Soon after the conclusion of municipal elections in Jammu and Kashmir in October 2018, its newly appointed Governor Satya Pal Malik, said: “It [the response] has been very good. The four-phased elections has been concluded and not a bird was harmed, it was a peaceful election.” The governor was expressing his views in a media interview shortly after the conclusion of polling, which saw the lowest ever voter turnout in the valley – 4.27 percent. The elections were indeed the most ‘peaceful’ elections to be held in the valley in recent decades, but they were also the most secretive: no campaigning preceded the polls, parts of the state were under curfew, the candidature wasn’t made public until the day of voting, and the candidates were secluded. Yet the Governor declared: “New Delhi is satisfied”.
The government’s claim of satisfaction raises a pertinent question as J&K moves into the next electoral phase: polls to the panchayat bodies. If the identity of the candidates is not known, and the voters barely participate, to what effect or purpose is the election being held? For the answer to that question, one has to look at how the Indian government has used the electoral process as a means to legitimise how it deals with the contentious issue of Kashmir.
Conducting the elections for municipal bodies was high on the agenda of Governor Malik, who assumed office in August 2018. A Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) politician, Malik now heads the state, following the collapse of the coalition government of the BJP and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Despite a deteriorating situation and several postponements, elections eventually went ahead, even as the government sent warnings to the pro-azadi camp. In an interview to the Indian Express, Malik sent out this warning:
They are not even one-fourth of the LTTE. The LTTE had such a committed cadre that 12-year-old girls would fight barefoot in cobra-infested jungles. They got money and weapons from 12-14 nations… When they could not take over a country, it is not possible here.
This view resonated with Indian Army Chief Bipin Rawat, who, in an interview to the Indian Express in May 2018 said, “[I] want to tell Kashmiri youth azadi will never happen, you can’t fight us,” he added that Indian security forces weren’t as brutal as those in Syria, strangely admitting to the fact that Kashmiri youth were engaged in a fight for azadi which the Indian state, using its military might, would suppress.
As the dates for the elections were announced, the Joint Resistance Leadership (JRL), an amalgam of different pro-azadi groups, called for a boycott. Militant organisations like Hizbul Mujahideen issued threats against people taking part in elections. In response, the state placed a number of JRL leaders under house arrest.
As the electoral process proceeded, authorities maintained utmost secrecy about the candidates, and election officers were instructed not to divulge any information to the media. “Ask anyone here if they know who the candidates are. Everyone will tell you, they have no idea. There is too much secrecy,” a resident of Srinagar told the Press Trust of India (PTI). A resident of Ganderbal was quoted as saying, “There are simply no details anywhere. Only the candidate would know that he is contesting. Perhaps, even their family does not, such is the secrecy.” In a ward in Baramulla, a candidate won with a lone vote cast – probably his own. In another ward in Srinagar, where three candidates had filed the nominations, no votes were cast, not even those by the candidates.
Even in areas of the state where polling was higher, such as the Chenab Valley in the Jammu region, people’s enthusiasm was low. Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal, executive editor of the Kashmir Times notes, “Usually in the local body polls the enthusiasm is much higher because these are not really linked to the mainstream politics in the way that the parliamentary and the assembly polls are. But even in the Chenab valley region, where people may have voted because these are ‘backward areas’, there were questions they were constantly asking, like what kind of a farce is this where political parties were not even able to find candidates to contest elections. In fact, for BJP, in many pockets of Poonch belt, in [the] Chenab region, they were unable to find any candidates to contest the elections.”
At many places, the candidates were kept in ‘secured accommodations’. However, information was leaked, and fearing that the candidates might withdraw, they were moved again to unknown locations and police stations. This secrecy, the government argued, was maintained for the safety of the candidates, as the militant outfits had issued stern warnings against electoral participation. A week before, two Jammu & Kashmir National Conference (NC) workers were killed by unidentified gunmen in Srinagar.
