Faux Populi: The Farce of Democratic Elections in Kashmir

Cynicism spurs people to vote against their interest rather than stay at home… a militant expatriate influences the politics of his people like he was never permitted to do when they elected him to office… these are just tiny hints of the fundamental distortion of a people’s long stifled sovereignty. Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal discusses rigging, boycott, coercive polling and brisk voting in Kashmir.

In the assembly elections of 1987, Mohammed Yusouf Shah was a candidate from Amirakadal in the heart of Srinagar city. He was the candidate of the Muslim United Front (MUF), which had become popular in a short span of time that year. He polled more votes than his nearest rival Ghulam Mohiuddin Shah of the National Conference in the assembly elections that year, but the radio declared the latter as the winner.

Instead of registering his complaint, Yusouf Shah  was detained and imprisoned for a year. Following that experience, Yusouf Shah went on to cross the borders, pick up the gun and return as Syed Salahuddin, having launched   the militant organisation Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, which continues to be active today. Syed Salahuddin lives in Rawalpindi and leads both the Hizb and an umbrella organisation of militant groups, the United Jehad Council. His statements, including calls for boycotting elections, are taken seriously and followed obediently by the separatists and a vast chunk of the people.

The memory of 1987’s rigged elections is crucial to understanding the political resentment and alienation of the people in Kashmir and their complete disillusionment in the electoral process and in the Indian democracy.  Ever since then, boycott calls have been a significant element in all the elections held in Kashmir. The reason may be a lot more complicated than simply a history of rigged elections, with 1987 being the last straw. History bears testimony to the fraud committed in the name of elections during the last six decades. New Delhi’s extra control mechanisms gave it the benefit of picking and choosing ‘elected’ representatives by scuttling dissent through a blatant violation of laws. Governments were toppled for going against the strain. Adversaries of puppet regimes in Jammu and Kashmir were kept in check or dealt with in various ways. In the first few elections since 1951, it was a cake-walk for the victorious candidates who were mostly declared unopposed. This was achieved often by arrests of political dissenters and opponents. In Jammu, the nomination papers of the RSS backed Praja Parishad members were rejected on frivolous grounds provoking the party to boycott those polls in 1957. In subsequent elections, while politics of eliminating adversaries by hook or by crook continued, government machinery was used blatantly to stuff stamped ballot papers into the boxes to tamper with the vote count.

Boycott is thus seen as a tool of resistance against this fraud and oppression. The Indian government and its successive puppet regimes in Jammu and Kashmir have projected every election as a foregone conclusion of the people’s faith in the Indian democracy and thus considering the electoral battles as a substitute to a plebiscite promised to the Kashmiris six decades ago. Even recent elections have been projected by governments as some kind of referendum in favour of India and not seen as people’s decision to choose their representatives for their basic day to day problems like water, electricity, roads, education and health infrastructure. But election boycott, though it is observed neither uniformly nor consistently, is an expression of no confidence against New Delhi and the parties contesting the election.

In the 1989 parliamentary elections, not more than 3 percent of the people participated in the polls in Kashmir valley. With militancy at its peak thereafter, followed by the imposition of governor’s and president’s rules, elections were halted for years. The next Lok Sabha elections were held in 1996 as a prelude to the assembly elections later that year, which the government in New Delhi was in a seeming hurry to put in place. The polling percentage of these elections would have followed the 1989 pattern if the security forces were not used for forcibly getting people to vote, thus ensuring a decent polling percentage. This was easier to accomplish in the rural landscape, where one threat lined up huge queues outside the polling booths, voters eager to go back home and dutifully exhibit their inked fingers to the security men patrolling in their area.

Over-zealous jawans in some areas had issued blanket threats without specifying that only adults were expected to vote. This sent young boys and teenagers, the most vulnerable targets of the security men in crackdowns, running to the polling booths and arguing with polling staff to allow them to vote or at least to ink their fingers, as had been instructed. A boy of not more than 10 years was sitting outside the booth in the Tangmarg area of north Kashmir was caught between the fear of the security forces and the refusal of the polling staff to let him cast his vote. When I asked him, who he wanted to vote for, he said, “I am neutral.” Even children were well aware of their ‘neutrality’ to the elections and many voted out of a cynicism that is unknown to rest of the country.

Most voters dragged to the polling booths are clueless about whom to vote for. A youth in Kupwara shamed by the enforced democratic right he was bestowed with, metaphorically answered the question of whom he was going to vote for: “Jiski laathi uski bhains” (it’s the powerful who gets anything by force). Freelance writer Saadut Hussain writes about an incident during the same elections in Srinagar. The people in his locality were hounded out and lined up outside the polling booth. Overcoming their humiliation, one of them suggested a form of vindictiveness to highlight the mockery of the elections. They decided collectively to vote for the least likely candidate to be elected. The unanimous choice was BJP, which never has had much base in the Valley, even lesser in the post militancy period. They later learnt that people in some adjoining colonies, forcibly driven out to vote, had also voted on similar lines. When the results came, the BJP candidate had hardly polled any votes despite the sarcastic tone of polling pattern in some areas that should have gone to his advantage, he writes, pointing out to the farce that electoral battles became.

The resumption of the electoral process in 1996 gradually waned away the glamour of boycott calls because people in many areas of the Valley complained that since the 1996 assembly elections, their areas were neglected because their ‘elected representatives’ nursed a grudge against them for not voting. By the next assembly elections – of 2002 – there were considerable numbers of people who did not pay heed to the boycott calls but coercive voting still remained in vogue.

But elections have never been about choosing governments, supporting ideology or shaping the political future of the state. They are simply a participatory mechanism so that voters can get some share of the development in their areas; they are about electing representatives who can take care of their day-to-day needs. Interestingly, while the levels of anger and resentment against the Indian government have gone up in recent years, especially post-2008, so have the numbers of willing voters; this hasreduced the burden of official organs in terms of having to forcibly bring voters to polling booths in order to make the show look impressive in the name of ‘national interest’. But poll boycott calls still form a part of the dominant discourse and also of the manipulation by the government machinery to benefit a particular candidate and chalk the course for forming another puppet regime.

And, even if the mechanism of coercive voting across the Valley is at the moment rare, the voting patterns are marked by the usual cynicism and mostly neutrality of political ideologies; at best the only rationale guiding the voters is their daily bread and basic amenities. Boycott or no boycott, that combination of cynicism and necessity may continue to be the voters’ bottom line as long as the politicians fail to address the political aspirations of the people.

Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal is the Executive Editor Kashmir Times and is a peace activist involved in campaigns for justice for human rights violation victims in Kashmir as well as India-Pakistan friendship. She also writes stories for children and adults.

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