Akeel Rashid

Rethink approach to rebuild the broken political system in Jammu and Kashmir

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The already-existing “distrust of politics” has steadily risen in Jammu and Kashmir during the last two years as the phase proved to be a tumultuous period for the erstwhile state that witnessed the worst political and economic disruptions in decades. From an alliance split and abrupt dissolution of the Assembly to change of special status, J&K witnessed a series of political upheavals in less than two years. On top of that, the attempts being made by the Centre to unanimously shape the narrative in J&K has suppressed the crucial political and civil discourses in the newly formed Union Territory. Thus, in such a scenario, it seems like politicians have turned away from people and people have turned away from politicians. That being said, nowadays, any sort of political discussion in J&K is met with staunch skepticism and feeling of exhaustion, not just at the political level but at the public level.

The case of ‘political fatigue’ in Kashmir

The political analysts didn’t have to try too hard to detect the palpable “political fatigue” in Kashmir. They have to analyze a) the “political demeanor” of politicians and b) the “political mood” of people vis-à-vis the developments following August 05, 2019, and their job is done. Speaking of “political demeanor”, soon after their release, the mainstream politicians were quick to share the experience of their “personal endurance” during their detention under Public Safety Act (PSA). However, they have had shown little to no “political endurance” since their release from the detention.

Notwithstanding that the people of J&K didn’t welcome or celebrate the release of political detainees, it was expected that the former detainees would express their opinions or take a stance against the Centre’s move to do away with Article 370. The point being that two major political parties of Jammu and Kashmir, National Conference and Peoples Democratic Party, have been operating on the ideologies of “Regional Autonomy” and “Self-rule” respectively. And the revocation of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir has rendered these ideologies irrelevant, and, more to the point, these ideologies have remained a central plank of the election manifestos of aforementioned political parties. Furthermore, the People’s Conference (PC) Party, headed by Sajad Gani Lone, has not also made any significant statement on post-August 05, 2019 decision. Worth mentioning here is that PC, that emerged as a new force in Kashmir politics during 2019, gave a tough competition to parties like NC and PDP in the Lok Sabha Polls. Meanwhile, the decision of Bureaucrat-turned-politician Shah Faesal to quit politics and step down as president of J&K Peoples’ Movement (JKPM), the party he floated last year, added layer of complexity to an already complex situation. Having said that, the politicians who remained in captivity following the abrogation of Article 370 have been maintaining silence or issue occasional guarded statements and this approach has been perceived by most of the people as a posture of surrendering to the BJP’s game plan in J&K.

On the one hand, the BJP MPs of Jammu region enjoyed the freedom of being able to reach out to the people. But on the other hand, the people of Kashmir region saw their elected leaders (Lok Sabha Members) – Dr Farooq Abdullah, Mohammad Akbar Lone and Hasnain Masoodi – being disempowered in the wake of abrogation of Article 370. While Dr. Farooq remained under detention, Lone and Masoodi were not initially allowed to meet him or his son (Omar Abdullah), let alone the public. They met the two former Chief Ministers on October 06, 2019, nearly two months after they were detained. But at the same time, the BJP MP from Ladakh, Jamyang Tsering Namgyal, was seen dancing with locals as he celebrated Ladakh’s Union Territory status, seven days after the abrogation of Article 370. This experience is directly linked to political mood decline among the people of Kashmir; who, unlike Jammuites, not just vote with their ballots but actually vote with their lives.

The way forward for navigating ‘distrust of politics’ and ‘political fatigue’ in Jammu and Kashmir

The period following the abrogation of Article 370 was loaded up with lofty pledges, targets, goals, and predictions by the Government of India and the same have gone largely unfulfilled. The rosy assessments made by the Prime Minister Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah with regard to the situation in J&K since the abrogation of Article 370 suggest that they are not content with slow and steady progress and expect a quick fix to the situation in Kashmir. They must acknowledge the reality and see the present situation in Jammu and Kashmir as a starting point and not a finish line. That is to say, one of the misconceptions that the Centre should stop believing immediately is that the Lt Governor can fix the J&K situation alone. That being said, Manoj Sinha should be asked by the Centre to leave the ground open for the local politicians as that is the only way to restart the political process – said to be his main task as LG of J&K.

The political leaders in J&K seem to have put the brakes on their half-hearted statements and finally decided to cope with the “political fatigue” as a number of political parties including National Conference, Congress and PDP took a stand against the abrogation of Article 370. “We are committed to strive for the restoration of Articles 370 and 35A, the Constitution of J&K and the restoration of the State and any division of the State is unacceptable to us. We unanimously reiterate that there can be ‘nothing about us without us’”, said Dr. Farooq Abdullah (JKNC), Mehbooba Mufti (JKPDP), GA Mir (JKPCC), M Y Tarigami of CPI (M), Sajad Gani Lone (JKPC) and Muzaffar Shah (JKANC) in a joint statement on Saturday (22-08-2019). It is expected that this stand of J&K politicians is not met with a punitive response by drawing a false equivalence between political opposition and maintaining public order – as was done in the last year.

If everything goes well, the politicians should start reaching out to the people of UT. Of course, it goes without saying that in the midst of a pandemic in-person meetings are not appreciated; however, technology-aided approaches – except for the tweets – should be employed by the politicians and their workers to reconnect with the people. It remains to be seen, apart from the constraints imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, whether the politicians would face any deliberately constructed obstacles. More importantly, it would be seen as a test of the sincerity of the government to start political process in J&K.

The Election Commission of India (ECI) has issued “broad guidelines” for holding elections during the coronavirus pandemic. In this connection, the Lt Governor and politicians need to interact and deliberate over the possibility of conducting elections in the UT of Jammu and Kashmir. Of course, the responsibility to hold the elections can’t be put entirely on politicians. The UT Government, Centre, and their policies, ultimately have the power to start the process of holding elections in Jammu and Kashmir.

The ECI should let people of Jammu and Kashmir exercise the most fundamental freedom they have to ensure that everyone feels represented. And if the transfer of power, through a free and fair election, is further delayed it wouldn’t be hyperbole to say that it could sow the seeds of another “unrest” in the trouble-torn Jammu and Kashmir.

– The author can be reached at [email protected]

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