SRINAGAR : The Sher-i-Kashmir International Convention Centre was once the venue for government functions and meetings. Endless lines of parked motorcades stretched from inside the premises to the road on the banks of the Dal Lake. It was almost an exclusive space for the political elite.

Today, silence engulfs the convention centre, which has become a detention centre for Kashmir’s unionist politicians since August. On Saturdays and Wednesdays, relatives jostle to get a meeting with the politicians, now confided to a hotel in the centre’s premises.

On a recent Wednesday morning, a few visitors sitting by the gate spring up as their names are called out. A few are sent back and scramble to look for rocks to place scraps of paper from their pockets. “Nothing can be taken inside except your identity cards," a police official announces to the small crowd gathered at the gate. Some struggle to get in. Others extend their arms to give applications requesting permission to enter.

It’s a moment of reflection for those who had until recently enjoyed New Delhi’s patronage. “We were on their [India’s] side and yet, today, we have to go through such a process to meet our relatives... Makes us both feel as if we have committed some crime," said a family member of a former legislator.

Loneliness of unionists

The preservation of the state’s special status had been the cornerstone of unionist politics in the Kashmir Valley. But that was until 5 August 2019. There is no room for that strain of politics any longer. Many of its proponents are in jail, including over 30 politicians at the centre by the Dal Lake alone. Members of all the three main Valley-based parties—the National Conference (NC), the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), and the People’s Conference (PC)—continue to be under lockdown.

Tahir Sayeed, an additional spokesperson of the PDP, is among the lucky few outside prison. “Everyone I have met so far has taunted me, pointing out what India had done to us despite (us) holding the tricolour high all these years," he said.

Under this tense and uncertain political climate, Kashmir Valley’s sarpanches will vote on 24 October to elect Block Development Council (BDC) chairmen from within their ranks. While this election doesn’t involve voting at polling booths, there is hardly any political activity on the streets of Srinagar.

Any attempts to replace the established political actors with fresh faces would “take a lot of time and money", said Ellora Puri, an assistant professor at the Jammu University’s political science department. In the current circumstances, the government’s attempts to push the sarpanches to the fore could be counterproductive, said Puri.

“To be in grassroots politics and proper politics are two different things," she said. “The government has announced BDO (block development officer) elections on party lines, but which party will be contesting?"

Most regional parties, along with the Congress, have already decided to stay away from the elections. And the question at the heart of an unfolding political vacuum is this: Will there be any space left for electoral politics in Kashmir and what shape might it take?

In the recent general elections, Srinagar recorded a dismal voter turnout of 13%. In parts of south Kashmir, that figure was in single digits.

This was before the dramatic events of 5 August.

Which is why Tahir Sayeed of the PDP fears it is going to be difficult to go back to the people “with nothing substantial to offer".

New political game

On 4 August, the unionists of Kashmir had gathered at Gupkar Road—where the residence of three former chief ministers, several former legislators, and offices of various intelligence agencies are located—amid heightened tensions in the Valley to formulate the “Gupkar Declaration", a memorandum of support for the state’s special status. Everything changed the next morning.

The crackdown on the unionists is, by any measure, unprecedented as a sitting member of Parliament, Farooq Abdullah, is not only under arrest but also booked under the Public Safety Act. Outside his residence’s large heavy metal gate, a white Ambassador car blocks the entrance. A little further down the road, an armoured paramilitary vehicle blocks the entrance to former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti’s residence day and night. On any other day before 5 August, this could have been the scene outside the residence of the separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani.

“I can’t describe the feeling," said an office-bearer of the Sajad Lone-led People’s Conference, who was among the few Kashmiri political activists to evade arrest in the crackdown before the abrogation, at a café in New Delhi. “We braved threats and violence to support a system that has today come to bite us…"

The PC was until recently the closest ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Valley, after the alliance between the saffron party and the PDP broke down, pulling down the ruling J&K government in June 2018. The unionists in Kashmir, he said, were “stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea" as New Delhi has completely changed the rules of the game. “Our politics was centred on 370 (special status) but now we have to look for a new identity knowing that whatever little credibility we had is also gone," he added.

