to Kashmir. And if any policy has made a redeeming difference, it was a policy of reconciliation and engagement toward Kashmir and Pakistan pursued by New Delhi from 2002 onward to 2007. Ironically, the policy was begun by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a BJP leader, and taken forward by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh through his first term. The policy had greatly reduced militancy in Valley and helped build a momentum toward the resolution of Kashmir. If anything is urgently needed to address today’s Kashmir situation, it is to return to the same processes and policies.  We urgently need a reversal of Doval Doctrine on Kashmir and the resumption of the engagement with the State.  The boycott of the civic polls should be a wake-up call for the Government of India to drastically alter its approach to the State. But time the for such a policy shift may already be too late. With elections only a few months away, New Delhi is unlikely to revise its outlook on the State.

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