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Clear Message from Kashmir

The virtual boycott of the parliamentary bypoll shows us the extent of disillusionment with the Indian state.

For long, Indians were made to believe that large election turnouts in the Kashmir Valley represent a true measure of the people’s mood. We looked at voter turnout without considering the number of people who boycotted elections. We were made to believe that despite being bludgeoned by brute power, Kashmiris would still come out and vote. The abysmally low turnout of 7.14% in the Srinagar parliamentary constituency on 9 April, and the violence on that day that led to the death of eight young protesters and injuries to around 200 others tells us the real story. It is a resoundingly clear statement that Kashmiris are disillusioned with India’s constitutional institutions.

We need to recognise that there are significant differences in election turnout in Kashmir for local bodies, assembly and parliamentary polls, with maximum votes recorded for local bodies and the lowest for parliamentary polls. This indicates the level of confidence Kashmiris have in these institutions and their political relevance. People voting in much larger numbers for local bodies reflects their desire to address everyday concerns. They vote in the assembly elections knowing that the state government can only mitigate the consequences of the devastation caused by decades-old repression without resolving the political crisis. Voting in parliamentary elections is different. For a large majority of Kashmiris, India’s Parliament lost its appeal in 1993 when it unanimously resolved to speak of Jammu and Kashmir as an integral part of India and reiterated its claim on the territory held by Pakistan. At the same time, it ignored the military suppression of Kashmiris and their democratic demands. Neither the present nor past Indian governments have shown any appetite for serious political negotiations to resolve the political crisis in Kashmir. Having hollowed out constitutional autonomy, and boasted in Parliament of having done so in 1964, there are few takers for autonomy in Kashmir and, one might add, in India.

So even within the logic of the argument advanced by the government, it is apparent that there has been a consistent disinterest in parliamentary polls in the Kashmir Valley since 1998 with 70%–80% of voters boycotting them. Today this figure has climbed to 93%, rising from 74% in 2014. This shows the rapid erosion in the pro-Indian constituency under the leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led central government. Narendra Modi may be able to charm the bigots and jingoists in India with his “terrorism or tourism” jargon, but in Kashmir this does not cut much ice. It is tragic when a government begins to believe its own spin that propagates that Pakistan-is-behind-all-that’s-wrong-in-Kashmir, and that the solution lies in dangling the carrot of tourism and jobs to the youth. This premise has been questioned by people with impeccable establishment credentials, including cabinet ministers, a former national security advisor and Indian Army generals. They have drawn attention to the indigenous character of militancy and advocated initiation of purposeful political dialogue. Unfortunately, the government in Delhi continues to exhibit a singular lack of wisdom in its Kashmir policy.

Policy and opinion-makers who find fault with Kashmiris for acting as proxies for Pakistan and for their assertion of their “Muslimness,” fail to acknowledge that the Indian state has turned decisively against Muslims in India. Take the recent statement of the President of the Jammu Chamber of Commerce and Industries Rakesh Gupta, asking people to “identify and kill” Rohingya and Bangladeshi Muslims. This is not an isolated incident. It mirrors the growing and brazen anti-Muslim rhetoric in many parts of India.

It is also worth noting that the mood on the street in Kashmir is one of anger and defiance. While bullets and pellets have caused casualties to mount, they have also convinced a large section of the people, especially the youth, that the Government of India only understands the language of armed militancy. The large turnout at encounter sites, while operations are on, to support and save their own who have picked up guns, suggests that Kashmiris believe that union with India under an avowedly Hindu majoritarian dispensation is detrimental for their very survival. Young people are not offering themselves to be killed or maimed for a few hundred rupees as propagandists argue. Rather they do so because they feel they have no other avenue left to be heard and for the demand for azaadi to be taken seriously. The reasons for people’s anger and disillusionment are also evident when you recall the activities of gau rakshaks in Jammu, the permission accorded to Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh cohorts to brandish weapons in public in a “Disturbed Area,” the deliberate delay in extending relief and rehabilitation to victims of the cataclysmic floods of September 2014, and the casualties suffered by civilians since the 8 July 2016 killing of Burhan Wani.

It is time Indians understood that the problem in Kashmir lies amidst us, not in Pakistan, and in our collective refusal to accept the simple truth that the disenchantment and disillusionment of Kashmiris with India and Indian civil society has deepened. This is the message from the 93% who boycotted the polls.

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