IPCS Special Commentary

J&K: Forthcoming Elections and the Peace Process

30 Jun, 2014    ·   4535

Dr Ashok Bhan says that the creation of a safe environment for voters will be another step forward towards peace in the state

Ashok Bhan
Ashok Bhan
Distinguished Fellow

A series of credible democratic exercises since 1996 have contributed positively to the peace process in Jammu and Kashmir. It may be recalled that the present conflict was triggered by what is often alleged to be the denial of political space to the Muslim United Front in the assembly elections in 1987. Therefore, it is not surprising that credible elections have helped in turning the clock backwards though with a caveat. Elections alone may not resolve the conflict, which has political connotations particularly related to Centre-State relations and involvement of an external player. But they have throw up alternatives and opportunities for conflict resolution.

Strengthening of democratic institutions in Jammu and Kashmir has been the most important positive political intervention post Pakistan-sponsored terrorism began in Jammu and Kashmir in the late 1980s. As soon as the security forces brought the situation under some control and the Jammu and Kashmir Police was strengthened to carry out anti-militancy operations, the Central Government and Gen KV Krishna Rao, who took over as Governor of Jammu and Kashmir in March 1993, began focusing on the resumption of the political process. Initially, it took a great deal of persuasion to rope in even the mainstream parties as terrorist violence had not abated and it was taking a heavy toll on political leaders and workers. Yet, despite the loss of precious lives, this was a decision with far-reaching consequences as the subsequent events have shown. The state had to be brought out of the vicious circle and governance restored to the elected representatives.

State Assembly elections were held in 1996 (with a voter turnout of 53.9 per cent) after a prolonged period of Governor/ President’s rule in the state. This, and following elections in 2002 and 2008 (43.1 and 61.5 per cent turnout respectively), have thrown up different possibilities, alternatives and opportunities. There is political stability in the state. The democratic institutions have provided enough opportunity to the people to raise their grievances before their elected representatives. The voter turnout in elections has seen a healthy improvement. A few separatists have joined the electoral politics and others have put up proxy candidates. The response to boycott the call to elections and routine the ‘hartal’ calls of separatists is weakening. The manifestos of regional parties for the forthcoming Assembly elections will prominently carry their prescriptions for the resolution of the ‘K’ issue. This will add to the churning process aimed at reaching a consensus. 

Simultaneously, elections to the Lok Sabha were held in 1996, 1998, 1999, 2004, 2009, and more recently, in 2014. A historic election to Panchayats as part of strengthening grassroots democracy with 80 per cent voter turnout was held in 2011 after a gap of nearly 30 years.

The performance of successive Governments, their achievements and empowering of Panchayats can be the subject matter of debate but that democracy has taken roots cannot be disputed. This is a positive development in the peace process.

It may be recalled that the 1987 Assembly elections had witnessed a high voter turnout of about 75 per cent but the credibility of the polls has been widely questioned. The response of the electorate to the November 1989 Lok Sabha election held just before the conflict took a dangerous turn was a clear indicator of the events to come. Baramulla and Anantnag PCs in Kashmir valley polled a mere 5.48 and 5.07 per cent votes respectively and the Srinagar PC returned the NC candidate unopposed as no one showed a willingness to test the waters. The impact of discontent was felt even in the Udhampur PC of Jammu region by recording an unusually low poll percentage of about 40. This constituency, geographically close to south Kashmir, included areas of erstwhile Doda district which saw terrorist violence at a high pitch in later years. The National Conference won all the 3 seats from the valley getting a mere 6.8 per cent of votes polled in the state. The voters, particularly in the valley and Doda district, had shown their disenchantment with electoral politics and alienation was there for everyone to see. No elections could be held in Jammu and Kashmir due to the disturbed conditions during the May-June 1991 Lok Sabha polls.

Comparing the 1989 Lok Sabha elections with the recently concluded 2014 General Elections makes an interesting reading. The pattern of turnout is indicative of the change on the ground. The voter response in Baramulla, Srinagar and Anantnag constituencies in the valley has been 39, 26 and 29 per cent respectively. The poll percentage in the state increased from 25.6 in 1989 to 49.5 in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. There have been fluctuations in voter turnout in the valley in the intervening Lok Sabha and Assembly polls but it is gradually stabilising. People have shown faith in democratic institutions. Healthy poll percentages may not mean the end of the conflict but they do reflect the popular mood and increasing faith in democracy.

