Kashmir on the Indian side is going to elections this month. The elections after two months of the devastating flood have raised many issues. The conflict in Kashmir (the legal name is Jammu and Kashmir) has gained attention as a violent conflict between India and Pakistan. Attentions on the internal dynamics are rare. A visit to various parts of Jammu and Kashmir brings forth divergent perceptions on the post-flood elections in the conflict-torn region.
The snow clad Pir Panjal mountain divides Jammu, predominantly Hindu, and Kashmir, predominantly Muslim. Further northeast Zojila mountain divides Ladakh, predominantly Buddhist, from the valley. Jammu and Ladakh are diverse in terms of their religious compositions than the Kashmir valley. Though majority Hindu, Jammu has significant number of Muslims and Sikhs. A trader in the border town, Poonch, was animated to explain the amicable relations among the people: “You will find Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs eating together, attending celebrations and funerals together.”
Further north, travelling through the Mughal road (used by the Mughal emperors to enjoy the salubrious climate of the valley during summer), one comes across rare hospitality. At the highest spot on the road, the travelers are offered free salt-tea and fried wheat flour. The spot also hosts the worship place of Muslim Saint Baba Abdul Karim. Descending to the valley at Shopian, one comes across beautiful landscapes. One also comes across security checks, reminding that not everything is fine. The horrific pictures of the past militancy become vivid.
Floods devastated parts of the valley last September. One has to cross through broken bridges while driving through the Muslim-majority valley. The green valley has turned grey as a miasma of dust covered the trees and the houses. A local resident pointed his finger towards the wall of his office located near Iqbal Park in Srinagar, the summer capital. There was a mark of flood water at about eight feet. Some of the hotels in the city were closed as they were repairing for the coming tourist season. The first floors of many hotels were completely destroyed due to the floods. Dal Lake, a major tourist attraction, was in shambles with no tourists on the famed houseboats. The loss was terrible. I was, however, amazed to witness the spirit of the local people. They have recovered first. Life has moved on.
A local resident said, “When the valley is recovering from the floods and people are collecting pieces from the tatters, conducting elections does not make much sense.” His argument was to shift the elections to a later date in order to concentrate all energy on the reconstruction of the valley. The government of India this time has exhibited alacrity in terms of providing assistance, with the Prime Minister visiting the valley twice within five months of coming to power. The policy to hold elections in time is perhaps motivated by two factors: one, pushing the schedule further into colder months will be harsh for the voters and second, the gap in elections may provide miscreants leeway to play havoc.
While the popular concern over elections bears logic, the call of militant organizations to boycott elections does not. Regular elections over the past few decades are considered fair and that reduces the appeal of the militants. The militants see each action of the governments with suspicion and advocate violence. The moderate separatists have articulated the alienation of the people in the valley and some of them have joined the electoral politics. The establishment of an Al Qaeda branch in the Indian subcontinent and the appearance of Islamic State (of Iraq and Syria) flags in the valley have made the peace loving people and the administration jittery.
Some of the major issues that have surfaced in the electoral campaigns include: communalization of the state politics, dominance of dynasty, peace and development. The rising popularity of India’s nationalist party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which also rules in New Delhi, has caused concern among the local parties. BJP’s policies have not gone well with some of the parties. BJP has not hidden its ambition to secure the majority of assembly seats. If the party wins the majority of seats, it will be for the first time in the history that a nationalist party will rule the region. More importantly, it will have far reaching implications for conflict and peace discourse. The local political parties like National Conference (NC) and People’s Democratic Party (PDP) are dominated by particular families. The NC, along with the Congress party, ruled the state for most of the time since 1950s. The PDP that came to power in 2002 for one term has become popular due to its people friendly policies. The current NC led government has been struggling with anti-incumbency factor.
The internal dynamics of Jammu and Kashmir are equally compelling as its external dynamics. The post-flood electoral politics provides ample testimony to this. An interaction with the local people gives the impression that the conflict has many subtler dimensions which need more attention.