Potential candidates were hardly forthcoming with nomination papers, and a large number of wards either saw no contestant or only a single contestant who was elected unopposed. This was despite the fact that the government incentivised the whole exercise; candidates were promised more administrative and fiscal powers under an amendment to the Panchayat Act, and government employees performing election duties were assured one month’s extra salary.
In addition to the lack of candidates was the absence of the major political parties. The two main Kashmir-based pro-India parties which have earlier been in power, NC and PDP, boycotted the elections, but New Delhi decided to go ahead. In a press conference, NC President Farooq Abdullah declared, “The government announced these elections without consulting the parties. They should have first clarified on Article 35A” [Article 35 A of the Indian Constitution confers ‘special privileges’ to the ‘permanent residents’ of the state of Jammu & Kashmir, which the BJP wants to do away with. In the same vein, PDP President Mehbooba Mufti said, “It was felt that any attempt to impose any electoral exercise in the current atmosphere of fear and apprehension would seriously erode the credibility of the process. It [conducting elections] would defeat its very purpose.”
While both NC and PDP cited their concerns about ‘safeguarding the special status of the state’, not everyone is convinced. “NC and PDP both have been partners in diluting the special status of Kashmir,” says Mir Hilal, a Srinagar-based journalist. “So, they have no love lost for Kashmir. Both parties stand completely irrelevant today. By boycotting polls, they wanted to regain some ground.” Jamwal contends that Article 35A was not the only reason for their backing out, but that their options were pretty limited. “PDP and NC find that their base has considerably weakened at the grassroots level because of the ongoing situation and their failures in their respective terms. That whole credibility of an electoral process, whatever little that was existing for the sake of development and administrative purposes, was also pretty much eroded,” she says. The NC and the PDP felt they needed to consolidate their position before testing the electoral waters, and once NC backed out, it became imperative for the PDP to do the same, lest they be seen as pandering to the interests of the BJP.
Where are the votes?
With more young boys joining the ranks of militants that enjoy open public support – reflected in the number of civilians who throng encounter sites to help militants flee despite the imminent danger of getting killed – and the state continuing to come down with an iron hand, the low turnout was no surprise. The number of local bodies that saw no polling was over twice the number of those where polling took place. Despite widespread expectations of a near total boycott, the state went ahead with the urban local body polls. A few days before the elections, at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit, the Home Minister of India Rajnath Singh claimed that 90 percent of people in J&K would like to participate in urban local body polls, blaming Pakistan for the unrest in the region. This has been a common narrative where any uprising in the valley is blamed on Pakistan, with no serious attempts by India to introspect its own actions or acknowledge the widespread cry for azadi in the valley.
The voting was held in four phases: the Jammu division saw brisk polling and in Kashmir all the four phases witnessed a massive boycott with 8.1 percent in phase I, 3.4 percent in phase II, 3.5 percent in phase III and 4.2 percent in the final phase. On polling dates, internet services were cut from the concerned constituencies and internet speeds throttled at other places. According to the Election Commission, no polls were held in 412 out of 598 wards in Kashmir valley. In 20 municipalities of southern Kashmir (Pulwama, Anantnag, Kulgam and Shopian), 167 out of 267 wards remained vacant – most of the winners in the remaining 100 wards were elected unopposed. 25 wards in the valley are represented by Kashmiri pandits settled in Jammu.
For the government, the ‘satisfying’ thing about the local elections in October was perhaps BJP winning 100 wards in Kashmir, 76 of them uncontested. In the history of electoral politics in Kashmir, this is the first time BJP has won representation in Kashmir. Jamwal argues that the elections were more of a political design rather than a move towards decentralisation or better governance.
BJP wasn’t really thinking of some kind of better governance, it is only looking for consolidation because it has created that kind of a political vacuum by pulling out of an existing coalition government, whatever it was worth. For the first time you have BJP winning election in Kashmir, irrespective of whether the turnout was one percent or two percent. They really didn’t expect more than that. But that is what they wanted to do – create some kind of paper history and sell it to the rest of the country as well as enlarge their own base within the state. Their entire agenda is to rule J&K directly, to have greater stake than they had in 2014 in J&K politics, not as a second partner in the coalition government but as a front ranker.
