Can Electoral Politics Envisage Resistance? 

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by Muhammad Tahir

On Wednesday, January 9, 2019, well-known Kashmiri bureaucrat Shah Faesal announced his resignation from Indian Administrative Service (IAS) on Facebook, citing “the unabated killings in Kashmir, and lack of any sincere reach-out from the Union Government”. Faesal seems to be mulling over joining the electoral politics. Since October 2018, there were speculations rife that he was preparing to join the National Conference along with former JNU student activist Shehla Rashid. But, keeping his cards close to his chest, he said on last Thursday that what he will do next “also depends on what people of Kashmiri want me to do. More so the youth. I have an idea how I can do it. I am sure you have ideas too and you want me to factor those ideas in before I take a final decision”.

Dr Shah Faesal (IAS)

This article will expound in some detail the merits and demerits of his idea, which he nebulously outlined in his January 8, Facebook post, wherein he said that he wants to work within the space, which he describes as “some sort of hazy, suspicious, dreadful middle-ground, intersecting resistance and collaboration”. What he alluded is, essentially, analogous to what Nicole Watts calls ‘representational contention’. Let me explain.

Electoral Politics And Resistance

Nicole F Watts (2006, p. 126) argues that “electoral politics can constitute an important and distinct repertoire of contention in a less-than-fully democratic state”. Based on her research on the pro-Kurdish movement, she looks at the participation of the Kurdish activists in Turkey’s institutional and electoral politics and suggests that between 1990 and 2005 such participation allowed the Kurdish movement to create a vital space for its survival, reinforcement, and propagation. Becoming part of the representative institutions, the pro-Kurdish activists could get access to wider audiences (local and international media, the EU diplomats), build organisational infrastructure, organise public gatherings through state institutions, and crucially, have legal protection from prosecution. They created opportunities and resources for pro-Kurdish symbolic politics.

Watts says that although during the 1990s the PKK had become weaker and its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, was imprisoned, the Kurdish movement nevertheless survived because of the pro-Kurdish representative contention. Initially, pro-Kurdish political parties faced obstructions—when the Turkish Constitutional Court closed them—but, in the April 1999 municipal elections, they went on to win in 13 provinces, and gained control of 37 mayoral seats (including in the largest city of southeast Turkey, Diyarbakir). Such big electoral success was once again repeated by the pro-Kurdish parties in the 2004 elections.

The scene of Assembly when the lawmakers were fighting with each other, literally a Dangal in the house

Enjoying the legislative immunity (and hence enlarged the freedom of expression), the pro-Kurdish legislators vigorously articulated the Kurdish grievances and political claims. As Watts (p. 134) says, using institutional avenues and platforms, the Kurdish deputies contributed “to a rapid and dramatic shift in public discourse in which pro-Kurdish claims would become a common feature of political life”. Having taken control of several important municipalities, the Kurdish councillors were able to organise big Newroz (Kurdish new year) events, which hitherto had been regularly suppressed by the state—since the festival was considered as “a potent symbol of Kurdish nationalism”.

In 2001, the Diyarbakir municipality even incorporated into a three-volume history of the city new sections related to Kurds, including mention of the first Kurdish nationalist uprising, the Sheikh Said rebellion of 1925. Earlier, in June 2000, a pro-Kurdish mayor had changed the names of 200 streets in the city of Batman, rechristening some of them after important Kurdish events and leaders.

Recognising the significance of representational contention, the Diyarbakir mayor, Feridun Celik, would later remark: “Mayoralty should not only be seen as collecting garbage and investing in infrastructure. We have assumed a political mission and our grassroots have political aspirations”.

Yet, in the course of this political mission, the pro-Kurdish activists and deputies and mayors continued to face state repression. Before the April 1999 elections, dozens of HADEP (Halkin Demokrasi Partisi) members were jailed. In February 2000, Celik along with two other mayors was arrested for aiding separatist rebels. There was increasing pressure on other pro-Kurdish office holders from the state, some were forced to resign, some were debarred from contesting elections for life.

What are the odds for ‘representative contention’ in Kashmir?

Since in semi-democratic states the freedom of expression and free assembly is severely constrained, Watts sees representative contention as “important middle-ground activism” where activists who participate in it negotiate a thin line between formal and informal resistance—though, the armed and unarmed components of the resistance movement are distinct in terms of their functionality.

But, what are the odds for representational contention in the peculiar political context of Kashmir, which Patrick Colm Hogan (2016) defines as “atypical colonialism”. Kashmir is more akin to the Palestinian than Kurdish situation, as illustrated by the political anthropologist Mohamed Junaid. In his 2018 essay Disobedient Bodies, Defiant Objects, Junaid argues that in the early 1990s the “military occupation of public spaces [in Kashmir]established new rules of mobility, assembly, sociality, and, in gen­eral, everyday life, rules that were violently enforced”. In 2019, the militarized administration of Kashmir is deeply institutionalised.

