In sharp contrast to what doomsayers had predicted, Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) recorded a heavy turnout in the recently concluded state elections. Nowhere, not even in the separatist stronghold of Srinagar, was the voter turnout in single digits. After the usual political deal-making, the state is well on its way to a stable political coalition broadly reflecting the aspirations of the voters.
Some commentators argue that the vote was simply for development—the Indian state should not see the high turnout as a repudiation of the separatist sentiment. While the common Kashmiris remain alienated from India, the pressing need for development—bijli, sadak, paani (electricity, roads, water)—proved more alluring than the emotive call for azaadi (freedom). The tendency among commentators to delink the two—a sentiment for azaadi and the heavy voting percentages—is simplistic at best. Elections always cover a gamut of issues, and focusing on a single issue would be a grave injustice to the courage, wisdom and will of the electorate.
Mukhtar Khan / AP
Guns and votes are not mutually compatible—an acceptance of one is an implicit rejection of the other. No one has suffered more grievously than ordinary Kashmiris from the culture of the gun which has ruled the state for the last two decades. The large, passionate, yet mostly peaceful demonstrations over the Amarnath land issue—while loss of life is regrettable, it was minimal by Kashmiri standards—were a pointer towards at least a grudging acceptance of the tools of democracy.
The high turnout in the elections should be seen as another step in this process of eschewing violence and embracing democracy. If Kashmiri aspirations—whether for azaadi or development—are articulated via peaceful means of the ballot, it willy-nilly represents a rejection of the gun. On similar lines, an important new factor is a new generation of voters that has not seen life without militancy. Seduced by India’s growth story, it believes that elected representation and a peaceful environment will help replicate the same growth trajectory in J&K.
Admittedly, the voter turnout in urban areas remained low vis-à-vis rural constituencies. At one level, it is merely a reiteration of what has been seen across the country—rural voters participate more actively in the electoral process than the urban middle class. Nevertheless, while it is important to recognize that sentiment for azaadi remains strong in urban centres, the effect of relatively low turnout in Srinagar or Sopore should not be overestimated. It does not amount to a rejection of India by the Kashmir Valley. Anantnag recorded a turnout of 34% while in Tral (referred to as Tora-Bora of Kashmir a few years ago), at least 60% voters chose to exercise their franchise.
Equally, the BJP’s sweep of the Jammu district does not necessarily reflect a valley-Jammu divide; both the Congress and the National Conference remain important players in the larger Jammu region. In fact, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) has actually won two seats in the Jammu region—a first in its short history. The traditional approach of viewing the state as a monolithic entity must be replaced by one which recognizes the heterogeneity across regions and demographics. It is also not necessarily a bad thing: Gorakhpur and Noida don’t vote on similar lines; why should Doda and Srinagar? It is more important to recognize that the rise of parties such as the PDP and the BJP lends democratic voice to hitherto under-represented groups and sentiments.
Many commentators continue to stress the importance of engaging the Hurriyat as a genuine representative of the valley. Not only has the Hurriyat repeatedly refused to participate in the elections, the voters of J&K have forcefully rejected its unequivocal call for boycotting the elections. Certainly, in a democracy, all politics need not be electoral and the Hurriyat has the right to engage in agitational, but peaceful politics. However, the self-serving dogma perpetuated largely by the Hurriyat leadership that it is the sole representative of the valley must be rejected. Entering into a dialogue with unelected apparatchiks of the Hurriyat insults and undermines those who have placed their faith in Indian democracy.
In fact, the emergence of the PDP presents New Delhi with a wonderful opportunity to take forward the political process in the state. With its plank of “soft separatism”—open borders, demilitarization of Kashmir and its emphasis on human rights, the PDP has emerged as a genuine mainstream alternative to the Hurriyat, occupying the same political space, but still proclaiming its faith in Indian democracy. No wonder, in many constituencies, the separatists, especially in the later phases of the elections, surreptitiously campaigned for the PDP. By providing avenues for the PDP to express itself politically, New Delhi will further marginalize the Hurriyat and redress, to an extent, the root causes of Kashmiri separatism.
As these elections have demonstrated, Kashmir, as did Nagaland, Assam and Punjab earlier, has returned to the Indian democratic fold after a violent detour. It is important not to underestimate the challenges India faces in Kashmir. It is equally important, however, not to overestimate them. These elections have thrown up an invaluable political opportunity to move towards a permanent political resolution of the Kashmir issue. It is hoped that the new coalition government in J&K—with support from New Delhi—would chart a new course towards peace, stability and prosperity.
Sushant K. Singh and Rohit Pradhan are associated with Pragati—The Indian National Interest Review, a publication on public policy, strategic affairs and governance. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org