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Elections may herald a new opening in Kashmir

Elections may herald a new opening in Kashmir Can a coalition led by a new political party bring peace? BY RUPAK CHATTOPADHYAY In a mountainous region where Indian and Language and religion Pakistani troops have faced each other across a shifting border since partition in 1947, the Indian Religion divides this northern state. Of the 10 million inhabitants of Jammustate of Jammu and Kashmir recently elected its and Kashmir in 2001, the vast majority were Muslim. The Indian Census of ninth government. The election, with staggered 1981 – the last for which figures on religion are available – showed 64 per cent dates in different regions in response to the threat were Muslims, 32 per cent Hindus, 2 per cent Sikhs and 1 per cent Buddhists. of violence, took place in September and October Despite the overall Muslim majority, the three regions within the state each 2002. This was the state’s most closely contested have different majorities. Ladakh, in the east, is split between Buddhists and election in more than a decade and resulted in a Muslims; the Kashmir Valley in the north is overwhelmingly Muslim; and the massive defeat for the ruling Jammu and Kashmir plains of Jammu in the South are majority Hindu. And yet, even though National Conference, which has dominated state Pakistan has long insisted on a plebiscite to determine the fate of the dividedpolitics for nearly fifty years. province, it is not certain that a majority in Jammu and Kashmir would vote The new government of the state is a coalition of the for Pakistan. newly formed People’s Democratic Party (which Many languages are also spoken in the state, and linguistic preferences are won 16 seats), the Indian National Congress Party, often associated with religion. Kashmiri, Dogri, Urdu, Hindi and Ladakhi are (which won 20 seats) and independent members. spoken in Jammu and Kashmir. The Kashmiri language also has many At the northernmost tip of India, the Indian state of dialects. In the Pakistani-held areas, Punjabi is also spoken. Ladakhi speakers Jammu and Kashmir is about the size of Belgium are likely to be Buddhists; Urdu speakers are likely to be Muslims; Hindi and is known worldwide as the place where speakers are likely to be Hindus; and Kashmiri and Dogri speakers could be cashmere wool originated and as the home of K2, either Hindus or Muslims. the second-highest mountain in the world. What happens there could mean peace or war in South Asia. The new state government could generate movement but also obtained Congress support in leading the new coalition towards the settlement of boundaries in the region, where government. The most lasting image from these elections is the Pakistan and China occupy areas in the north and east of the pre-loss of the Abdullah family’s traditional legislative seat in partition Jammu and Kashmir and where movements for Ganderbal from where the legendary Sheikh Abdullah and his independence, autonomy and union with Pakistan have often political machine had successfully contested elections for decades. flared into violence. The PDP campaigned on a platform to heal the “physical, psychological and emotional wounds”“A political earthquake” of the Kashmiri people, to consult all segments of opinion – including secessionists – withoutThe election of the new government preconditions, and to relax the pressure on the in the state is a turning point. The general public from the security forces. Analysts Kashmir Times described the ouster attributed the increased voter turnout – 46 per of the National Conference as “a cent as opposed to 32 per cent in 1999 – to PDPpolitical earthquake”. The election campaign promises. Most significantly, high voter left no party with a clear majority in figures were recorded in a number of Muslimthe 87-seat state assembly. The majority districts along the “Line of Control”; National Conference, which had these include Karnah at 71 per cent, Gurez at previously held 57 seats in the 77 per cent and Uri at 67 per cent. For manyassembly, was reduced to just 28 seats. Kashmiris, these elections represent a watershed. As journalist The Indian National Congress increased its position from seven to Shujaat Bukhari observed, “Many do believe that this has been20 seats, while the People’s Democratic Party, or PDP, formed only one of the fairest elections in Kashmiri history.” three years ago, gained 16 seats. Politically, the biggest winner is the People’s Democratic Party led Political prisoners?by veteran politician and one-time Union Home Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. The PDP not only wrested the traditional The chief minister immediately began to implement his promises constituencies of the National Conference in the Kashmir Valley by releasing from prison several prominent secessionists whom he characterized as “political prisoners”. But a resurgence of terrorist attacks against government targets since early December has forced the new government to tread more