The three factors which Watts considers as essential for a strategy of ‘representative contention’ to succeed are all present in the Kashmir case: regional concentration, formal citizenship, and a high degree of legalism (i.e. adherence to the law by the authorities even when that law allows activists a space for manoeuvre). However, historically speaking, while this strategy has been used at least twice in the post-1947, it yielded only partial gains.

Arguably, it was first used during the Maharaja Hari Sing’s reign, when, under the Constitutional Act (April 22, 1934), a 75-member Praja Sabha (People’s Assembly) was established which extended recommendatory powers to the members. For the emerging Kashmiri leadership, it was an important political opportunity which later expanded a little more under the Jammu and Kashmir Constitutional Act (Sep 1939) that conceded some privileges (like parliamentary immunity) to Praja Sabha members, thus allowing the Kashmiri leadership to express their political grievances without the threat of being jailed.

The Plebiscite Front Experiment 

In the post-Dogra period, the Plebiscite Front also tried to use the strategy of representational contention. However, the organisation’s fervent rhetoric of election boycott eventually came back to bite it in the late 1960s, when the Front started to mull over the possibility of contesting the elections. The youth revolted against the moderate leadership of the Plebiscite Front, accusing them of wavering from their principle stance of the right to self-determination.

Kashmiri women spearheading a rally demanding a plebiscite during Plebscite Front days

In early October 1965, some youth activists even forced their way on to the stage inside the Hazratbal shrine, considered as the bastion of the Plebiscite Front, and heckled the senior most leaders of the organisation, such as Maulana Mohammad Sayeed Masoodi and Ghulam Mohiuddin Karra. The youth accused them of being Delhi’s “stooges”. When the Front announced its intention to contest elections in early 1970, students and youths protested on the streets. The J&K police killed several demonstrators and jailed hundreds of others. However, the biggest hindrance for the Front was the Indian government, which demanded adherence to the Indian constitution.

When, in 1969, the Front wanted to contest the bye-elections for the five vacant Assembly seats, the chief election commissioner of India set a condition: to first accept the finality of Kashmir’s accession with India. The Front decided to stay away from the elections. However, in May 1969, after a string of meetings with the Indian government, the Front decided to contest the panchayat elections. On May 15, the Front leadership announced in Srinagar that it would find “a new path”.

In the meantime, the world powers were trying to get India and Pakistan on to the negotiating table to resolve the Kashmir conflict. However, as reported by Sanaullah  Bhat in his 1980 book, the Russian Prime Minister Kosygin’s proposal to Pakistan and the American President Nixon’s proposal to India were both rejected by the respective countries. By early 1970, the Front entered negotiations with New Delhi and ultimately decided to contest elections. To assuage the public, its general secretary, Khawaja Ghulam Muhammad Shah, issued a statement, announcing that “The Plebiscite Front wants to take part in the elections so that the Kashmir issue could be resolved with the consent of the Kashmiri people”.

Sensing that people were not supportive of the elections, Sheikh Abdullah also made a mollifying press statement in late January 1970: “I cannot turn away in any way from the Kashmiri people’s issue of the right to self-determination. In the view of the sacrifices given by the Kashmiri people for their right, I cannot give up their just demand”.Sheikh Abdullah framed the election participation as part of the conflict resolution effort. He, however, faced severe opposition from some Front members like Munshi Muhammad Ishaq, who vehemently opposed the elections and insisted on the right to self-determination.

There was growing discontent among the people, and protests continued throughout the Valley. During Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s visit to Srinagar on July 14, the youth and students carried out big demonstrations in Srinagar. Ironically, the Front helped the state government to suppress the protests. In his November 12, 1970, public rally at Pulwama, Abdullah reiterated his earlier position: “Even though I have grown old now, but you should always remember one thing that till I am alive I will keep fighting for the truth and justice and for the Kashmiri people’s birthright, the right to self-determination”.

Although the Plebiscite Front shrugged off the demands from the Indian government that it must change its stance on self-determination for it to be allowed to contest elections, on December 23, Indira Gandhi made it starkly clear to them: “I am speaking as the Prime Minister of India and this is the opinion of whole India that we will not tolerate any talk against our territorial integrity. Some people in Kashmir are saying that they will take an oath of loyalty to the constitution to enter the Assembly and in the Assembly, they will speak of breaking the constitution! We will not allow this to happen.”

In the end, the Plebiscite Front compromised. The party was dissolved after Sheikh Abdullah signed the 1975 Accord, wherein he accepted India’s sovereignty over Kashmir.