The credibility of the elections can be gauged by the fact that while voters did not know the names of the candidates until they entered the polling booths, the governor declared the mayor for the Srinagar Municipal Committee five days ahead of the polls (though not naming the candidate directly), when he stated, “A foreign educated person is becoming the Srinagar mayor.” Twenty days later, former NC spokesperson, Junaid Azim Mattu, an alumnus of Michigan State University, USA, became the Mayor of Srinagar.
A history of rigged elections
While the Indian State had promised a free and fair plebiscite under the auspices of the United Nations, after Kashmir’s contentious accession to India in 1947, realising the bleak chances of Kashmiris opting for India, the Indian state reneged on its promise. Instead, over the years it installed surrogate politicians who would not challenge the accession. Military control has been justified by conducting elections that have been anything but democratic, from the very first time in 1951 for the Constituent Assembly, and then again in 1957 and onwards. The 1951 Constituent Assembly elections were ‘won’ by Sheikh Abdullah’s NC even before the elections were held, as most seats were unopposed. Later, when Abdullah was deposed and incarcerated in 1953, Bakshi Ghulam Muhammad was installed in similar fashion, in return for his acceptance of Kashmir’s accession to India. Most subsequent elections witnessed a similar pattern – elections were ‘won’ unopposed, and elected leaders were dismissed and installed at will by New Delhi.
It was in 1987 that a substantial opposition, formed by all the groups espousing Kashmir’s right to self-determination, decided to fight elections under the banner of the Muslim United Front (MUF), unnerving the Indian state. The elections were not only rigged in favour of National Conference-Congress alliance, but the candidates, workers and agents belonging to MUF were arrested and tortured. This became one of the triggers for an armed resistance against Indian rule that continues to the present day, with many from the MUF becoming the founders and leaders of armed outfits and groups like Hurriyat Conference.
As India’s writ was openly challenged, it responded with a brutal military crackdown resulting in massive human-rights violations. It has been well-documented that Indian forces enjoy absolute impunity in Kashmir, be it killings of civilians, torture, instances of sexual violence or enforced disappearances. In early 2018, the Indian Minister of State for Defence Subhash Bhamre, while responding to a question in the Parliament, acknowledged that since 2001, the Union Government denied any sanction for prosecution under Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) for 47 out of 50 cases recommended by the Government of J&K against the army. These include “killing after abduction”, “outraging the modesty of a woman”, the disappearance of civilians, rape and torture, among other cases. While the Indian authorities have time and again referred to these as ‘aberrations’ or ‘mistakes’, the number and pattern of these violations point to them being a conflict strategy, a systemic use of violence by the state to instil fear.
The 1996 elections, held after seven years, witnessed widespread coercion, manipulation and direct involvement of Indian armed forces. In its study of the 2002 assembly elections in J&K, the Institute of Social Sciences noted that the elections were held under the shadow of fear, with frequent accounts of people forced to vote by state forces:
In Sopore town our team reported that they landed in a big demonstration of people in the New Colony, face-to-face with gun toting BSF, with armoured cars standing in position. People told them that at 3:00 pm on the voting day (16th) the BSF had announced from the mosque that only one hour was left and people should go to vote. It was reported to the team that when people did not vote, the security forces went door-to-door asking them to come out.
This has been true of other polls as well, including the recent urban local body elections. Journalist Naseer Ganai of Outlook magazine, who covered the elections, shares his conversation with a Border Security Force trooper in northern Kashmir’s Bandipora district who admitted to having herded people to a polling station in the first phase of the polling. “When he was posted in the Papachan area during the first phase, on October 8, nobody had turned out to vote – until the BSF forced 60 villagers to do so.”
