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Electioneering in Kashmir: Overlap between Separatist and Mainstream Political Space

The impending assembly elections in 2008 in Jammu and Kashmir mark a break in electioneering in the state in recent times, particularly in the Kashmir valley. Heightened political activity by the mainstream political parties and internalisation of separatist demands have characterised this break.

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COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW july 12, 200823gave it an overall edge over the politics of the state. With the emergence of thePDP as another Kashmir-based party, in 1999, the character of the power politics was changed. It acquired a highly competitive nature. The competition between the two parties became more aggressive after the 2002 assembly election. The NC, despite attaining largest number of seats both at the level of the state as well at the level of the valley, could not gain the majority. As against its count of 18 seats out of a total of 46 seats of the valley, the PDP could get as many as 16 seats.4 Not only this, the PDP also got a chance to form the coalition government with the Congress as the ma-jor partner and lead it for the first three years.5 Mainstreaming the Separatist AgendaIn a situation where mainstream politics had been totally delegitimised, the stand-ing of political parties would have been a difficult proposition – had these parties not used the tactic of borrowing issues heavily from the separatist space.It was the PDP which took the lead in blurring the boundaries between the sep-aratist and the mainstream discourse. With a view to make a dent into theNC’s stronghold on Kashmir’s politics on the one hand and to make its presence felt in the context of the prevailing environment of separatism on the other, it introduced its “pro-people” agenda of “healing touch” to the people. It was the first political par-ty to bring the issues related to conflict to the centre of the mainstream political dis-course and to demand dialogue (with the separatists, militants and Pakistan) as the basis of its resolution. It was also to re-spond to various peace formulas, especial-ly emanating from Pakistan. Of late, it has been proactive in its response to the Musharraf’s four-point formula and has been emphasising on the issues of demili-tarisation, self-rule and the mechanisms of joint control. With thePDP picking up issues which were earlier raised exclusively within the separatist political space, the political dis-course of the mainstream politics has un-dergone a drastic change. Other political parties, including the NC, now as a matter of routine, refer to the “dispute” and its “resolution” and make a distinction be-tween the short-term issues related to gov-ernance and the long-term resolution of the conflict. While offering autonomy within the Indian Constitution as the best mechanism for resolving the issue, Omar Abdullah, the president of the NC often states that he is ready to accept any “better” formula acceptable to people. Of the various separatist issues which have been mainstreamed, the issues relat-ed to the violation of human rights by the agencies of the state are the most impor-tant ones. Till the late 1990s these were seen as sensitive issues touching the do-main of “national interest”. However, in past six years, these issues have not only been raised by the political parties in their political meetings and press statements but also on the floor of the legislative as-sembly. The mainstreaming of some of the core issues of the separatist agenda has some interesting implications. By acknowledg-ing the issues that formed a part of popu-lar discourse but were never addressed within the mainstream political space earlier, the political parties have sought to make their politics grounded in local reali-ties. This has helped in reducing the level of superficiality of power politics in an en-vironment where it suffered from a severe legitimacy crisis. In the process, it has also resulted in gradually creating a credible space for mainstream politics. The main-stream politics now operates side by side with separatist politics. There is a general acknowledgement of the parallel exist-ence of the two kinds of politics with even the separatists conceding the growing rel-evance of the mainstream politics. They draw a clear distinction between the poli-tics for governance on the one hand and the politics for the ultimate resolution of Kashmir dispute on the other. Separatist PoliticsExpansion of the mainstream political space does not necessarily mean that the separatist political space has shrunk. Separatism continues to be the focal point of Kashmiri politics. It is within the milieu of separatist politics that mainstream poli-tics is operating and gradually expanding. How separatism still remains relevant for the politics of Kashmir can be seen from the content of speeches made for election-eering purposes. A few examples from the statements made by the political lead-ers during the month of April this year may make the point more explicit. Mehboob Beg, the provincial president of NC while speaking in Beerwah and, Badgam exhorted India and Pakistan to involve people of Kashmir on both sides of LoC to find a durable and lasting solution to Kashmir dispute.6 Abdul Rahim Rather, the leader of the opposition and senior NC leader stated that there could be no peace in the subcontinent without