October issue 2002
Srinagar — consider this. Saddam Hussain’s goose is waiting to be cooked because of a questionable election in the United States, more specifically the garbled verdict in a small district of Florida. Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharief must sit it out in the cold, goodness knows for how long, because a military dictator has got himself democratically validated, no matter how unscrupulously or how unnecessarily cynically he has gone about doing it.
Contrary to the widely acknowledged axioms, elections can have bizarre equations with democracy, depending on the circumstances. When Islamic fundamentalists were in Algeria through a fair and free process, the whole world ganged up to cancel them out. On the other hand, when the pro-China military junta, taking a cue from Algeria, throttled Aung San Suu Kyi’s spectacular success in Myanmar, the world growled with rage.
Take Iran and Israel, the two rare countries in the Middle East that hold elections at regular intervals. One is the cynosure of American eyes even though it is seen by much of the world as a usurper of Arab rights. The other has been in the doghouse in perpetuity over, of all the reasons, a mere turn of phrase that equates the worldÃs most powerful democracy with Shaitan i Buzurg, the ‘Great Satan.’
Saddam has to be removed because he is not a democrat. At least that’s what the Americans say. And yet they are the same people who had, less than 50 years ago, removed, through a simple surgical coup, the Muslim worldÃs first elected liberal government, that of IranÃs Prime Minister Mosaddegh. Why? Because it did not suit US oil companies to have a democratically elected government in Iran that believed in nationalising oil assets.
Consider this seriously. In the era of a unipolar world, it may become common, even fashionable, for elected leaders of sovereign countries to be simply kidnapped if they are not liked by important marshals of our destiny, usually found in Western capitals. The recent signal from Venezuela could not be read any other way.
It is in this context that the state assembly elections in Indian-administered Kashmir have to be seen. The Americans are applauding them. The Indians are claiming success even before the race is over. But what is the race all about? To elect a new chief minister for Jammu and Kashmir Ã± is that the idea? Or are we waiting for something more serious, more meaningful, as the cliche goes? In which case why have elections first, particularly when they are so patently dubious?
Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari and all his neighbours and colleagues have described all the elections held in Kashmir so far, as having been rigged. Pakistani leaders should applaud, for this is indeed the most likely fact as far as polls in Kashmir go. Ask anyone from the Bhartiya Janata Party or any other associated group; they will tell you that the Kashmir polls that elected Farooq Abdullah in 1996, as well as other preceding ones, were all fraudulent and stage-managed.
So let us see what the BJP has done this time to hold their version of free and fair polls in Kashmir.
There is this lingering image of a Congress party candidate that captures the essential metaphor. This gentleman is wearing a flak jacket on a nippy morning in Shopiyan, a constituency that was once known for its fine liquor, but has become notorious for the rule of the gun. The two sides that dominate the equation here are the militants and the Indian security forces Ã± or Ã«Indian occupation forcesÃ as Pakistanis would say.
Fair enough. So this Congress candidate in a flak jacket, with a loud hailer in hand, surrounded as he is by a dozen heavily armed paramilitary men to protect him, is holding a meeting in a city square. There is not one man or woman in the audience. There is no audience. But at the end of the day he is going to either win or lose the election. The election, in which no one came out of their homes to hear him out.
There could be several reasons for this apparent lack of public interest in our friendÃs meeting. People are frightened, either of the militants or of the armed police. There could be a third reason, an equally valid reason for their absence Ã± their lack of interest in the polls.
Does the last question ipso facto mean that the lack of interest in the polls is an endorsement of either ‘azadi’ or KashmirÃs alignment with Pakistan? It is very difficult to say, although there are good reasons to believe that to a large extent, this may be so.
Two or three factors are in play in Kashmir at this juncture in its history. First of all, it is not a historical moment at all. The polls are, at best, some kind of a holding operation until something more substantial can be thrashed out. Those in the fray are not people who even remotely, have anything to do with the loudest echo reverberating in the valley. The echo for the riddance of Indian rule, Indian troops and Indian arrogance.
