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Polls in conflict zones: A Kashmiri lesson

Syed Ata Hasnain, a retired lieutenant-general, is a former commander of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps. He is also associated with the Vivekananda International Foundation and the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.
Published : Apr 21, 2017, 2:01 am IST
Updated : Apr 21, 2017, 2:01 am IST

Democracy is presumed to be a great leveller and empowers the very people who fight each other or the state.

CRPF personnel standing guard at a polling station during repoll in Srinagar Lok Sabha constituency in Budgam district of Kashmir. (Photo: PTI/File)
 CRPF personnel standing guard at a polling station during repoll in Srinagar Lok Sabha constituency in Budgam district of Kashmir. (Photo: PTI/File)

Jammu and Kashmir is in election mode, and two important Lok Sabha byelections are in process. The turnout in Srinagar was abysmal, and the same would have happened in Anantnag too if it hadn’t been postponed for six weeks. Of course, there is no guarantee of normal polling on May 25, when the bypoll is now scheduled. In Srinagar, the violence made more news than the turnout, with eight lives lost.

Having been associated with most elections in J&K since 1989, I can recall heated discussions whenever they took place. But none revolved around the real issue — conduct of democratic processes of any significance in an internal security scenario that has proxy war at the core. The United Nations, for instance, invariably seeks to hold elections as the grand finale of any peace process in a conflict zone in which peacekeeping operations have been in place. The finest examples are Cambodia and Mozambique, both of which had proxy internal conflicts of Cold War vintage, and ended in situations of stability with elected governments; both have their run with problems, but none of the magnitude of pre-election periods.

Democracy is presumed to be a great leveller and empowers the very people who fight each other or the state; and gives them a chance to enter an era of stability and aspire to improve their lives. It is supposed to make the voice of the silent majority relevant, and a chance for their children to lead better lives. It is also meant to iron out differences and let the majority view prevail. However, a million-dollar question always remains: is democracy necessarily the end process of seeking peace in a conflict zone, or is it a facilitator that enables the advent of peace? There’s no better place to examine this than Kashmir, which has seen turbulence and conflict for the past 28 years — conflict driven by the proxy support of an adversary, a mix of ideology and politics and confused aspirations. It’s a classic case where the democratic process has been in place alongside conflict for almost 21 years (since 1996).

The current context of the conflict goes back to 1989, but the background is too well known. Let it suffice that the trigger was an allegedly rigged election (1987), but it was just a trigger. The actual conflict emerged for historical reasons, more so due to external support for secession and internal mismanagement.

A couple of points from 1989 to 1996 are relevant. During this time the sentiment for separatism was strong in Kashmir and some other Muslim areas south of the Pir Panjal. Why was it considered necessary that Assembly elections be held in 1996 without awaiting full stabilisation? Obviously polls were seen as a stability facilitator. India was under intense pressure internationally amid the Pakistani campaign to paint it black. New Delhi had, however, weathered a serious onslaught by US assistant secretary of state Robin Raphel, an ardent Pakistan backer. The foreign element of the militancy — the pipeline of the non-Pakistani Mujahideen — had dried up. The Ikhwanul Muslimeen, the counter-group set up by India, was reasonably effective at that time. The decision to hold Assembly elections at that juncture was extremely bold, and well thought out. The turnout percentage was not the essence; the event itself was, including the installation of an elected government. Its strategic messaging was massive. The turnout didn’t prove too bad either. The years 1996-97 were crucial for India. Pakistan had successfully installed a Taliban-led government in Kabul, and could focus its attention much more on J&K. The decision to risk elections was also aimed at countering the Pakistani propaganda that J&K was in chaos. It also firmly communicated India’s resolve after another landmark event was used for strategic messaging; this was the joint resolution of the two Houses of India’s Parliament on February 22, 1994 that the entire kingdom of the erstwhile Maharaja of Kashmir belonged to India.

The 1996 elections brought a legitimately-elected government to power. It gave an impetus to political activity, but given the security situation it was risky for legislators to venture into their constituencies. In areas close to the Line of Control it was easier, and that’s where political activity flourished.

This led to the creation of the PDP at the instance of Mufti Muhammad Sayeed, adding more variety to Kashmiri politics. Where politics and elections failed the people of Kashmir in particular, and not J&K, was the inability of the political class to involve the people in more governance-based issues at the ground level.

There were few legislators willing to undertake personal risk to enable active engagement with people. The stream of elections since 1996 did create awkward moments, and some sense of confusion in the minds of mainland India.

Among the reasons for confusion was, first, the improving voting turnout percentage. Yet after government formation, support to anti-national activity continued by some who had taken part in the elections. Most of this was in the form of overground support. The Indian public largely assumes that voting in elections affirms faith in the Indian Constitution. Some Kashmiris aligned against India, however, say they vote only for the purpose of their administrative needs, but don’t have faith in the Constitution or accession to India. Second, on a similar note, many young boys turn out for recruitment to the Army or paramilitary forces every time a drive is held. It is claimed many are stone-throwers. My experience shows this is not true. There are many young people who may not have any love for India, but they don’t necessarily indulge in any form of violence. They carry deep-rooted alienation, and at the first instance of a chance of employment they shed their inhibitions; quite apart from the stone-thrower variety. Classically, this is a case for psychologists and sociologists to study in greater detail.

Alienation and dislike amounting to hatred are very powerful emotions that can’t be glossed over. Psychologists should suggest methods of communication to deal with this alienation.A lot of people believe that applying principles of rationality may fetch dividends. This means people should use elections to convey their true feelings. They shouldn’t use violence but express democratic dissent against issues they strongly feel about. This advice is, however, fine for straightforward security situations, but not where vicious proxy wars are under way.The separatists invariably oppose elections, but with varying degrees of seriousness. When they sense there is a public desire for betterment through “roti, kapda aur makan”, the objections are low-key, but at politically sensitive moments the level of discouragement is again very high.

The current impasse is the most challenging in the short history of J&K’s electoral processes since 1989. The separatists will be elated by the government’s failure to control violence as well as at the low turnout.

The Opposition parties don’t seem to mind this either as it gives them a chance to browbeat the government.

Elections may perhaps not be the best way to counter violence. They may actually provide circumstances for more violence. But elections can’t be wished away either in a democratic nation — and that is where the dichotomy lies!

Tags: united nations, lok sabha bypoll, democracy