Mir Hilal shares his experience of covering the elections as a journalist by pointing out, “I didn’t cover this  election but I have covered all elections since 2002. While covering the first election as a cub reporter in 2002 I have chased away soldiers in Shopian who were forcing people at gun point to vote. And this was the election that was hailed as ‘free and fair’. The common thing I have noticed in all the elections was how the military that is holding Kashmir against people’s wishes is also pivotal for these elections. All elections are military operations in reality.” When asked why he did not cover the recent elections, the response is prompt: “What was there to cover?”
On the ground, the resistance to Indian rule has only grown over the years. The years 2008, 2009, 2010, and now more recently, 2016, have seen civilian uprisings with thousands of people on the roads demanding azadi. Hilal points out, “For India, elections have been the proverbial fig leaf to justify its military occupation: since Kashmiris vote, therefore they have faith in Indian democracy. So, even if they have to stage a farce in the name of elections, they will continue to do so.”
Exercise in legitimacy
While the Indian government uses the narrative of elections to establish legitimacy, the farce of elections alone is sufficient grounds to draw a distinction between Kashmir and India. While it has often been argued that the militants’ threats of violence keep people away from polling booths, these ‘threats’ have existed during every election, yet turnouts have fluctuated. If it was these threats keeping people away, it raises questions over the ability of powerful state institutions to ensure that around 200-300 militants do not hamper the process where people exercise their democratic rights. The issue with Kashmir, however, has not been threats, or election management, or institutional decay, as scholar Sumit Ganguly argues, but the moral decay that makes the Indian state hold on to a territory by means of a coercive apparatus. The same decay has seeped down to the level of the society that is complicit due to its silence over war crimes in Kashmir. Therefore, it is not surprising that any arguments against Kashmir being an integral part of India are met with censorship, threats or violence.
Interestingly, in an interview with the Indian Express in October 2018, Governor Malik attempted to explain that Kashmir is not an occupied territory, but that India has alienated itself by making some mistakes:
This is not an occupation. It is another matter if someone chooses to use the occupation term. But no, that is not correct. You can say we have mishandled. India has made mistakes, and its mistakes have, in the process, alienated itself. Because of what has happened, India is being presented as an occupation force. But Kashmir is not an occupied territory, it came to us of its own free will.
Commentators such as R Chowdhary and V Nagendra Rao have spoken of higher turnouts as an indicator of “the increasing acceptance of democratic politics on the part of the citizenry”. Others, such as T Mohan, have noted that India conducting elections in Kashmir not only attests to its “conviction to the democratic process, but also its commitment to address the grievances of the people democratically.” That the military control of a territory, and the subsequent violence meted out to the people on an everyday basis, is so conveniently ignored by the farce of elections remains an issue with most commentary on elections in Kashmir. The basic government services being demanded by the people, which also reflects in electoral participation, is in no way the people’s acceptance of the idea of India. If it were, then that logic would dictate that this election has cemented Kashmir’s rejection of the Indian State. India has repeatedly maintained at the United Nations that its conduct of free and fair elections in Kashmir is a plebiscite in itself.
New Delhi’s ‘new man’ has boasted of restoring peace in the valley and his administration has used these municipal elections as an indicator of ‘peace’. BJP’s “pathological contempt for Kashmiri Muslims”, as Bhasin notes, has resulted in a muscular policy approach that creates nothing but self-serving chaos. The situation on the ground is only worsening. In the month of October, 15 civilians, 32 militants and 11 Indian forces were killed. The militarised control of Kashmiris through surveillance, censorship and the return of military bunkers in the civilian areas and on roads has increased manifold.
Whether the turnout is high or low, the streets across Kashmir continue to resonate with cries of azadi. In the name of conducting ‘free and fair elections’, the state has subjected people to more coercion, increased military interference, more checkpoints, more surveillance, more search operations, and internet shutdowns – all in the name of democratic exercise.
Keeping the disputed nature of J&K under consideration and stipulations under international law, elections should have ideally been an exercise to restore a semblance of normalcy and provide essential services to the population, even if it is recalcitrant. However, in this case, the very act of conducting an election has been used to create a narrative of acceptance of pro-India politics in Kashmir and extend militarised control over the people, even while claiming adherence to democratic principles.