This is the heat-of-the-moment kind of expression. Ask the people what they mean by shouting Pakistan zindabad while refusing to vote. You may not get a complete rounded answer, but you will get a hint. “We are thanking that country for helping us, supporting us,” says Halima, a shawl weaver in Beerwa, a constituency neighbouring Srinagar. But that doesn’t mean we want to join Pakistan.
So what do the Kashmiris want? They do not know if there is any one answer. If they do, it is too early for them to spell it out. But what they are sure of, they donÃt mind sharing with you. They say they want ‘azadi’ from India. Why? The reasons are rooted in history as well as contemporary events.
“You cannot have a gaurav yatra in Gujarat and also hope to keep Kashmir as part of your country,” says an activist of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front accusingly. His reference is direct. You cannot have communal carnage in Gujarat, target Muslims, talk of “Hindu Rashtra” and try to assimilate a uniquely Muslim-majority region like Kashmir into the mainstream of rightward leaning India.
That is one good reason that explains the Kashmiris’ contempt for the Indian-backed polls now under way. Yes, there has been coercion too from the security forces to make people cast their vote. The report by the Coalition for Civil Society in Kashmir confirms the widespread incidence of coercion.
But coercion will usually work against the government in power. An angry, alienated voter is least likely to cast his vote in favour of a chief minister who forces him or her to vote. Yes, coercion in Jammu and Kashmir was widespread in the polls, but who was staging it? Was it New DelhiÃs way of getting even with Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah who had been laying into every BJP minister in sight in recent weeks? Or were Lal Krishan Advani or George Fernandes simply trying to meet their target of a high voter turnout, whatever the result.
Or was the army forcing people to vote so that they could bring in an opposition group to force Farooq Abdullah out? If that was the case, then the same logic must also apply equally to the All Parties Hurriyet Conference which has its own reasons for boycotting the polls. But any boycott would help the HurriyetÃs chief quarry: FarooqÃs National Conference party. This is the oldest political party which has roots in Kashmir and a cadre who will vote if asked to, regardless of who else does or doesn’t. Did the Hurriyet therefore deliberately seek to bail out Farooq. If so, why?
Others in the fray are the Congress party across the state, the BJP, mostly in Hindu-dominated Jammu areas, and Mufti Mohammed SayeedÃs PDP, fairly widespread. Some so-called reformed militants, surrendered militants, are also in the fray. Not one of them is going to the polls with their minds open to the idea of plebiscite.
In a very subtle way this is an election that seeks to change the discourse from the original Kashmiri demand, a UN-backed demand, in fact, for a plebiscite. This new discourse, as initiated by India and then backed by the United States, centres on anything but a referendum on the future of Kashmir.
In other words the much hyped polls do not address the essential issue of KashmirÃs future. Yet, these are backed by the United States, and with it, by much of the world. Not only that. There are few in the Hurriyet leadership today who would be willing to talk about any solution to the Kashmir issue that comes even close to their own earlier demand for plebiscite. The Americans do not support it any more, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has hinted that it is beyond his ken to get India to accept the 1948 UN Security Council resolutions.
Whatever else they achieve or donÃt, these elections have helped to banish the ghost of plebiscite in Kashmir. The Hurriyet leadership is now talking about a need for flexibility to address the issue, although they are clear that elections within a patently Indian framework are a no-no. After claiming victory in the polls, the Indian government is going to be under pressure from its western interlocutors to resume its quest for a dialogue with Pakistan as well as with the Hurriyet leadership.
There is a saying in Urdu: Shaikh bhi khush rahey, shaitan bhi naraaz na ho. In Kashmir the best known Shaikh was Shaikh Abdullah. But look what happened to him. His grave is the only grave in Kashmir that is guarded by armed security personnel. Such is the venom that many people have for him.
In fact, Shaikh Abdullah, and by association, his son and grandson, are seen by a majority of Kashmiris as less Shaikh and more shaitan. But this is the word the Iranians use for the Americans, and the one that the Americans would like to use for Saddam and the other members of the “axis of evil”.At some point, Kashmiris will be asked to express their solidarity with either the shaitan or the Shaikh. When that time comes, they may not know the difference. If indeed there is any.