A medley of factors, far more complex, would have contributed to people’s decision to boycott elections. In Kashmir, there is always more than what meets the eye, Suhail Ahmad writes.
Despite massive deployment of police and paramilitary forces, the by-elections for Srinagar parliamentary constituency on April 9 turned out to be one of the bloodiest polling days in Kashmir’s history. As many as eight civilians, mostly youngsters, were killed and around 140 injured in the firing of government forces as they responded to the poll boycott through the barrel of the gun. And if it was not enough, the dismal 2 percent turnout during April 13 re-polls reinforced the boycott.
After the April 9 embarrassment, the government was in damage control mode and conducted re-polling at 38 booths of Budgam district under massive security blanket, but to no avail. As it turned out, the voting percentage in the re-polls was even more humiliating.
The situation would certainly have a bearing on the turnout, but one should not miss the strong political statement made by people in the 15 assembly segments of the Srinagar parliamentary constituency.
Many simplistic interpretations will emerge after Sunday’s turnout. But a medley of factors, far more complex, would have contributed to people’s decision. It would be too naïve to draw a one-dimensional conclusion. Besides, attributing the low turnout to one particular factor means we are ruling out other possible and significant causes.
Some may argue that it is a mandate against India, but one cannot also deny that the boycott may very well have been aimed against the local pro-India politicians who conveniently shift blame to New Delhi to save their skin whenever public anger erupts in the valley.
The government may attribute the dismal turnout to violence perpetrated in the name of poll boycott as Chief Electoral Officer seemed to suggest in his press briefing: “Today was not a good day for us. There were more than 200 incidents including stone pelting, petrol bomb attacks, a polling booth was set ablaze, private vehicle and SRTC vehicles were attacked, EVMs were damaged and firing on protestors while some polling booths had to be closed down temporarily,” CEO Shantmanu told reporters.
This version gives the establishment an excuse of blaming separatists and their boycott call for sabotaging the elections. The fear factor cannot be ruled out, but it would be too simplistic a reason to suggest that people did not cast votes only for fear of reprisal attacks.
The separatists on the other hand may pat their back for what appears like a successful poll boycott call. But again their anti-election campaigns also cannot be solely credited for the boycott. Election-boycott call was also given in 2008 but it did not have the widespread impact as was expected after the summer of massive public rallies. So there is no credible precedence to suggest that people’s voting or non-voting behaviour is dictated by the stance of separatist leadership.
At the same time, it is too early to generalise anything as Anantnag parliamentary constituency is yet to go to polls, slated for May 25, though central Kashmir is more likely to have set the tone for polling in South Kashmir.
Coming back to the low turnout, what makes it even more significant is the way successive Indian governments have used polling percentages in the past. The Indian establishment has an obvious vested interest in securing high voter turnout in Kashmir to justify its rule in the valley, even if it means employing manipulative tactics.
In his book “Chronicle of an impossible election — The Election Commission and the 2002 Jammu and Kashmir Assembly Elections”, former Chief Election Commissioner of India, James Michael Lyngdoh talks about the unique challenge of holding elections in Kashmir in the backdrop of the general cynicism among Kashmiris regarding the credibility of elections.
Lyngdoh admits that except in 1977, when a credible election was held under the Janata regime, the polls in Kashmir have been far from fair. The 1987 assembly election was the worst with massive rigging by the ruling National Conference-Congress alliance. It eroded democratic space and led to rise of militancy. Lyngdoh’s book also mentions how Farooq Abdullah’s NC government and the state bureaucracy tried to prevent the Election Commission from carrying out electoral reforms.
The 2002 assembly elections were supposed to undo the damage done to the image of elections in Kashmir valley. The elections had to be credible to re-establish the Indian writ in a more democratic manner and eliminate militancy in the process. Held amid the dominance of militancy, the polls unexpectedly transformed the political landscape of the state by bringing People’s Democratic Party (PDP) to power, of course with the help of Congress support.
One would expect the public mood at that time to be more receptive towards India’s initiatives. However, as Lyngdoh also mentions, a post-poll survey conducted by the Delhi based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies showed that 80 per cent of the respondents in the Valley wanted a reunited and independent Kashmir. Some people may in fact hold that post-poll survey to be more credible than the actual election results. The fact is that the voter turnout is not as simple and conclusive affair as it appears. In Kashmir, there is always more than what meets the eye.