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Kashmir’s Kangaroo Elections

by Arjimand Hussain Talib, 16 November 2008

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A credible democracy goes beyond holding elections under laboratory conditions

Western media is fond of using the term ’kangaroo’ with any set up which is
overly ambitious and minuscule. Local courts run by dreaded Tamil Tigers in Northern Sri Lanka are generally called as ’kangaroo courts’. Governments run by despots or autocrats in poor and unstable African
’banana republics’ are often referred to as ’kangaroo regimes.’ Going by that logic, J&K is about to have what one can safely call ’kangaroo elections.’

As thousands of additional troops pour in into the Valley and persecution
of those who peacefully oppose them rise to new heights, some very
uneasy questions arise. Are these elections really credible? Is it right to say that these elections would establish democratic credibility of the ruling system in Kashmir?

Let us look at the environment wherein these elections are being held. All
those people who oppose these elections by democratic and peaceful
means have either been jailed or persecuted. It is no more a battle of
ideas. This year’s popular people’s movement against the land transfer
to Amarnath Shrine Board was a watershed in many respects. The most important thing to happen was a near total transition of Kashmir’s political movement into a peaceful one. Even those who are normally labelled as ’hawks’ or ’hardliners’ had exhibited willingness for total rejection of the
armed path to achieve their goals. The current crack down on these
groups and individuals may again erode their faith in peaceful
democratic means of achieving their political goals. This misguided
crack down might again push another generation to taking up arms,
thereby initiating another cycle of violence and counter violence. Most
importantly, it is eroding the new Kashmiri generation’s residual faith
in India’s democracy in allowing peaceful political dissent.

The way some sorts of perfect laboratory conditions are being created for
these elections seem astonishing. State machinery is at total disposal
of those who are taking part in these elections. Tax payers’ money is
being used to fund election campaigns of parties, providing them free
transportation, accommodation and almost everything that normally
political parties are supposed to pay for themselves. Security agencies
are systematically isolating the areas going for elections; leaving no
scope for dissent or disapproval to the manner these elections are
being held. The recent news reports about infliction of torture on some
of the Hurriyat leaders engaged in a purely peaceful political campaign
is a shame. Illegal detention of hundreds of other anti-election
activists is staring in the eyes of those who are calling these
elections "path breaking."

On the other hand, we see overt and covert means are being used to
influence and gag the media. The ban on local cable news channels and
the subsequent enforcement of the so-called "code of conduct", which
seeks to arm twist, promote elections and those who support it and
discourage airing of popular public expressions of peaceful decent is
simply undemocratic. Newspapers have been asked not to run any news
items or opinions questioning the elections. State-owned media is black
outing even the day to day events happening in the State. There is no
mention of declared or undeclared curfews, arrests and the crack down
on opposing political activists in the official media. It sounds more of a propaganda machine – typical of communist authoritarian regimes.
India’s private media, both print and electronic, seem to have shut down their Kashmir offices for now.

It is true that Kashmir’s governance today is in a shambles. The way the State’s affairs are being run by a handful of bureaucrats – no matter how well meaning - is a disaster in itself. True, a better governance system is urgently needed, but are these elections the answer?

These elections have a historic baggage of contradictions. Theoretically,
they are not only meant to establish a basic governance system, they are designed to represent a political intent too. And that is where the fault lies. The reason a big mass of Kashmiri population is allergic to this exercise is that they are meant to thumb impress a political statement which they do not believe in. Establishment of basic governance structures by way of popular will does not mean ratification of a political statement concerning the question of sovereignty and identity. For example, when Palestinians vote for local government issues, they are not supposed to ratify the larger political system they are forced to live in. The Irish nationalists ventured into the electoral arena for local governance only when oath to the British Crown as a pre-condition was abolished.

When parties like the NC and the PDP say that this electoral exercise is
only meant for choosing a local government and not making a statement
on the larger political question of Kashmir, they are being misleading. On a number of occasions in the past these parties have sought to stake claim to ’sole representation’ of the Kashmiri people and their political aspirations. On several occasions leaders like Farooq Abdullah and Mufti Syed have gone to international forums like the UN, negating people’s yearning for right to self determination and establishing their sole representative character by virtue of their election for local governance issues. The latest Indo-Pak spat at the UN made the Indian representative reinforce his country’s stand that with elections being held regularly in Kashmir, there is no scope for a plebiscite.

Today’s ground realities in Kashmir have some unmistakable messages too. The writings on the wall are there for all to see. Pro-election political parties are able to hold only kangaroo public meetings of a few hundred people at most. The public fury which they are facing in spite of tough security cover and control is an eye opener. When Congress Party activist,
Peerzada Syed, was stoned and chased away by angry villagers in South
Kashmir this week on his election campaign, a political statement is
already made. Similarly, when Qazi Afzal was made to chant the Azadi (freedom) slogan by the villagers from whom he was seeking votes in Ganderbal this week, the message sent is loud and clear. The militarisation of the electoral exercise is another serious issue. Thousands of additional armed forces are being pumped into the Valley for "reinforcing" the already present 700,000 personnel. Any electoral exercise being carried out under the shadow of such massive presence of armed forces is in itself questionable.

When New Delhi says that this massive presence is to ensure free and fair elections, it makes little sense. It is common knowledge that militancy is at its lowest ebb in Kashmir since in very inception. It appears that militant
groups are in no mood to influence the current political environment.
Their taking a back seat can be interpreted as their respect to the latest people’s peaceful movement. This new mood is by no means insignificant. In other words, the field is open for peaceful battle of ideas. New Delhi and local pro-Indian parties like the NC, PDP, ANC, PDF, CPI (M), etc. believe that even if 20-25 per cent of people vote, they would have a reason to cheer this kangaroo electoral exercise as a victory. This is again misleading. Kashmir’s current eligible voter count is far greater than the one official figure portray. It is common knowledge that a big percentage of Kashmiris – including this writer – are not registered as voters, and, so, do not reflect in overall numbers. So an official 20 per cent may actually mean a voter turn-out of 10 per cent or even below. An electoral exercise which claims establishment of a "democratic" order with 10 per cent vote is indeed a bad show. It is as much important for pro-Indian political parties to realise as for New Delhi.

The biggest problem of this electoral exercise in Kashmir is that it happens under certain laboratory conditions. These laboratory conditions prop up non entities – individuals and groups alike - over night. These conditions seek to create favourable conditions for these non entities and facilitate their proliferation. These conditions bulldoze dissent and opposing political thoughts. These laboratory conditions inhibit the media from providing space or time to opposing ideologies.

An electoral exercise in an environment where the media is being censored cannot be credible. Use of force to subdue a popular and peaceful sentiment for the right to self determination and seeking establishment of a façade of democracy is a shame. That is what is being done in Kashmir.

Looking at the costs all sides have paid throughout the long years of conflict
in Kashmir, there is no substitute to peace building. The recent transition of Kashmir’s political movement had given a golden opportunity to help discard violence from its political landscape. Coercion and ruthless suppression of peaceful political dissent might take us back to the square one. Any electoral exercise meant to establish democratic credibility of a system needs more than elections. Democracy cannot be so narrow in its meaning and scope.