resolving the ‘vexed’ issue of Kashmir.7 Omar Abdullah addressing a gathering in Sopore reiterated his demand for a “truth and reconciliation commission” to be headed by a neutral country to probe human rights violations from all sides.8 Addressing a party con-vention at Pattan, Baramulla, the PDP president Mehbooba Mufti suggested a regional council for undivided Jammu and Kashmir with members drawn from both Indian administered Kashmir and Pakistan administered Kashmir and use of Indian and Pakistani currency for trade in Jammu and Kashmir. She also demanded safe passage to Kashmiri militants who had crossed over to Pakistan, revocation of AFSPA, and withdrawal of troops from Kashmir.9 Mohd Shafi Mir, general secre-tary of Awami National Conference addressing a meeting of the workers in Tangmarg said Kashmir was a trilateral issue involving people of Kashmir, India and Pakistan and should be resolved within a set time frame.10 However, even while the separatist space remains intact,11 the overlap be-tween the separatist and the mainstream politics has certain implications for the separatist politics as well – especially for the separatist leaders and organisations. The separatists are hard pressed to assert the exclusivity of their politics as well as their claim to represent the people of Kashmir. Some of the issues of the separa-tist politics are so aggressively pursued by the mainstream parties, specifically the PDP, that it obviously upsets the separatist organisations. Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and Mehbooba Mufti, for instance, have been so zealous about their campaign of demilitarisation, that separatists have
COMMENTARYjuly 12, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly24been forced to react and condemn it. Mirwaiz called it as “cheap politics and political planking” and declared that they seem to be living in a “fool’s paradise if they consider themselves as the pioneers of demilitarisation”.12However, it is in the context of the ongoing peace process and the dialogue with the representatives of Kashmir, that the presence of the mainstream political leaders is disconcerting for the separatists. This is the specific political space where the separatists are staking a claim of ex-clusivity. It was in acknowledgement of their exclusive role of representing the Kashmiri separatist sentiment that the government of India had taken the initia-tive of engaging the All Party Hurriyat Conference in a dialogue. However, for more than two years now, there has been no dialogue with the Hurriyat, or for that matter, with any separatist group.13 Rath-er than giving them an exclusive space for dialogue, the government has been insist-ing that they share the table with the mainstream leaders in the round table conferences.14 Meanwhile, the mainstream leaders are getting some recognition from Pakistan’s establishment as well. Both Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti have visited Pakistan and have got sufficient political attention there. Mehbooba Mufti recently held a joint press conference with Asif Ali Zardari where both asserted the centrality of the Kashmir question in the peace process. However, it is the electoral process that offers the biggest challenge to the separa-tist organisations. It is a fact that election-eering does not take place at the cost of separatist sentiments – the presence of large number of people in the funerals of the militants in places where the political parties have been able to hold huge rallies reflects this reality. Still, electioneering while providing an opportunity for the mainstream politics to gain further ground makes separatist leaders and or-ganisations irrelevant, at least till the time the process lasts. Till the 2002 assembly elections, separatists sought to overcome the problem by organising a counter proc-ess of political mobilisation through the politics of boycott and succeeded in it, to a large extent. Whether boycott politics will work this time – remains a big question. By the manner in which separatists are re-sponding to the electoral process, one can assume their own lack of faith in the boy-cott call. It is only Syed Ali Shah Geelani who is emphatically campaigning against the polls15 while others have not plunged into it as yet. Jamaat-e-Islami has in fact showed its disinclination in joining the door-to-door boycott. ConclusionsIn the context of the political scenario that is presently available in Kashmir, the as-sembly election in 2008 is going to be a political exercise with great consequences. There is a whole range of dimensions which would make its study interesting – for instance the nature of competition, the quality of popular participation and the nature of outcome. All this would reflect complexity of the political situation of the state in general and that of the valley in particular. However, it is in the context of the over-lap that exists between the mainstream and the separatist politics that the present election will form an interesting analysis. What will be the impact of the electoral mobilisation on the mainstream and the separatist political spaces? How would the separatists respond to the challenge of in-creasing popular interest in the electoral process? What shape would the boycott politics assume in the times to come? What would be the implications of vio-lence, if any, during the election time? An-swer to many such questions will be im-portant to make a definite statement about the form and quality of political transfor-mation that has taken place in Kashmir since the political processes were restored in 1996. Notes 1 While there was only 5.07 per cent voter turnout in Anantnag parliamentary constituency, in Bara-mulla it was 5.48 per cent. There was almost a to-tal poll boycott and it was only in few pockets that votes were cast. Of the total votes polled in Bara-mulla constituency, around 60 per cent votes were polled in two assembly segments, Uri and Handwara. As against this in many segments, there was a negligible level of voting. For in-stance, only one vote was cast in Patan assembly segment, 15 in Gulmarg and 180 in Sopore. For details see, Rekha Chowdhary, Avineet Prashar and Paawan Vivek, Elections in Jammu and Kash-mir: A Commentary, Kashmir Times Publication, Jammu, 2007. 