Although Pakistan must be jubilant over the decision to exclude the 87-member Jammu and Kashmir state assembly from the polls scheduled for April and May, it is difficult to see what else the Chief Election Commissioner could have done. An understandably disappointed Omar Abdullah, the former chief minister, calls Sunil Arora’s decision an “abject surrender to anti-India forces” and “a crying shame”.
But would elections, if held, be free and fair? Certainly, this is one state where the magic and mystery of “surgical strikes” into Pakistan will not garner votes for Narendra Modi as his sycophantic followers – Adityanand, for instance – seem to think.
Democracy under the shadow of khaki and guns is no democracy. It is tragic that Kashmir should be reduced to this pass but there is a limit to the number of soldiers that can be mobilised for one state when the entire country is going to the polls. The request earlier this month by all the political parties in the state for simultaneous polls for both the Lok Sabha and the state assembly would certainly have been ideal but there was no guarantee of security for the exercise.
The CEC has a plausible point when he says that having to hold the Anantnag Lok Sabha constituency election in south Kashmir, where militants are active, in three phases makes the situation “complicated” and that the “security of candidates” cannot be guaranteed. Troop movement from one threatened constituency to another is bound to be severely hampered.
Given the absence of public cooperation in a state that has been under President’s rule since December when six months of Governor’s rule expired, and widespread distrust of the authorities, electioneering cannot be free either. The crisis didn’t begin in June last year when the Bharatiya Janata Party withdrew support to Mehbooba Mufti’s People’s Democratic Party government, and the assembly was dissolved.
The crisis dates back to October 26 – or should it be October 27? – of 1947 when Maharaja Hari Singh put his signature to what the distinguished British historian, Alastair Lamb, called “no more than a printed form, not unlike an application for a driving licence, with blank spaces left for the name of the State, the signature of the Maharaja and the date; and it also contained a printed form of acceptance which required dating and signature by Mountbatten as Governor-General”.
However it may have been camouflaged, Kashmir has been in turmoil ever since. Hari Singh’s only right to sign away the state was that his great grandfather, Gulab Singh, a Dogra general at the court of Ranjit Singh, the Sikh ruler, paid the British 75 lakh Sikh rupees and an annual tribute of “twelve pashmina goats and three pairs of shawls” to rob Ranjit Singh’s defeated heirs of the territory and pass it on to him.
It is no secret that the election to the state’s first Constituent Assembly, which ratified Hari Singh’s instrument of accession, was flawed. Subsequent legislative elections inspired little confidence either. The present governor’s administration’s attempt to hold panchayat and municipal elections turned out to be a farce.
The turn-out in the Kashmir Valley, home to seven million Kashmiris, was 8.2 per cent and 3.3 per cent in the first and second phases respectively. Srinagar Municipal Corporation boasted a poll percentage of 1.8 per cent. Out of the total 1,145 wards, 244 wards were uncontested.
The All Parties Hurriyat Conference, an alliance of 26 separatist political, social and religious organisations formed in March 1993, had ordained a boycott. Kashmir’s police chief, S P Vaid, had warned the time was not opportune for elections. The National Conference and the PDP had decided to stay away. The Congress was a reluctant and hesitant participant.
No list of candidates was published. Those who took the risk in the Kashmir Valley were held as virtual prisoners in heavily guarded hotels. There was none of the blaring fanfare, posters and publicity that we associate with election campaigns. No votes were cast in many wards. Many wards had no candidates at all.
The sole candidate was deemed to have been elected unopposed in many wards. No electoral exercise could have been more of a charade. Repeating it on a larger scale would not have made the process credible. It would only have provided the Hurriyat and its allies in Pakistan with further ammunition about how democracy is manipulated by New Delhi because it has no confidence in the people of Kashmir.
Mr Modi’s muscular, militaristic and majoritarian policies have undoubtedly worsened the atmosphere there. His bullying methods, including trying to pressure the Valley’s media by withdrawing advertisements from the leading local newspapers, are threatening to destroy whatever little goodwill remained. But it must be admitted that Jawaharlal Nehru was the original offender, and that his daughter was not much better.
Three salient points about the accession on which the world’s largest democracy bases its case must be stressed. First, Hari Singh did not consult a single Kashmiri when he decided to join India. Second, the grey eminence of the accession was his sworn enemy, Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah, whom Nehru had forced on him. Finally, the accession was only in respect of defence, foreign relations and communications.
Now, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court Bar Association laments that “260 out of 395 Articles of the Indian constitution, 94 out of 97 entries in the Union list and 26 of the 47 entries in the Concurrent list, have been extended” to Kashmir “in a brazen manner.”
The most recent erosion of Kashmir’s contractual autonomy is through the extension to the state of the new 10 per cent quota for economically weaker sections as well as the central law making Dalit and tribal state employees eligible for reservation in promotions. The objection is not to the substance of these measures but that such impositions further trample on Kashmir’s already diluted rights.
We must be prepared for the danger of civil war if the concealed aim is to dispense with Articles 370 and 35A and convert Jammu and Kashmir into another Indian state like, say, Karnataka. Lord Mountbatten’s promise that Hari Singh’s accession “should be decided in accordance with the wishes of the people of the State” must have enjoyed the endorsement of both Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel.
Elections or no elections, secular, liberal and democratic India cannot sweep aside its own most sacred beliefs on the strength of a feudal despot’s signature. Rhetorical bombast and ad hoc adventurism are no substitute for a coherent policy that fulfils the obligations of democracy. India cannot ignore Mr Omar Abdullah’s anguished plea that “Kashmir isn’t just a piece of land; it’s the people that inhabit it”.
Sunanda K Datta-Ray is the author of several books and a regular media columnist.