A Fresh Crisis in the Kashmir Valley

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A Fresh Crisis in the Kashmir Valley

The recent by-poll in Srinagar was marked by violence and abysmally low voter turnout.

A Fresh Crisis in the Kashmir Valley

Indian police try to stop supporters of Kashmir’s main opposition National Conference (NC) party during a protest against what the supporters say was use of force on protesting students, in Srinagar (April 18, 2017).

Credit: REUTERS/Danish Ismail

On April 9, the Kashmir Valley saw a fresh bout of violence and protests during the voting for the Srinagar parliamentary constituency. Instances of violence were noted in many places, with reports describing incidents of stone pelting on polling stations, sabotage, pitched battles between security forces and protesters, and obstructing the poll officials from performing their duties. The day ended with eight civilian deaths at the hands of Indian security forces.

The voter turnout in by-polls was recorded at 7.15 percent — the lowest in three decades. In 38 polling stations in the Srinagar constituency, re-polling was ordered by the Election Commission (EC), which took place on April 12. Those re-polls saw an abysmal voter turnout of 2 percent, with many polling stations witnessing nil voting.

Former Chief Minister and senior National Conference (NC) politician Dr. Farooq Abdullah won the polls, defeating the candidate from the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP). In his comments after the victory, Abdullah said, “These were the worst elections in history due to bloodshed. No doubt I have won but we have lost precious lives, that is why we are not happy with this win.” He also demanded dismissal of the Jammu and Kashmir government led by Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti.

Most of the incidents of violence during the by-poll on April 9 took place in central Kashmir’s Budgam district, which is part of the Srinagar parliamentary constituency. The district had remained relatively peaceful in previous instances of protests and unrest. In fact, the official Crime Gazette 2014, which provides the firsthand information about the crime situation in the state, reported Budgam district as a militancy free district. But the violence of April 9 may now have changed its reputation of being calm.

The violence witnessed during the voting in state capital Srinagar made the nervous EC decide to defer the next by-polls, for Anantnag parliamentary constituency — the citadel of power for Mufti. Those by-polls were scheduled for April 12, but have now been postponed to May 25.

The initial voter turnout of 7.15 percent in Srinagar has taken many by surprise and worried the Indian authorities, as they have touted voter turnouts in previous elections as a vindication of India’s stand on Kashmir.

Starting in July last year, the Kashmir Valley witnessed violence for five months after the killing of Burhan Wani, a charismatic militant commander. He was part of the Hizbul Mujahideen, a militant group comprising mostly local Kashmiris and guided by Syed Salahuddin, based in Pakistan-held Kashmir. Wani’s death in an encounter with Indian security forces sparked massive protests in the Valley and the region was paralyzed for many months. While eventually the protests subsided, anger persisted among the Kashmiris, who felt increasingly alienated from India and frustrated with the tactics New Delhi used to deal with their political demands.

The low voter turnout and the violence of April 9 stem from this anger and frustration.

But many trace the roots of political disillusionment to the ruling alliance of the People’s Democratic Party  (PDP) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), forged after the 2014 assembly elections.

In 2010, under the rule of the NC, Kashmir saw its worst mass unrest, fueled by the case of a fake encounter in northern Kashmir carried out by Indian security forces. At that time, the NC government was accused of using excessive force against the young protesters. The unrest claimed the lives of more than 100 youths and resulted in the damage and destruction of public and private property. It also entailed a huge loss to the business community and tourism sector in Kashmir. While the subsequent years saw a relative calm, the people of Kashmir didn’t forget the mayhem of 2010. So it was all but natural that in the 2014 assembly elections, people voted based on the negative experience of NC rule. An additional concern for Kashmiris was the right-wing BJP’s attempts to make inroads in the Kashmir Valley. All this resulted in the PDP wining most of the seats in the Valley.

Therefore its alliance with the BJP after the elections shocked many Kashmiris, leaving them frustrated with mainstream politics.

“The PDP-BJP coalition has backtracked from some of the key points of the so-called agenda of alliance like partial or complete revocation of the draconian laws like the infamous Armed Forces Special Power Act, return of power projects to Kashmir, and opening the channels of dialogue with the neighboring country, Pakistan. Lack of any forward movement on the political front has not only left the people dejected but has also raised the alienation to its highest level,” Suhail Bhat, a journalist based in Kashmir, told The Diplomat.

While the concern over the alliance is justified, many have in fact developed weariness about mainstream politics in general and the political parties hobnobbing with India.

“I do feel people have lost the faith in mainstream politics, more especially the intellectual class, owing to certain unacceptable policies and programs of the government, be it anyone — the NC, PDP or some other party. Everyone has its own history and carry an equal share of hatred,” Javid Wani, who has an M.Phil. in political science, told The Diplomat.

“Alienation of the masses from the current PDP-BJP regime is total and complete because the coalition took certain and probably all initiatives either contrary or against the generally held opinions,” he added.

The dismal voter turnout has worried many national politicians in New Delhi.

Former Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram, under whose directions Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri and a convict in the 2001 Indian Parliament attack case who was executed in 2013, sparking days of violence, recently said that he had a sinking feeling that Kashmir was nearly lost for India because India has used brute force to quell dissent there. He was quoted by a national daily as saying that the seven million people of the Kashmir Valley felt alienated by the oppressive methods of the Indian government, which was a “terrible” mistake. “The statement of Chief of Army Staff Bipin Rawat that anyone who interfered with defense operations would be treated as anti-national was the last straw,” he was quoted as saying by the newspaper.

Experts believe that the statement from a former Indian home minister is an acknowledgment of the grave situation in the Valley.

Dr. Sheikh Showkat Hussain, a professor of political science at Central University of Kashmir told The Diplomat that “India should worry about the grave situation in the Valley and should realize that there is almost absolute alienation of Kashmiris.” The prevailing sentiment now, according to Hussain, is a desire to separate from India “and not to compromise.” He also believes that people here lost faith in the political system a long time ago. “They were each time motivated to vote due to several reasons and with the passage of time they have become mature,” he said.

The rejection of mainstream politics as well as the anger and violence spilling out on Kashmir’s streets make it clear that India will need some “out of the box” thinking to address Kashmir’s political aspirations. The locals are no longer enamored by promises of basic amenities such as roads, electricity, and water from India and the mainstream politicians, but perceive these as a way to divert from addressing the real issue of Kashmiris’ right to self-determination.

Um-Roommana is a freelance journalist based in Kashmir.