2 A few independent candidates contesting election in the district of Kupwara were supposedly the proxy candidates of the People’s Conference, a leading separatist organisation within the fold of All Party Hurriyat Conference. 3 In a state notorious for changing governments or leadership at the instance of the centre rather than the initiative of the voters, the defeat of the ruling National Conference was seen as histori-cal. It was the first such instance when the elec-tion outcome was against the ruling party. 4 In terms of the share of votes, it was 35.62 per cent for the NC and 24.51 per cent for the PDP. The Congress Party obtained 14.41 per cent votes win-ning five seats. 5 As per the arrangement of the coalitional part-ners, the position of chief minister was to be ro-tated between the PDP and Congress on three-year basis. During the first three years, Mufti GIRI INSTITUTE OF DEVELOPMENT STUDIES, LUCKNOWSECTOR ‘O’, ALIGANJ, LUCKNOW – 226 024 Applications are invited for Institutional Doctoral Fellowships (Ordinary-3 and Salary Protected–1) in Economics, Geography and Sociology for the year 2008-09 at the Institute.Candidates must be Post-Graduate in the subject with 55% marks and should have cleared National Eligibility Test (NET) for JRF/Lecturership held by UGC/ M.Phil. or published two research articles in reputed journals in social sciences. The Upper Age limit is below 35 years (Relaxable by 5 years in case of SC/ST). For teachers and professional staff of research institute holding regular posts the age would be 45 years. Fellowship Value: Rs.6000/- p.m. for ordinary fellowship plus Rs.12000/- p.a. as contingency grant for two years and extendable by one year in exceptional cases only. Salary Protected Fellowship will get his/her salary for two years only plus a contingency grant Rs.12000/- p.a.Last Date for the issue of the application form is30.7.08 and receipt of completed application Form is15.8.08. Application form can be obtained from the Institute personally or by sending self-address stamped Rs.10/- envelope (size 25 x 20 cms.) DIRECTOR
COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW july 12, 200825Mohammed Sayeed of PDP was the chief minister and for the last two and half years now Ghulam Nabi Azad of Congress has been the chief minister. 6 Greater Kashmir, April, 2, 2008. 7 Ibid. 8 Kashmir Times, April 14, 2008. 9 http://naknews.co.in/newsdet.aspx?1339510 http://www.indianexpress.com/story/298581.html11 That the separatist issues still hold sway in the valley came out very clearly during the recent controversy raised by Asif Ali Zardari, the co-chairperson of Pakistan People’s Party when he stated that Kashmir issue be placed in the back-burner to be resolved by future generation while India and Pakistan move ahead on the matters related to economy and trade. Along with the separatists, the mainstream leaders reacted strong-ly against this position of Zardari. Both Mehbooba Mufti and Omar Abdullah took a position that it was not in the interest of the people of Kashmir to sideline the Kashmir-centric process of resolution of conflict. While Mehbooba stated that rather than putting the very issue in the cold storage, it needs to be carried forward (Kashmir Times, March 3, 2008). Omar Abdullah said that Zardari’s proposal had no support either in Pakistan or in Kashmir and that it would be the “option of the last resort” for the National Conference [http://www.indianex-press.com/story/ 290327.html].12 Daily Excelsior, March 17, 2007.13 It was the NDA government led by Atal Behari Vajpayee that had initiated the dialogue with the moderate faction of the APHC. However, after the two rounds of dialogue with the prime minister, there was a change of government at the level of the centre. The new government led by Manmo-han Singh took some time to continue the dia-logue. It was in September 2005 that the Manmo-han Singh had a meeting with the Hurriyat lead-ers. This meeting was followed by one to one meeting of the prime minister with two other separatists – Yasin Malik and Sajjad Lone. 14 So far three round table conferences have been organised. The separatists have chosen to remain out of these conferences. 15 Holding meetings in various parts of the valley, Geelani has been critical of the election process in general and the role of the political parties in par-ticular. Political parties, in his opinion are “all set to perpetuate Indian occupation of Kashmir. If they are sincere in their claims to serve the peo-ple, they should first demand withdrawal of all troops from the state and then talk of polls”, Greater Kashmir, March 22, 2008.

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