On December 26, Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed the recently held District Development Council elections in the Union territory of Jammu and Kashmir were an “example of democracy”.

But the same day, former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister and National Conference vice-president, Omar Abdullah, held a press conference at which he accused the government of “discrediting” democracy in the Union territory.

Winning candidates of the Peoples Alliance for Gupkar Declaration “are being threatened, humiliated and coerced to join Apni Party, which is a B-team” of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Abdullah was quoted as saying.

The Peoples Alliance for Gupkar Declaration, of which Abdullah’s National Conference is a member, is a conglomerate of Kashmiri regional parties and the Communist Party of India (Marxist). They are demanding the restoration of statehood for Jammu and Kashmir and its special status under Article 370 of the Constitution that were revoked in August 2019. The alliance won the highest number of seats in this month’s District Development Council elections.

This was the first direct election after the tumultuous changes brought about in 2019, but it was accompanied by allegations that leaders of the Gupkar Alliance were detained arbitrarily and that winning candidates are being offered inducements to switch parties.

At least six major leaders – three each from the National Conference and Peoples Democratic Party – have been in “preventive detention” since December 21. Since the election results were announced, some winning candidates say they have been placed in police-protected accommodations.

During his press conference, Abdullah alleged that the government of the Union territory was using the police to pressure winning candidates from the Gupkar Alliance to join the Jammu and Kashmir Apni Party.

“The prime pinister says that these elections have given rebirth to democracy in J&K,” Abdullah told reporters. “So, we request that they should tell their administration, their police and civil officers not to interfere with the DDC results.”

Small numbers, big aspirations

The Apni Party is new to the political landscape of Jammu and Kashmir. Consisting mostly of former Peoples Democratic Party and Congress members, the Apni Party was formed with the Centre’s blessings in March to “look beyond Article 370”. In Jammu and Kashmir, the party is widely seen as an attempt by the Centre to nurture an entity in Kashmir that will not question its decisions of August 5, 2019.

On December 22, when the results for the District Development Council elections were announced, the Apni Party’s performance was tepid. Of the 134 candidates it fielded across Jammu and Kashmir, it won only 12 seats, nine of them in the Kashmir Valley.

But with a series of defections across the Kashmir Valley over the past week, the Apni Party tally has reached 20.

The party claims that it is set to control at least four of the Union territory’s 20 district councils. The party seems to be banking on gaining the support of independent candidates and on defectors from other political parties. The party is using the absence of an anti-defection law in Jammu and Kashmir to its advantage.

“In Kashmir, we are sure about forming a majority in Shopian and Srinagar district and in Jammu, we are looking to control the district councils in Poonch and Reasi districts,” said Vikram Malhotra, spokesperson of Apni Party. In order to reach the majority mark in the district councils, Malhotra said, the party will welcome to its fold successful independent candidates as well as winners who contested on the tickets of other parties.

Omar Abdullah addresses a press conference in Srinagar on December 26. PTI

The arithmetic of control

For the District Development Council elections, each of Jammu and Kashmir’s 20 districts was divided into 14 constituencies. Each constituency will have one representative. For a party to control a district council and elect its chairman, it must have a minimum of eight seats.

Out of total 278 seats for which the results were declared on December 22, the Gupkar Alliance won 110. It won a majority in six out of the ten district councils in the Kashmir Valley. In three other districts, the alliance is one seat short of getting a majority. In one of these, Bandipora, the result for one seat is yet to be declared.

With the support of the Congress, which won 26 seats, the Gupkar Alliance could easily take control of the councils in Shopian, Baramulla and Bandipora districts. In Srinagar district, where the alliance won only four seats, it could gain control by getting four independents on its side.

In Jammu, the Gupkar alliance did not win a complete majority in any of the district councils. But it could gain control of at least three of the region’s ten district councils if it manages to form a coalition with the Congress and independents.

But the leaders of the Gupkar Alliance in Kashmir allege that they are not being allowed to discuss options with independent candidates or other parties. “The administration has now taken on the responsibility of trying to collect independent candidates for the BJP and its recently formed subsidiary,” Omar Abdullah said in a tweet on December 23, a day after election results were announced. “It seems the government doesn’t have enough to do & has branched out in to this line of work as well.”

In some cases, the administration was openly stopping representatives of the Gupkar Alliance from meeting independent candidates, Abdullah alleged. A former National Conference legislator from Shopian, Showkat Ganie, was “taken away by the police to stop him [from] contacting the independent DDC members elected in his district”, he alleged in another tweet.

Defections in Shopian

Abdullah’s December 26 press conference was dramatic. He brought up the defection of his party’s candidate Yasmeena Jan to the Apni Party. Jan had contested from Imam Sahib-I in South Kashmir’s Shopian district.

Abdullah played a recording of a phone call involving her husband that he said was proof of pressure being brought on winning Gupkar Alliance leaders. “He was asked to make his wife join Apni Party forcibly in lieu of getting her brother-in-law released from detention,” Abdullah alleged. “I don’t know the reasons on whose command this all is being done.”