Separatists continue to hold sway in downtown Srinagar when it comes to election times. The low voter response in some areas in North and South Kashmir is due to the presence of terrorists as well as influence of separatists. There were terror-related incidents and some major operations by security forces in these low voter turnout areas in Sopore, Pulwama and Shopian districts before and after the recent Lok Sabha elections. Terrorists shot at and killed Mohd Anwar Sheikh, a village headman, in village Amlar Tral in Pulwama district on 01 April. In another incident, militants shot dead Sarpanch Ghulam Nabi Mir affiliated to Congress party and his son Firdous Ahmed Mir in the Tral area. A Sarpanch affiliated to the PDP Mohd Amin Pandit was killed in Awantipur area by terrorists on 17 April. A poll party was attacked on 24 April by militants in Pulwama district, killing a poll staff. A two-day encounter with terrorists ended in Shopian with the killing of 3 HM terrorists on 26 April. An Army Major and sepoy laid down their lives. A grenade exploded in Magam hours before the election rally of Dr Farooq Abdullah, injuring 17 persons on 27 April. These all were aimed at terrorising the voters.

The response of voters in the elections leaves telltale marks about the situation on the ground in different areas. The low voter turnout though confined to a limited area is a reminder of alienation, threat of terrorists and influence of separatists. In this election too low voter turnout in Sopore and parts of Baramulla town in Baramulla PC; certain assembly segments of downtown Srinagar in Srinagar PC and Pulwama- Shopian belt in Anantnag PC clearly delineate areas needing attention of the Government and its agencies. These areas will have to be ‘liberated’ from the influence of terrorists and separatists to allow people to exercise their democratic right to vote. The election authorities, state administration and security forces will have to create the right conditions particularly in these areas so that willing voters are able to exercise their franchise freely and fairly without harassment or intimidation during the forthcoming Assembly elections due towards the end of the year 2014.

The district wise breakup of poll percent in Baramulla PC brings home some interesting facts. Kupwara district which has witnessed the participation of separatists or their proxy candidates over the last few years has polled 63 percent votes, Bandipora district over 35 per cent and Baramulla district which includes the Sopore belt a mere 25 per cent. Mainstreaming of separatists by encouraging them to participate in the electoral process will be a positive step forward for the peace process. Having failed to capture power by the gun, some separatists are not averse to this idea. Jamaat-e-Islami is known to have allowed its supporters to vote in favor of select candidates and not to press for poll boycott in earlier elections. Can the ‘Kupwara model’ work in other areas to neutralise the effect of boycott calls, threats and violence?

Separatists, and terrorists at their behest, opposed the Panchayat elections. The elected members were threatened and killed. They were labeled as Government agents and often criticised by the separatists. The threat increased to such an extent that many Panchayat members decided to resign. It is another matter that the Government’s failure to empower Panchayats made the elections to these bodies much less meaningful. Terrorists and separatists were thus relieved of the fear of losing support at the grassroots to elected Panchayats. There is a need for a fresh look at empowering Panchayati Raj institutions including adopting the 73rd and 74th amendments of the Constitution of India and elections to local bodies.

Pakistan and their separatist supporters are averse to the strengthening of democratic institutions in the state. It is amply proved by the increase in infiltration, escalation of violence and killing of political activists during earlier elections. This time there is the additional threat that may be triggered by the drawdown of US troops from Afghanistan and apprehension in some circles of the threat posed by Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. The challenges that the Government is likely to face in the run-up to the assembly elections include keeping in check any attempts by Pakistan to send terrorists to escalate violence, dealing imaginatively with protests sponsored by separatists, and providing security to candidates, political activists and public meetings. It would be naïve to think that the role of the security grid has in any way lessened for the forthcoming Assembly election than in the last three held since 1996. An environment will have to be created particularly in low turnout areas by maintaining peace and keeping terrorists at bay so that voters can fearlessly exercise their franchise in the Assembly elections. Success in this will be another step forward in the peace process in Jammu and Kashmir.

Dr Ashok Bhan is a retired IPS officer. After his retirement, he served as a Member of the Indian National Security Adviser Board (2010-2012). Currently he is a Distinguished Fellow at the IPCS.