carefully. The previous Rupak Chattopadhyay is a program officer with the National Conference government of Farooq Abdullah had Forum of Federations. repeatedly promised to turn the state into “heaven on earth once Federations Vol. 3, No. 1, February-March 2003 Another significant challenge for the PDP scrutinize the government’s actions. paltry 16 seats (in an assembly of 87) make it dependent on the Congress Party with 20 seats and on other allies Regional support for support. An incoherent political strategy would, in turn, invalidate the government is the apparent over-concentration psychological gains produced by the of its support in the Kashmir Valley. This part most recent election and make it of Jammu and Kashmir is suffering the most harder to woo Valley voters. The from the insurgency but comprises only a third president of the National Conference, of the state’s geographic area. The PDP has no again” by wiping out insurgency and negotiating with Kashmiri secessionists in order to draw them into the national mainstream. The PDP is in an even more difficult position because the electorate expects more from them. Not surprisingly, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed is more circumspect than his predecessor, conceding that the challenge ahead “scares” him. Mufti’s accession during the global “war against terrorism” is probably fortuitous. Farooq’s government had to contend with the Karhmiri insurgency’s most savage phase. Mufti, on the other hand, assumes the chief ministership at a time when Pakistan is under intense diplomatic pressure to reduce the infiltration into Jammu and Kashmir of armed fighters (or jihadis). Consequently, the insurgency is weaker today than even a year ago and its immediate prospects appear uncertain. The Indian government’s mobilization after the terrorist attack on parliament of December 2001 has also made operations difficult for jihadis in Jammu and Kashmir. This combination of military and political changes may at last have opened the political space for a settlement. Mufti has proved more dynamic than his predecessor in boldly attempting to reposition the PDP as the political vehicle for proindependence, or azadi, Kashmiri opinion. Kashmiri academic Amitabh Dubey suggests that this historic step carries potential costs and benefits for India. The main benefit that might accrue is that the PDP might displace the separatist Hurriyat Conference as the repository of Kashmiri nationalism and help integrate it into the national mainstream. This would be likely if the ruling coalition is able to deliver on its promises of improved welfare and increased economic development. Public pressure might encourage the Hizbul Mujahideen, the only significant indigenous insurgent group, to experiment with a second ceasefire offer, especially since Pakistan would find it harder to sabotage a peace effort this time. The Special Operations Group On the other hand, a quasi-secessionist strategy could backfire in at least two ways. The first danger is that it could produce paralysis within the ruling coalition because the Congress Party, the larger coalition partner, is unlikely to tolerate separatist opinion. Unlike the previous government, the PDP’s Omar Abdullah, has already indicated that his party will attempt to capture the pro-azadi vote by renewing its campaign for “autonomy”, and stands ready to take advantage of any discord within the ruling coalition. The second danger lies in the possible consequences of the government’s policy toward a controversial police unit called the Special Operations Group. On January 7, 2003, Amnesty International condemned the Jammu and Kashmir government for not implementing a promise in its Common Minimum Program to investigate all earlier deaths of those in police custody and punish those found responsible for killings. If the government abolishes the controversial unit, or interferes too extensively in its operations, it could reduce the flow of intelligence to security forces. If the government does nothing, it risks condemnation for human rights abuses. political standing in largely Hindu Jammu and largely Buddhist Ladakh. Even though the Indian National Congress, the PDP coalition partner, has representation in both Jammu and Ladakh the government must nevertheless take care to ensure that its Kashmir-centric policies do not alienate people in these areas. It is entirely possible that the victory of the PDP-Congress coalition represents a real revival of the political process. The election campaign of 2002 witnessed greater participation from Valley Kashmiris than did the tepid campaign of 1996. The greatest challenge for Mufti is to walk the fine balance between having his platform hijacked by separatist elements while at the same time breaking the current political status quo. If Mufti is indeed successful in breaking the current impasse and in sustaining the revival of the political process he will likely have to brace for an upsurge in jihadi violence before it finally subsides. Federations Vol. 3, No. 1, February-March 2003