Grassroots democracy and Kashmir’s political elite
To be fair to all players, Kashmir is one of the trickiest places in the world for political operations. Given the modern history of Kashmir and the evolution of mainstream politics in Kashmir valley, it is not easy to maneuver mainstream politics here in the wake of contradictory aspirations of the people of various constituents of the former state of Jammu & Kashmir, of which Kashmir valley is also a part. In the erstwhile state of Jammu & Kashmir, each sub-region was a complex mix of ethnic and religious communities with distinct history and different political aspirations and to balance among this all has always been very difficult for mainstream political parties.
The fact that there has been a constant meddling of federal government in the political affairs of Kashmir valley for initial 5 decades since independence also did not help the consolidation of grassrootss democracy, which was further complicated by the international conflict nature of Kashmir dispute and the three decades old insurgency, which has caused a wide scale death, destruction and displacement in Kashmir. So how can a level playing field be created under such challenging circumstances, which can allow the germination of grassrootss politics in Kashmir valley, is a question that continues to perplex everyone.
When looked in this context, it is easy to see that the politics – both mainstream as well as separatist that evolved in Kashmir valley has been largely elitist, under the domination of few upper caste Muslim families, who have virtually run both the mainstream and separatist camps in almost feudal manner, where common Kashmiri Muslim – be it from lower caste or poor upper caste have been used mostly as a cannon fodder for furthering different kind of political ideologies.
It is interesting to note that Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, founder of the modern mainstream politics in Kashmir valley recognized the upper caste ( both Hindu and Muslim) domination of the ruling elite very early on and based his politics among other on the issue of eradication of the dominance of the feudal order that existed in the former princely state of Jammu & Kashmir, which was reflected in the socialist bent of early National Conference and the revolutionary land reforms that was undertaken by him. What is however ironical is the fact that Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s family itself turned into a new feudal lord of Kashmir, something that he set out to eradicate in the first place. But it is not just the Abdullah clan, all other dominant families that control not only mainstream political parties of J&K but also separatist groups that are also under strict dominance of few families with little or no internal democracy. While this phenomenon of the furthering of nepotistic politics is not something that is unique only to Kashmir valley and is rather the prevailing reality of all parts of Indian subcontinent, in Kashmir valley, the same was exacerbated by the complete absence of grassroots politics, which gave an oversized importance to the institution of legislative body.
For decades, the erstwhile state of J&K was deprived of the governance through grassroots democratic institutions like village panchayats, city municipal corporations and district & block level elected development councils. The ruling mainstream of erstwhile state of J&K regardless of whichever political parties, they came from used the excuse of instability and insecurity prevailing in Kashmir valley to either not implement the grassroots political system in J&K or to do so half-heartedly. This indirectly resulted in the existence of an almost feudal like political system in Kashmir valley, where mainstream politics at grassroots levels was inaccessible to many politically aspiring people from middle, lower and backward classes.
The implementation of this three tier grassroots democratic institutions in recent years has severely disturbed this old feudal order and exposed its hollowness, which has been exemplified by the recently announced DDC elections. The so called “Peoples Alliance for Gupkar Declaration”(PAGD), which was hurriedly cobbled together by the Kashmir based traditional mainstream political parties to supposedly fight for the revocation of Article 370 and 35A of Indian constitution and restoration of statehood of J&K is today a messy picture of petty political fight between different constituent elements for claim over tickets to DDC seats. The near ugly infighting not only among various constituents of PAGD but also within different constituents of PAGD for tickets has resulted into official and proxy fights on nearly all DDC seats.
So, what happened to the high moralistic position taken by the PAGD to fight for the “honor” of Kashmiri people? The sad reality of Kashmir’s mainstream and separatist politics is its greedy and selfish control by few privileged clans, who have never allowed any space for political aspirations of common Kashmiris.
The introduction of Panchayat / Municipal, Block and now the district level grassroots political governance has finally given opportunity to a large number of politically aspiring Kashmiri Muslims to break this elite dominated old feudal order and forced this so called “Gupkar Alliance” to announce their participation in the DDC elections despite their supposedly high moralistic position taken just few weeks back of not fighting any election under the changed political status of the former J&K state.
This is indeed a political churning time for Kashmir’s politics, which is three decades late than the identity-based politics that took root in Hindi speaking state of UP and Bihar. While it is easy to blame everything on so called “communal forces”, the fact remains that it is the greed, complacency and opportunistic attitude of the elite Kashmiri of traditional (and separatist) forces that eventually has led to the dilution of their influence and their increasing irrelevance and not so much the external circumstances. Had the political order been more representative in Kashmir for all these years, such a precarious situation would not have been faced by the mainstream and separatist political system of Kashmir including the DDC dilemma faced by the PAGD.
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