DDC Polls And After: Where Is Kashmir Headed?

by Altaf Hussain

So, the mood in Gupkar Alliance is upbeat. But, the going is too tough for them. The choices for the Gupkar Alliance are limited. Hardly any non-BJP party has supported them wholeheartedly.

A health worker checking the temperature of voters with thermo gun before allowing them to cast their votes at a polling station in Government Higher Secondary School Wakoora in Ganderbal district where the election for the fifth phase of District Development Council was held in Jammu and Kashmir on December 10, 2020. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

The government, of India as also the ruling party, the BJP, has been touting the just-concluded DDC (district development council) elections in Jammu and Kashmir as a huge achievement. They argue that the Union Territory has shown faith in the democratic process after the bifurcation of the erstwhile state and the withdrawal of its special status within the Indian union. They described the people’s participation in polls as a setback to militants. Moreover, some BJP leaders have tried to project the party’s victory on three seats in Kashmir Valley as an extraordinary breakthrough for the party.

None of this is borne out by facts on the ground, which tell altogether a different story.

First, there is nothing exceptional about the people’s participation in voting. Elections to the Assembly have been held every six years since the mid-1990s. Likewise, there have been elections to Lok Sabha and also the Panchayats. The 1989 elections to Parliament were characterised by an overwhelming boycott in the Valley. The 1996 Assembly polls were characterised by coercive polling. I saw paramilitaries knocking at people’s doors and herding them to polling booths.

But then in 2002 and 2008, I saw willing participation by people in the poll process. People had their own reasons to do that. While some said they wanted their own government to govern their day to day affairs, others said a government elected by them would act as a buffer between them and the security forces.

But the important point is that people’s participation in elections never signified a shift in their loyalties. Elections of 2008 offer the best illustration. That year, the Valley saw the first summer unrest, with massive public demonstrations over the Amarnath land issue. Tens of thousands of people marched to the border town of Uri to break the Line of Control that divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan.

A couple of months later, elections were held in the then state. Against all expectations, people came out in large numbers to vote. The next year, the Valley was on the boil again over the alleged rape and murder of two women in Shopian town. And then again in 2010, over the killing of two ordinary civilians by troops in allegedly a fake encounter. Tens of thousands of people were out in the streets, holding anti-India protests, in three successive summers. They protested against India, they voted in elections, and then again they joined anti-India demonstrations. And then again, within two years of the 2014 elections that brought the PDP-BJP coalition to power, the Valley was yet again rocked by massive public protests for months, this time over the killing of a militant commander, Burhan Wani. The message was loud and clear: elections notwithstanding, the public support for the separatist militants was there as always.

In fact, the next few years saw people visiting encounter sites to show solidarity with militants engaged in a firefight with security forces. At times, more civilians died in clashes with police or security forces than the militants killed in the exchange of fire. Interestingly, this public support for the militants grew in inverse proportion to their dwindling numbers.

A Gujjar female voter in Srinagar outskirts shows indelible ink mark on her finger after she cast vote in Harwan area on Saturday, November 28, 2020. The area elected its representative for the District Development Council (DDC). KL Image: BIlal Bahadur

Coming back to DDC elections, unlike in the past, the separatist groups did not launch any campaign for the boycott of polls. Yet, the turnout in the Valley was just over 30 per cent, less than half of that in the Jammu region. The Gupkar Alliance sought votes against Mr Modi’s party and against his decision to revoke Article 370. Ordinary Kashmiris, indeed, share the anti-BJP sentiment and the anger over the revocation of Article 370, but there is a combination of factors at work.

The pro-India regional parties like NC and the PDP, which are in the Gupkar alliance, have lost much of their popularity. This, perhaps, explains a large number of independents winning the DDC polls. Ordinary Kashmiris have little faith in the ability of the Gupkar Alliance to have the erstwhile state and its internal autonomy restored. Many people believe the Kashmir has to be resolved between India and Pakistan. There is a feeling that Kashmiris are up against a giant who is out to suppress, by all means, any resistance to Modi government’s will. Yet, they have been putting up passive resistance. The calm that has prevailed in the Valley since August last year, is, at best, deceptive. Ordinary Kashmiri has never been alienated from the Indian mainstream as they are now.

The BJP has failed to vindicate its narrative on Kashmir. It has won three DDC seats in the Valley. But it has lost many more in its stronghold, the Hindu majority Jammu region. Most Hindus in Jammu welcomed the revocation of Article 370. But, now the same people have fears of losing their land to outsiders. NC leader and former Chief Minister, Omar Abdullah tweeted that if BJP winning three seats in the Valley was significant, the Gupkar Alliance’s bagging 35 in Jammu had much more significance. “I understand the temptation to overplay the three seats the BJP has won in the Valley but why underplay the 35 win/ leads of the JKPAGD in Jammu province. We are not Kashmir based parties we are political parties with strong support in both Kashmir and Jammu”, he wrote on Twitter.

Some analysts point out that even if BJP has not won enough seats, it has taken a much bigger share of votes. But this is explained more by the twice bigger turnout of voters in Jammu region than in the Valley.

Gupkar Declaration Signatories addressing a joint press conference after meeting at National Conference President Dr Farooq Abdullah’s residence on Thursday, October 15, 2020. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

So, the mood in Gupkar Alliance is upbeat. But, the going is too tough for them. They have pinned their hopes on the Supreme Court for the restoration of the state’s special status. “We gave a strong case”, a senior leader of the NC tells me. But what if the SC does not give a favourable verdict? He had no answer to this question.

Altaf Hussain

The choices for the Gupkar Alliance are limited. Hardly any non-BJP party has supported them wholeheartedly. They are being pushed to the wall. Is separatism an option for them? For now, they say no.

(@ayhussain is a freelance journalist; formerly North India Correspondent of the BBC, he also worked with the Times of India. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Kashmir Life.)

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