Explaining the Paradox of J&K Elections

Ellora Puri

The large number of people who turned out to vote in the 2008 J&K elections surprised most observers and political commentators. Despite all the apprehensions stemming out of the turmoil that the state witnessed from June onward in connection with the Amarnath Yatra land issue, the polls were a success with a 61.23 per cent turnout, the highest since the militancy started in 1989. The success was acknowledged by the whole political spectrum across the State. Both the mainstream parties as well as the separatists – barring Syed Ali Shah Geelani – acknowledged that no forced rigging took place. In fact, separatist leaders like the Mirwaiz and Sajjad Lone conceded that the large voting turnout was indicative of the popular mood, when they emphasized the need for introspection in the separatist camp post-elections. Also, unlike the earlier elections, 2008 saw a complete absence of – threatened or real – militancy-related violence in the State.
The elections were held in the backdrop of a high degree of political mass mobilization reflected in the massive rallies and demonstrations that took place from June onwards at different times in the Kashmir and Jammu regions separately. The precipitant for this was the issue of transfer of 800 canals of land to the Shri Amarnath Yatra Shrine Board (SAYSB) for housing the Amarnath pilgrims during the Yatra period. The government order was perceived by the Kashmiris as a ploy to hand over Kashmiri land permanently to outsiders as well as change the demography of the Muslim-majority state. It resulted in large scale street protests in the Valley, leading to the withdrawal of the order by the coalition government. This, in turn, elicited a counter reaction in the Hindi majority Jammu region, where the revocation was seen as a capitulation by the government to the Kashmiri sentiments.
The internal regional differences, so far little noticed by political observers and commentators, came to the fore in this period in the guise of protests surrounding the SAYSB agitations. The Jammu region has long nursed a feeling of neglect and discrimination in comparison to Kashmir for the last sixty-one years post-1947. This perception is widely prevalent in the whole region, in the both the Hindu and Muslim majority areas.
In this case, however, since the issue was religious and the agitation was started by the Sangharsh Samiti supported primarily by Sangh Parivar, it acquired communal overtones. Incidents such as targeting of Gujjars and Muslims made it more so. However, the most gratuitous act that happened at this time was the issuance of a call by some members of the Sangharsh Samiti for the blockade of Jammu-Srinagar highway. This led to a reaction in the Kashmir Valley that nobody had foreseen. The number of people which came out on the streets to protest against a call given by a Jammu-based organization was unprecedented. According to many observers the numbers were as high, if not higher, as 1989-90 agitation days. The slogan that the participants were raising was of azadi (freedom). Many Indian commentators, in the wake of this mass upsurge, called for acknowledgement of the sentiment of azadi, and some even expressed support for it.   
Yet, in spite of all this political upheaval in the months preceding the elections, the opinion that the azadi slogans that echoed in the Valley along with the separatist's boycott call would result in minimal election participation, was proved wrong by the high voter turnout. The most surprising element was that many newspaper reports actually said that people after participating in the azadi rallies would go to the polling booths to cast their votes. 
Besides the high 61.23 percent voting turnout, the elections were competitively also very dynamic. A record number of 1354 candidates, including 67 women, contested the elections. The number of parties fighting the elections increased and a high number of independent candidates participated in the elections as well. For the first time BJP decided to field candidates in the Valley (and interestingly enough raised slogans like Allah-u-Akbar in its rallies) and BSP, which is increasingly becoming an important player in the national politics, also fought the elections in the State.
What explains this puzzling paradox of high street level politics against the Indian state co-existing with a large scale participation in the Indian electoral process? Are the sentiments informing the two different and mutually exclusive? Indeed not. It was same sentiment, I would argue, that saw its expression in both the cases. The term azadi is very amorphously defined by Kashmiri leaders as well as the people shouting the slogans. However, it is an expression of the Kashmiri people's need to determine their own future on their own terms, whatever it might be. And this expression does not preclude the desire for people to express the need for better governance.While the separatist leadership needs to be able to define this amorphous sentiment more coherently, the Indian state needs to acknowledge the existence of a sentiment for freedom and deal with it in a manner which behoves a democracy.