Shahid Majeed Mir

Shades of politics in Kashmir!

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It was in the wake of disillusionment with the internal politics in general that the present phase of conflict found its roots. What marked the beginning of this phase was the disillusionment, and then, the decision of some of the Kashmiri youth who had participated in the elections as contestants, election agents, campaigners and sympathizers of candidates to cross over to Pakistan administered Kashmir for arms training. Moreover, apart from armed militancy, a spontaneous popular upsurge grew against the popular government of the time and the upsurge gradually began eroding the essence of mainstream politics in the valley of Kashmir. The separatist politics, manifested both through the armed militancy as well as spontaneous political response, took a more organized form with the establishment of the ‘All Party Hurriyat Conference (APHC)’ in 1993 and thus began a new era of politics in Kashmir.

The establishment of APHC as an umbrella organization0 was necessitated by the proliferation of militant groups which were at times operating at cross purposes. The ideological differences between these organisations and their internal strife, especially the war declared by Hizbul Mujahideen on the JKLF, generated a need for a loose-knit organisation that could give a sense of unity and common direction to the conflicting sides among the militants.

While Jammu and Ladakh regions remained more or less normal, the scope for the mainstream politics in the valley was shrinking day by day. As the legitimacy of the mainstream politics was openly challenged by the militants on the one hand, and the defiant masses on the streets of Kashmir on the other, the state was placed under the President’s rule for a prolonged period of time. In 1996, the electoral process was restored but the government that was formed after the Assembly election could not gain credence and it was generally believed that since the elections were organized with the help of the security forces and also the counter-insurgents, the government formed after the elections was not seen to be representing the popular will. Though NC had given the slogan of ‘autonomy’ to regain its hold in the local politics, there were not many takers of this slogan.

Despite the restoration of political process, separatist sentiment continued to hold sway. Though Kashmiris, by this time, had started reacting against the ‘culture of violence’ and very subtly rejecting and de-legitimizing militancy, their sympathies with separatist politics continued to be expressed through various demonstrations organized by the Hurriyat Conference. Mainstream politics, therefore, continued to work for and gain its fading credence.

A number of factors changed the popular response towards electoral and mainstream politics. Firstly, the urge for normalcy after the prolonged period of militant violence led to some kind of change of attitude towards the process of governance. By the time the 2002 Assembly election was concluded, the political processes related to governance had already found some legitimate space in Kashmir’s politics. Without any contradiction towards their separatist sentiments, people started involving themselves in the ‘politics related to governance’. This process was further boosted by a change in the nature of political mobilisation. With the emergence of People’s Democratic Party (PDP) as another Kashmir-based party, not only the electoral competition became quite intense, but the electoral discourse also became more grounded in the local realities. PDP referred to the Human Rights violations taking place in Kashmir and the need for providing ‘healing touch’ to people, and also raised the issue of conflict and its resolution through the process of dialogue with India, Pakistan and the separatists. Also significant were the initiatives being taken by the Vajpayee-led Government: declaring that India had made mistakes in Kashmir, Vajpayee made a commitment to hold a ‘free and fair election’. This commitment was an indirect acknowledgement of the intrusive role that the Centre had been playing in the power politics of the State since 1950s.

Separatism and Electoral Politics

Defiance of the boycott call and enthusiastic participation of people in the Assembly elections resulted in a sense of demoralisation in the separatist camp. The growing space of the mainstream politics did not induce a simultaneous shrinking of the separatist space, but it did lead to a change in orientation within the separatist camp. The impact of this shift could be seen during the Parliamentary elections, when Sajjad Gani Lone, a prominent separatist took the decision to contest the 2009 Parliamentary election from Baramula constituency of North Kashmir.

Sajjad Lone led one of the leading separatist organization- People’s Conference (PC)- which was a part of the All Party Hurriyat Conference (APHC) right from the time of its inception in 1993. As an amalgam of the separatist and militant organisations active in Kashmir, APHC represented the popular separatist sentiment in Kashmir.  A G Lone, father of Sajjad Lone and the founder of the People’s Conference was one of the most prominent leaders of the APHC, in fact, the most prominent leader. Though many other separatists had earlier joined the electoral fray, Sajjad Lone’s decision to contest Parliamentary election had an altogether different impact. Being a high profile separatist, at par with the top separatist leaders like Mirwaiz Omar Farooq, Ali Shah Geelani and Yasin Malik, one could see in his decision to contest election a crack within the separatist politics.

The crack was very small, not seeming to affect the separatists overtly but in reality had had a great psychological effect on the camp. More so, since his decision to contest election came in the wake of the massive participation of Kashmiris in the Assembly elections that year, separatists had been very aggressive in their boycott call during the 2009 Parliamentary elections. Though the call was initially given by Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the hardliner leader of the Hurriyat (G), the other faction of Hurriyat joined the boycott campaign. The voter enthusiasm was quite low this time. Against 51% turnout during the Assembly election, only 31.24% votes were registered during this election. It was partially the impact of the aggressive campaigning by the separatists that the voter participation during the Parliamentary elections was relatively low.

Bureaucracy in Electoral Politics

With the arrival of Shah Faesal into the realms of mainstream politics, many rumors, speculations, apprehensions and confusions are floating in the air. Dr Shah Faesal, the 2009 Indian Administrative Services’ topper, resigned from his service in protest against the unabated killings of Kashmiris and the lack of sincere reach-out from the Union Government (Atleast that is what he suggests to be the reason for his joining the mainstream politics). Since his resignation from the service he is being constantly debated and discussed on news channels, newspapers, in schools, colleges, universities, clubs etc. almost everywhere. Indian right wing media has equated the decision of Shah Faisal with radicalization and blamed Pakistan yet again while Pakistan and a section of Kashmiri society blamed Indian agencies for this and went on to say that it was intended to engage the young Kashmirs with the electoral politics.

Needless to say that there is a section of people who consider the decision of Dr Faisal to be a positive one stating that the society needed a leader like him. He has been honest and straight forward in his active service and will remain in the politics too, this is what is also being said.

Now everything around us, the masses, is the mixture of erstwhile separatism and bureaucracy in the electoral foray and there’s a growing ambiguity and obscurity regarding fortunes of mainstream politicians as well as that of separatists in Kashmir. The incoming assembly elections would be a litmus test to unravel the reality of such political compulsions with a clear insight of antagonistic poles in the fray.

Writer can be reached at [email protected]

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