Are Kashmiris finally out of the Pakistani frame?

Are Kashmiris finally out of the Pakistani frame?

The day after three constituencies in the Kashmir Valley— Gurez, Bandipora and Sonawari—as well as others in Ladakh and Jammu regions went to polls on 17 November, Hurriyat leader Mirwaiz Umer Farooq sent a legal notice to the ministry of home affairs in Delhi and the regional passport office in Srinagar, asking why his passport, which had been submitted more than two months ago, had not been renewed.

First the figures: Voter turnout at Gurez was 74% (down by 3% from the 2002 polls); Sonawari, 46% (down by 6 percentage points from the 2002 polls); and at militant-hit Bandipora, a surprising 57%, 19 percentage points more than the last elections.

Across the valley, the sight of green army fatigues has been fairly commonplace over the years, but the fear of thousands of troops is simply not a good enough reason for explaining why Kashmiris came out in such large numbers to vote.

The first reason is the “bijli-sadak-paani" issue, or shortage of electricity and water, and bad infrastructure.

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The second reason is equally simple: People are tired of 20 years of violence, fuelled and funded by Pakistan. Locals have borne the brunt of the violence that has brought them neither independence nor accession and not even greater autonomy.

The third, according to Kashmir expert Prem Shankar Jha, is because the threat of militancy was removed from areas such as Bandipora. According to Jha— and corroborated by stories in Kashmiri newspapers—in June, a delegation of the Hurriyat Conference (which included the Mirwaiz and Yasin Malik) travelled to Muzaffarabad in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and told them that the “gun culture", exported by Pakistan, had had a devastating effect in the Kashmir Valley. Subsequently, there was an understanding between the Pakistani militants and the Hurriyat, said Jha, that they would let the Kashmiris decide their own fate, at least for a while.

The Mirwaiz told Mint in August, in the wake of protests in the Kashmir Valley against the communalization of the Amarnath shrine pilgrimage, that “for the first time...(the Kashmiri protests) had come out of the Pakistani frame".

Fact is, the Kashmir vote has left most people stunned. Moreover, it has vindicated the establishment’s determination to hold elections, although for totally different reasons. Governor N.N. Vohra, a seasoned bureaucrat who worked on Kashmir for several years in Delhi before he was sent to Srinagar, wanted the polls to be held sooner than later because he knew it would be difficult to hold a state as sensitive as Kashmir under governor’s rule for much longer.

However, national security adviser M.K. Narayanan believed it was imperative to crack down on protesters shouting pro-freedom slogans during the Amarnath shrine crisis in August, because the state could not capitulate to a few inarticulate young men. Elections in Kashmir were pushed through because they would throw up elected representatives that could become an alternative force to the traditional Hurriyat leadership such as the Mirwaiz and even pro-Pakistani leaders such as Syed Ali Shah Geelani.

The problem is that the establishment—both Delhi and Srinagar—can draw the wrong lessons from the vote. Instead of acknowledging a deep discontent with the state’s failure to go beyond Article 370 and look at some real autonomy for the state, the establishment could focus all its energies on the newly elected representatives. Middle-of-the-road groups such as the Hurriyat, which have been seeking a political solution and beseeching the federal government to open talks with them, could be left to fend for themselves.

If that happens, Delhi would have failed to learn from its own history. An accord with Sheikh Abdullah and successive elections in the state did not mean that Kashmir forgot its demand for “autonomy". Today, on the streets of Srinagar, young men spit at the Sheikh’s name, an unheard-of gesture even some years ago. (It would be truly ironical if the National Conference’s Farooq and Omar Abdullah form the state’s new government.) To play off the newly elected against the Hurriyat, in many ways the voice of the silent majority, would amount to turning tragedy into farce.

Meanwhile, what of the back-channel deal on Kashmir supposed to have been struck between Prime Minister’s special envoy Satinder Lambah and Pervez Musharraf’s (and now President Asif Ali Zardari’s) adviser Tariq Aziz? Would Delhi simply abandon that agreement on Kashmir because of a new government in Srinagar?

There’s time to ponder all these issues, of course. The last phase of the seven-phase assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir takes place on 24 December. Hopefully, by then, the ministry of home affairs would have renewed the Mirwaiz’s passport.

Just in case they forget, he is still an Indian citizen.

Jyoti Malhotra is Mint’s diplomatic affairs editor and writes every week on the intersection of foreign policy, trade and politics.

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