In 1996, when no one thought elections could be held in Kashmir, given that an armed conflict had been simmering in the region since 1988, the Central government took the risk of conducting polls in Jammu and Kashmir after it had extended President’s rule in the state several times in a row.

The experiment worked and set off a series of electoral exercises amid promises such as giving consideration to the demand for greater autonomy and holding talks with pro-freedom political leaders to arrive at a solution on Kashmir. Those were the years when New Delhi even held talks with militant outfit Hizbul Mujahideen on one occasion.

The intense, unrelenting armed conflict that had stretched on for eight years had resulted in some fatigue among the people. It provided for some political space for the government’s democracy project.

Some of the elections that followed recorded polling percentages that surprised many, such as 35%, 39% and 50% in the 2004, 2009 and 2014 parliamentary elections, respectively. The Assembly polls recorded even higher voter turnouts – 53%, 43%, 61% and 66% in 1996, 2002, 2008 and 2014, respectively, according to the Election Commission. New Delhi boasted to the world that Kashmiris preferred the ballot to the bullet.

Pakistan – partly because of the changing geopolitical situation following the 9/11 terrorist attacks – also felt the need to engage with elected representatives of Kashmir such as Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti. And they, too, made visits to Pakistan and held talks with its political brass.

But now, with violence marring the bye-election to the Srinagar Lok Sabha seat on Sunday, and a re-poll in 38 polling stations on Thursday culminating in a slighting 2% voter turnout, New Delhi’s democracy project in Kashmir seems to have come a cropper.

Over the years, it had served as a trump card for India in managing the Kashmir conflict, the visuals of voters lining up outside polling booths – mostly in the rural areas – helping New Delhi weave a narrative about the Valley internationally.

The re-poll in 38 polling stations in Srinagar Lok Sabha constituency on Thursday saw a dismal 2% voter turnout. Photo credit: Reuters.

How BJP botched it up

There is no swiping that trump card anymore, it seems, thanks to a series of blows the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government at the Centre seems to have dealt mainstream politics in Kashmir, even as it rode the high of its victory in the highly polarised 2014 general elections.

Recent developments, such as the tough position adopted by New Delhi on holding talks with Kashmiri separatists and repeated statements about merging the state completely with India, have anguished Kashmiri youth like never before. They now openly support militants and don’t hesitate to resort to violent measures while rejecting New Delhi’s rule over Kashmir.

The Kashmiri people had expected Prime Minister Narendra Modi to deliver on Kashmir, given the massive mandate he got. The state election results that left the Assembly hung and the unexpected alliance of the BJP with People’s Democratic Party soon followed. If the BJP came with the reputation of Right-Wing Hindutva, the PDP was known as “soft separatists”. There was much cynicism, but the optimists hoped that perhaps the two would end up moderating each other. But such hopes did not stand a chance after Modi delivered a public snub to then Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed in a joint public meeting in Srinagar.

Photo credit: AFP.

“I don’t need advice or analysis from anyone in this world on Kashmir,” Modi said in response to the elderly chief minister’s suggestion about embarking on a big-brotherly friendship and dialogue with Pakistan. If so far there had only been talk about a client-master relationship between the Centre and the state, now there was proof for the cynics.

It was seen and projected as a calculated insult. Controversies over Article 370, resettlement colonies, protests over NIT and beef ban in the state were seen to be similar deliberate attempts to show down the Kashmiris.

That was not all. Each protest was met with a heavy jackboot. New Delhi and the BJP-PDP government in Jammu and Kashmir, it seemed, wanted to look at Kashmir through nothing but a security prism. One of the latest examples of this is the support lent by the BJP to Army Chief General Bipin Rawat’s threat to stone-pelters. Rawat had said in February that those who came to the aid of militants would be dealt with as militants themselves.

Statements made by various BJP leaders in recent months about minorities, especially Muslims, have only bolstered the perception in the Valley that the BJP is not interested in bringing a durable peace to Muslim-majority Kashmir.

Last year, Adityanath, who is now chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, had said that the family of Mohammad Akhlaq, who was lynched by a mob in the state’s Dadri town on suspicion of eating beef , should face criminal charges. In June 2015, while referring to the state government’s proposal to establish colonies for retired soldiers in Kashmir, BJP MP Tarun Vijay was quoted as saying that this would be “like planting saffron in Kashmir”.

And on May 21 last year, it was reported that BJP leader and minister in the state cabinet, Lal Singh, had threatened a group of Muslims in Jammu with action that would remind them of 1947, the year associated with the massacre of Muslims in the region.

So it was not just the feeling of persecution but also strident assertions of the coming of the Hindu Rashtra and that the “anti-nationals” should leave the land and go away to Pakistan.

Likewise, it was not just the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani in July 2016 but the bellicose triumphalism of news TV channels that played a big part in fanning the fire of resentment and anger that led to an unending cycle of violence.

In the age of mobile phones, internet and social media, violations of human rights are not easy to hide. In the Valley’s polarised battlefield, as The Indian Express headline put it, phone is weapon, video ammo.

Kashmiri youth now openly support militants and don’t hesitate to resort to violent measures. Photo credit: Rouf Bhat/AFP.

Kashmir’s weak mainstream

The Mehbooba Mufti-led Peoples Democratic Party’s alleged total surrender to the BJP has also contributed to worsening the political and security atmosphere in Kashmir.

The party that once boasted of achieving “peace with dignity” is now accused of making compromises on whatever little political leverage and political dignity Kashmiris had, and of forgeting its promise of self-rule for Kashmir.

The Opposition National Conference, mindful of its own deeds in the past, has also failed to do anything that could assuage the anxieties of Kashmiris. Celebrated Kashmiri cartoonist Bashir Ahmad Bashir recently portrayed the party’s political position on Kashmir through a cartoon featuring its patron, Farooq Abdullah, and his son Omar Abdullah, the party’s working president. In the cartoon, Omar Abdullah asks his father, “Papa, what do we want: autonomy or freedom for Kashmir?” Only to hear this: “We want power/throne.”

In another cartoon, Bashir portrays the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological parent of the BJP, as a champion skier in Kashmir, with the Peoples Democratic Party and the BJP as its two skis.

All of this has resulted in disasppointment for Kashmiris. Those who are familiar with the Valley’s politics know how the situation is shaping up, more so after last year’s violent summer and the BJP hardening its stance even more in the wake of the surgical strikes against Pakistan in September and its electoral victories in several states, especially in Uttar Pradesh last month.

Clear message

All these developments in the past three years have sent out a signal that any hope for a possibility of a political settlement on Kashmir, even within the Indian Constitution, is far-fetched.

A clear manifestation of Kashmir getting politically charged is how its people, especially the youth, are interpreting the BJP’s Kashmir policy. Their actions are a clear message to the BJP that if it rejects political negotiations for a solution on Kashmir, they too could respond by boycotting the elections and veering towards supporting violent protests.