The MUF Experiment

As journalist Masood Hussain writes in his detailed Kashmir Life article (March 23, 2016), the Muslim United Front was formed on September 2, 1986, in a hotel in Srinagar. Four days later the new party released its constitution, dedicating it to a boy, Shafaat Ahmad, who was killed by the J&K Police. The MUF was composed of a medley of nascent religious organisations, student and trade union groups, and the established political formations such as Jamaat-e-Islami and the Peoples Conference. Among the fledgeling formations were: Majlis-e-Tehfuz-ul-Islam, Ummat-e-Islami, Muslim Students Federation, Muslim Students Union, Muslim Zone Employees Front, Shia Rabitta Committee, Unjman-e-Itehad-e-Muslimeen, and Muslim Employees Front.

“Kafan Posh” MUF candidates at an election rally in Iqbal Park in 1987 before March 23 polling day. (Photos in special arrangement with MERAJUDDIN)

The MUF could mobilise hundreds of thousands of people to its rallies in Srinagar’s Iqbal park—on November 17, 1986, and March 4,1987, (the famous 42-kaffan-posh demonstration). It was perhaps due to the MUF’s participation that the 1987 elections witnessed about 80% voting, as first-time voters also participated. It got 470580 (approximately 30 per cent) popular votes.

What Was the MUF Agenda?

According to its former member and the candidate from Amira Kadal constituency in Srinagar, Muhammad Yusuf Shah (alias Syed Salahuddin): “We fought elections so that we could pass a resolution in the assembly for freedom of Kashmir. India knew that. That is why they rigged the elections […] Fighting elections were a means to educate masses about the freedom struggle. We wanted the endorsement of public sentiment in the assembly” (Greater Kashmir April 14, 2008).

Syed Ali Geelani

However, Syed Ali Geelani, who was in jail when the MUF was created, says in his 2006 booklet Deed-o-Shanaid (p. 53) that since the MUF leaders didn’t expect to win the two-thirds majority in the J&K Assembly, so bringing the bill to declare the 1947 conditional Accession as invalid had little chances to happen. Nonetheless, Geelani believes that the MUF could have worked as an effective opposition, and its participation in the state assembly may have provided the people with ahope of change through democratic processes. But, Indian state wanted to install its chosen people, so it rigged the elections.

The prevailing political situation determined the demands that the MUF initially put forth; these mostly related to political and civil rights. As Masood Hussain writes, these included: “release of all political detainees, restoration of judiciary’s dignity, reinstatement of dismissed employees, respect for the basic human rights, rollback of Jagmohan’s all ordinances, corrections in the wrong demographic projections and due representation to the Muslims in opportunities in education and jobs”.

The MUF faced state repression right from its inception. Just two weeks prior to March 23, 1987, elections, the J&K police arrested nearly 600 MUF members. Apart from the rigged elections, it cadres faced brutal torture in police custody—the Kashmir police chief of the time was DIG Ali Muhammad Watali. Ultimately, the organisation collapsed, after disagreements emerged among its founding members, and increasing discontent among the youth of Kashmir became threatening. On August 30, 1989, three Assembly members of MUF resigned, the remaining one was assassinated after the armed rebellion broke out in Kashmir.

The Engineer Rashid Case

Currently, there is Sheikh Rashid (aka Engineer Rashid), who has carved a place for himself in the domain of ‘representative contention’ and has a decent following from even the pro-Tehreek constituency. He joined the electoral politics in 2008 after facing state brutality, and now heads the Awami Ittihad Party (which he founded in June 2013). In his legislative assembly speeches, public appearances and social media posts, Rashid have reiterated his position of ‘rai-shumari’ (self-determination). The slogan often raised by him, and his supporters is: “sab naarun peh baari, hai haq hamara rai shumari” (what trumps all the slogans, our right the right to self-determination).

Engineer Rashid in action in the J&K Assembly

Starting as an independent legislator from the rural Langate constituency of Handwara, Rashid has cultivated a large following on social media, where he regularly posts his video statements. Unlike the Hurriyat leaders who face prosecution and constant detainments, Rashid has been relatively free to organise political rallies, gatherings and conduct press conferences. In one of his social media videos, posters of JKLF founder Maqbool Bhat and other political figures can be seen behind him on the wall, a political projection.

When he takes a pro-Tehreek position in the J&K legislative assembly, he is sometimes marshalled out, but he cannot be arrested because of the immunity legislators enjoy by law—though on occasions the J&K police have also roughed him up.

What Does History Teach?

The twin cases of the Plebiscite Front and the MUF show that the strategy of ‘representational contention’ has least chances of succeeding in achieving the core objective of the right to self-determination, given that India is not the United Kingdom, Kashmir is not Scotland, and South Asia is not Europian Union.

The PF survived for at least twenty years (1955-1975), but the MUF had a briefer life of just three years (1986-1989). But, there is some continuity. From the PF branched out the other resistance formations, some of which later converged to form the MUF. And, from the disbanded MUF grew Hurriyat, which continues to define the oppositional politics in Kashmir.