There was no way the unionists could side with the decision but returning to the fold was paramount, he said, “in the larger interests of the people". There’s considerable speculation in the Valley about who would come up to occupy the pro-New Delhi space. A few lesser-known politicians have already crawled out of Kashmir’s crevices to speak of “watered-down demands" such as restoration of incoming call facilities when “the issue is larger than that", said Shehla Rashid of the Jammu and Kashmir People’s Movement, led by the bureaucrat-turned-politician Shah Faesal.

Rashid said there seemed no indications that elections for the legislature in the state would resume “till the delimitation process is completed in 2021".

A tale of two families

The new political mood against Kashmiri unionists was forcefully presented in Parliament by Jamyang Tsering Namgyal, the young parliamentarian representing Ladakh. He attacked the Kashmir-based unionist leadership that has dominated state politics since Independence, at the cost of the other two regions, pronouncing that the abrogation of the special status would only cost the “bread and butter of two families", a reference to the Abdullahs and the Muftis, and now Kashmir’s future was “going to be bright". But the abrogation of the state’s special status wasn’t just about the two families or parties in Kashmir, said Iltija Javed, daughter of the former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, in an email.

“Lines between the mainstream and the separatists have been intentionally blurred," she said. “The message is loud and clear. If this (detentions) can be done to elected representatives, imagine what will happen to the ordinary Kashmiris?" Since then, the government has lifted restrictions on movement and recently allowed basic phone services on postpaid connections.

In the absence of established political leaders, unionists as well as secessionists, Kashmir today stares into a dangerous political vacuum that “can only be filled by extremists", according to an activist of the National Conference who was canvassing in a north Kashmir constituency before things changed on 5 August.

The activist, who has lost family members to separatist violence, said that he grew up believing that Kashmir’s “future was with India", but now, following the abrogation of the special status, for him “the system itself is in question".

According to this activist, the “politics of development alone doesn’t work" and the issue of autonomy, the preservation of whatever little there was left and hopes of its full restoration, was what drew voters. “What do we go to them with now?"

Searching for alternatives

At his Srinagar residence, Akbar Lone, the National Conference parliamentarian representing north Kashmir, lamented New Delhi’s betrayal of the price paid by his party for advocating the Indian cause. “We were the first party to reject the two-nation theory," he said.

Lone and south Kashmir’s parliamentarian Hasnain Masoodi were the only two prominent National Conference leaders who were not placed under arrest in August.

When asked about the possible responses from the general public to politicians if and when they are freed from jails and allowed to visit their constituencies, Lone said that the people would most certainly taunt them asking: “What has India done for you after all that you have done for them?"

Regardless, Lone was optimistic that political activity would continue, insisting that the space for unionist politics had not shrunk but only “received a jolt". Yet, in the same breath, he said it was too soon to say if the people will return to the electoral process.

“The anger and hatred in the youth for India has grown manifold," he said, adding that when the troops have been recalled to their barracks and the people are free to express dissent, Lone fears they “will have no option but to protest against India".

The apparent political vacuum, Lone said, would not last and it was unlikely that it would be filled by new faces. New Delhi, Lone explained, has attempted to fill political vacuums many times, but these attempts have not stood the test of time. He added that he would worry if the political vacuum was still felt after the troops had been withdrawn.

“We will have to go back to our people and tell them that we have no alternative but to live with India." Like Lone, many others may grudgingly come to a similar unhappy truce with the post-370 reality. “Their (unionist parties’) options are limited," said Anuradha Bhasin, executive editor of Kashmir Times. It is difficult to predict a new political course, Bhasin said, but the BJP being the only “active political party" is attempting to seize the political space. “The first priority for the mainstream to reactivate themselves is to be free," Bhasin said.

Anem soi, wavum soi, lajum soi paansi" is a saying in Kashmiri that loosely translates to “I brought the nettle, sowed the nettle, and the nettle stung me." If the Indian state was the soi, or nettle, Kashmiris say, it has stung the unionists hard.

Rayan Naqash is a journalist from Srinagar