He added: “This way democracy is being murdered in J&K. I wonder if Parliament has an anti-defection law, and the Assembly too has it, why the same is not being implemented in J&K and those switching sides being disqualified.”

The National Conference is not the only party to lose candidates after the results. A Congress candidate and a Peoples Democratic Party candidate in Shopian have also joined the Apni Party.

Switching sides

In Shopian, the alliance had won seven seats and was just one short of a majority. With Jan’s defection, the party’s seat count had dipped to six. After that, Abdul Rashid Lone, a Peoples Democratic Party candidate switched to Apni Party as well, reducing the share of Gupkar Alliance seats to five. However, the alliance was able to attract two independents on its side, maintaining its original score of seven seats in the district.

The only party to gain from these defections is the Apni Party. Along with the defections from three parties – National Conference, Peoples Democratic Party and Congress – the party has been able to get an independent candidate on its side. This has taken the Apni Party’s tally from two seats to six seats in Shopian district. It needs only two more seats to take control of the district council.

According to the Apni Party, the winners switching over to it were only “loosely aligned” to the parties on whose tickets they contested. “The people who are joining our party were not the committed members or cadre members of these parties,” claimed Malhotra, the spokesperson of the Apni Party. “They were just loosely aligned to them. We don’t expect a committed member of these parties to join us”

Though he conceded that these defections would not have been possible if the anti-defection law was implemented in Jammu and Kashmir, Malhotra denied any use of force or money. “There’s no doubt these people contested on the mandate of these parties [Gupkar Alliance] but when they see an option of a bright future in Apni Party, they switch over,” he said. “You can’t project it like that they are being forced and lured by money.”

Meanwhile, the National Conference said it is looking into how to address the issue of defections. “Within the party, we are discussing how to go forward on that. Obviously, it will include legal aspects as well,” said Imran Nabi Dar, the party’s spokesperson. “In every direct election across the country, the anti-defection law automatically applies. What’s the reason they are singling out DDC elections? It’s very strange.”

Before Jammu and Kashmir’s special status was revoked last August, the erstwhile state had a stronger and stringent anti-defection law than the rest of the country. But since it was split and downgraded into two Union territories, the administration has not taken any decision on implementing anti-defection law. On December 28, Divisional Commissioner Kashmir, PK Pole told reporters in Srinagar that he would check with the Rural Development department if the anti-defection law could be enacted in Jammu and Kashmir.

Manzoor Ahmed of the Peoples Democratic Party celebrates his victory for a District Development Council seat in Srinagar. Credit: Tauseef Mustafa/AFP

‘No space to us’

A day before the scheduled counting of votes for district development council elections on December 22, Jammu and Kashmir police detained three senior leaders and close aides of Peoples Democratic Party president Mehbooba Mufti, a member of the alliance. On December 23, two National Conference leaders, including a former Member of Legislative Council Showkat Ganie, were detained in Shopian. Two days later, another National Conference leader was detained in North Kashmir’s Bandipora district.

“There’s a pattern to these detentions,” said a National Conference leader. “All these detentions are taking place in districts where the alliance doesn’t have a clear majority. The idea is to keep our workers and leaders in detention and allow the Apni Party to lure other successful candidates and engineer defections.”

So far, the government has not given any official reason for detaining these leaders. On December 26, Reuters reported at least 75 other Kashmiri political activists had been taken into preventive detention after the conclusion of the election. The detainees included separatist leaders as well as those from banned outfits like the Jamaat-e-Islami.

Another news report put the number of those detained to around 100 and said they will either face preventive detention or be booked under Public Safety Act to prevent “breach of peace”.

The families of the people detained have been kept in dark about the reasons for which their relatives have been taken into custody. “We haven’t been given any explanation or document as to why they are detaining them,” said a relative of one of the detained leaders in Srinagar, requesting anonymity. “We tried to reach out to the administration but there’s no response.”

Even some winning candidates of the Gupkar Alliance have faced restrictions. In Shopian, Raja Waheed, a successful district development council candidate from Peoples Democratic Party, has been placed in a government accommodation under police protection since December 24. “I was at home. The police picked me up from home and put me here,” Waheed told Scroll.in. “Since then, I am here.”

Waheed shares the police-protected accommodation with an independent candidate from the district who won a seat. “He’s not allowed to move out at all,” said Waheed.

Had he been free, Waheed said, he would be on ground and making efforts to gather support in favour of the Gupkar Alliance. “But by putting us here, they are not giving us chance to speak to people and canvas for support,” he said. “We are unable to communicate.”

Scroll.in sent written queries to Rohit Kansal, spokesperson of Jammu and Kashmir government about the detentions in the Valley following the elections, asking why anti-defection law is not implemented in Jammu and Kashmir and about allegations against administration of working in favour of Apni Party.

This article will be updated if he responds.

Meanwhile, the Apni Party says more successful independent and party candidates are likely to join it. “The talks are on,” said party spokesperson Malhotra. “In coming days, you’ll see many more independent and other party’s candidates joining us. All of them will be taken.”

He added that his party has the allegiance of several independent candidates across the Union territory. “Many independents were affiliated to us and they will also help us in staking claims for a majority in district councils,” he added.