What is interesting, though, is that Hurriyat’s position is more akin to the Plebiscite Front than the MUF. The youth revolted against the moderate PF leaders because they decided to contest the elections, which PF had previously boycotted and spoke against, and deviated from the core principle: the right to self-determination. On the other hand, the MUF’s decision to contest the elections was widely supported by people, because its aim was to capture the Assembly and declare the 1947 conditional Accession as invalid. Yet, while Hurriyat’s stand on the right to self-determination is clear, it will find itself in hot water if it even hints at contesting elections. Because, like the PF, Hurriyat is also trapped in its own political rhetoric of election boycott.

At least two generations have grown to understand that an election boycott is an essential tool of political resistance that taking the oath of upholding the Indian constitution, a prerequisite for contesting elections, is a political taboo. It is only when the current resistance leadership unanimously agrees to change the tactics and retry the MUF model that ‘representational contention’ can have real meaning in Kashmir, which brings us to the question: what options Shah Faesal has?

The framework of Representative Contention

In his interview with News and Views program on January 9, 2019, Faesal said that the MUF model can be a basis for reimagining Kashmiri politics. He also said that the present political set up in Kashmir is “fit for a massive disruption” because it does not truthfully represent the larger sentiments of Azadi. So, basically what he is seeking to do is more on the lines of what Engineer Rashid has been doing already.

He can experiment with the model, but for the people associated with the resistance, entering the electoral process would be a tricky situation, as the success in elections may undermine their own politics. As Charles Tilly and Sidney Tarrow (2007, p. 133) argue engaging with the institutional politics blunts the sharp edge of contention, since “institutional logic takes over from the logic of contentious politics”. When a resistance movement engages with the institutional processes, it faces the hegemonic discourses about the standards of political propriety and proper parliamentary behaviour, which means it can no longer pursue a form of political action which is independent of the system.

Nevertheless, as the Kurdish case illustrates, the representational contention can be instrumentally used to draw limited concessions from the state and push for little changes and reforms. Ideally then Faesal’s option should be to join the Awami Ittihad Party if the intent is to practice the representative contention within the limited space available in Kashmir and not left the political space unoccupied.

It would be ironic to have the MUF model in mind and yet be part of the National Conference because it was the latter that crushed the former. To make an exaggerated analogy, it would be like holding the Nuremberg trials with Hans Frank as the presiding judge. If the idea is to truthfully represent the larger sentiment of Kashmiris, then joining NC makes no sense because NC believes in the finality of the conditional accession while as the people in Kashmir demand their right to self-determination.

Certainly, there are some constitutional provisions (such as Article 35A) which urgently requires to be safeguarded from the RSS and BJP, who seeks to engineer a demographic change in Kashmir by scrapping it. But, it is for Hurriyat, JKLF and other pro-Tehreek formations to decide if they want to strategically use the model of representational contention to achieve the limited objectives in the short run, such a getting political prisoners released, changing names of streets, incorporating Kashmiri history into the school curriculum, and bringing in laws that can strengthen the Article 35A and other constitutional provisions related to the autonomy of Kashmir.

The biggest argument of the resistance leaders is that election results are manipulated by Indian state for propaganda. If people boycott the elections, it will send a strong message to the world. That is a valid point. However, the resistance politics must also move beyond symbolic to the substantive. If an election boycott is useful as a tool of disruption, then contesting elections can also be used for the same purposes. For example, the republican Sinn Fein MPs in Northern Ireland contests election to the Westminster Parliament but they do not sit for the business of the house. It is called the policy of abstentionism, which is a sort of passive resistance. Like election boycott, abstaining is also a disruption; through which Sinn Fein refuses to accept British sovereignty on the Island. If the idea of a boycott is to send a message to the world, then an equally effective but different tool (contest and abstain) can also be used.

Obviously, the legislators from Jammu and Ladakh will create hindrances. Indian state may also repeat 1987, and either ban pro-Tehreek legislators or arm-twist them and may also try to co-opt some of them. So, strong party discipline, loyalty, conviction, and commitment to the cause will determine how the pro-Tehreek legislators will handle tough situations and obstacles when they try representational contention. But, if the Tehreek leadership plays strategically and prepare well, they can make it possible.

Mohammad Tahir

This is in tune with the December 14, 2016 statement of the Joint Resistance Leadership: “Now it is time to consolidate our gains and build upon them in order to move ahead further. In this regard, the leadership feels that a long-term sustainable strategy, based on proactive initiatives, programmes, and sustainable modes of protest with maximum public participation in their creation and implementation and minimum costs for the people, is the way forward”.The resistance movement already has huge public support, it can mobilise thousands of people on a single call, but what it requires is proactive, imaginative, and shrewd politics.

(The author is a research scholar at Dublin City University. Ideas expressed are personal.).

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