As the Jammu and Kashmir governor dissolved the state assembly on Wednesday, local residents on watched with grim satisfaction. For many, it confirmed an old belief: that elected governments in the state rose and fell at Delhi’s behest.
“It’s a fact that people don’t care here but, at the same time, most of the conversation since yesterday has been around how easy it is for New Delhi to dispose of mainstream politicians of Kashmir,” said Habeel Iqbal, a lawyer from South Kashmir’s Shopian district, a hub of militancy in the Valley. “It has solidified the narrative that India can do anything in Kashmir.”
The state has been under governor’s rule since June, when the Bharatiya Janata Party walked out of a coalition with the People’s Democratic Party, causing the elected government to fall. On Wednesday, the assembly was dissolved after an tentative alliance consisting of the Congress, the National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party made a bid to form government, prompting the People’s Conference and the Bharatiya Janata Party to make a rival claim. Both plans were thwarted, feeding into simmering anger in the Valley against parties that took part in mainstream electoral politics in the state.
“Most people are happy. Whether someone votes or not, everybody was following it,” Habeel said on Thursday. “What the governor did yesterday also served as an outlet for many to vent their frustration against mainstream politics here. It seemed that they were saying, ‘This is what they deserve.’”
Many of the Valley’s younger residents were also left unmoved by the announcement of a possible “grand alliance” between the Congress, the People’s Democratic Party and the National Conference. The parties had agreed to band together “in principle”, their leadership claimed, mainly to protect the identity and special status of Jammu and Kashmir. Over the last few months, there had been growing anxieties about the BJP doing away with Article 370 and Article 35A, provisions which guaranteed the state special rights and autonomies.
While rumours of a BJP-People’s Conference alliance have been brewing for some time, the bonhomie between the National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party was unprecedented. Both are Valley-based parties and have been staunch rivals ever since the People’s Democratic Party was formed in 1999.
By Thursday, the brief union seemed over, as National Conference leader Omar Abdullah announced they would not ally with Mehbooba Mufti’s People’s Democratic Party for the next assembly elections, whenever they take place. But the moment of rapprochement has not quite passed yet. The National Conference and Congress said that the People’s Democratic Party, which had been the single largest party in the recent assembly, had to decide whether it wanted to approach the court to appeal against the “undemocratic” dissolution of the legislature.
In North Kashmir’s Sopore, 27-year-old Umer Farooq, a young entrepreneur, viewed the possible alliance with scepticism. “The turn of events on Wednesday has exposed the Indian establishment here. Anyone who doesn’t dance on the tunes of New Delhi will face such humiliation,” he said. I don’t think [it will have] much impact on ground but this idea has given them a chance to save face a bit.”
Not that voters would pin much faith in it, he felt. “If this alliance was formed, tomorrow these same parties will have gone to people and deceived them again. These are all political gimmicks. But as far as youth are concerned, they understand these things well.”
Twenty nine-year-old Samreen Mushtaq, who has just completed a PhD at the department of political science in Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi, was even more dismissive of the the assertion of regional parties. “This has nothing to do with calming down tempers in Kashmir,” she said. “In fact, the people really don’t figure in this whole exercise. It is these parties, their electoral dividends, their need for power that is central to this exercise. The only point is that this is just a larger part of the jamhooriyat ka janaaza [funeral of democracy] that you anyway see every day in Kashmir.”
Those like Mushtaq, who support the demand for self-determination in Kashmir, rejected the regional parties’ stand as mere grandstanding against Delhi. “This is just part of that entire farce for many of us who aspire for right to self-determination. The entire thing is a drama India manages in Kashmir, so for NC and PDP to now say this is a murder of democracy – a democracy that runs on violence in Kashmir – makes no sense,” she said.
Polarisation in Jammu?
The alliance that could have been consists of two regional parties that have traditionally dominated the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley and the Congress, a national party that is in opposition at the Centre. As news of the political formation started to spread, the BJP loudly denounced it as a band of “terror-friendly parties”, working on the “instructions of Pakistan”. The Kashmiri Muslim nature of the proposed alliance would give the BJP a plank to polarise voters in the Hindu-majority Jammu, some political observers in the Valley feel. But it may yield limited dividends.
“They may polarise, yes but it will not take them beyond a point,” said Noor Ahmad Baba, adjunct faculty member at Central University of Kashmir’s Department of Politics and Governance said. “In the last election, BJP had won because of the fragmentation of votes in some of the Muslim-dominated constituencies in Jammu. BJP got the maximum seats from the region in the last election. From here, it can only lose. It cannot gain further.”
According to Baba, the National Conference and the Congress will have a greater say in the electoral prospects of the Hindu-dominated Jammu region during the next assembly elections. “First, even NC and Congress have indicated that they have pockets of influence in Jammu. Second, they have potential to gain more,” Baba said.
Chenab Valley mourns
Not all areas of the diverse state reacted the same way to the rise and fall of elected governments. Take the Jammu division’s Kishtwar district, where the population is almost evenly divided between Hindus and Muslims. Many here had great hopes of the People’s Democratic Party-BJP coalition that collapsed earlier this year.
“It’s a loss for Kishtwar,” said Rajesh Chander, a journalist from the district, which lies in the Chenab Valley. There have been signs of militancy spreading to certain districts in this region but so far it has remained largely calm. “Although the situation in Kashmir does have an impact on the atmosphere of Chenab valley, the people are more concerned about the development and peace. So whichever party talks of these issues, will get a chance.”
As for the fresh round of campaigning, Chander doubts that the “soft-separatist” pitch of parties like the National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party would work in the Chenab region, especially when it finds itself up against the nationalist rhetoric of the BJP. Polarisation, he felt, would not be a winning poll strategy.
“People are not divided here on the basis of communal lines politically,” he said. “So whenever a party talks about peace and ensuring the communal brotherhood in the region, will win. Secularism wins in the long run.”
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