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Kashmir voters have started speaking

Any selective prism would not reveal the complete picture
12:00 AM May 16, 2024 IST | Arun Joshi
kashmir voters have started speaking
Photo: Mubashir Khan/ GK

It’s a moment to celebrate. Kashmir has begun to write a new chapter for itself, showing its faith in the power of ballot. Srinagar Parliamentary constituency has made a beginning with highest voting percentage of 38 percent in almost 30 years. And, as they say well begun is half done.


I have a question: are we missing the larger point while celebrating and self-congratulating on the voter turnout of 38 percent that was sort of a dream fulfilled? Yes, we are missing the vast canvas of the political and electoral landscape of Kashmir while connecting dots to the factors that brought about this change in the statistics. These statistics are human voices and aspirations. That’s the message that the voters in Kashmir have sent in the fourth phase- first for them, on may 13, 2024.


Before moving further, I think a big mistake is being made to analyze this voting percentage in comparison to 1996 parliamentary polls. The 1996 parliamentary polls was a demonstration by Government of India to show that it can hold polls. It was a compulsion born out of national necessity to rebuff the international criticism that Delhi is unable to hold elections in Jammu and Kashmir – National Conference and its leader Farooq Abdullah were not willing to come on board for the Assembly elections as there was insistence on the greater autonomy.


The party and its leaders who had seen emergence of militancy on their watch in late 1980s, and who were blamed for the rigging in March 1987 Assembly elections, were conscious that they needed to do something out of box to get back their political hold in Kashmir, and that was autonomy.


And in quest of that greater autonomy, the party did not take part in the Lok Sabha elections. There were strategic reasons for doing so. It sought to remove misgivings about itself, especially when it was being blamed for the rigging in 1987, and providing a fertile ground for insurgency which later took shape of armed militancy.


The genesis of the 1996 parliamentary elections lay in 1991 when the government of India could not summon the courage to hold parliamentary elections in Jammu and Kashmir along with the rest of the country. The security situation was at its lowest ebb, and militancy was on high tide. The entire Kashmir Valley had been declared Disturbed Area, and the security forces were armed with Armed Forces Special Powers Act in July 1990. Ironically, there is no change in this unwelcome status even in 2024: 34 years after these extraordinary measures were taken to bring the situation under control.


There is a marked difference between 1996 and 2024. The voters did not come out of polling booths, showing their fingers marked with blue ink. They attempted to remove the ink the moment they came out of the polling booths. Their refusal to identify themselves, leave alone to get pictured. The wide-lens pictures of queues showed people hiding their faces. The polling staff had come from UP, for they knew Urdu. It was Delhi–driven exercise for the national and international audience. Kashmiri voter was scared.


That veil of fear has been lifted. Much of the credit goes to change in the situation, efforts for which were made by administration with a single-lens approach to neutralize terrorism and its ecosystem. This situation is good, but the voters moved to the polling booths, at places in hordes, because there was a motivation to shed the tag of Kashmir being hostile or aloof to democratic exercise.

All political parties, some of which are dubbed as “dynastic” and the new players in the political landscape of Kashmir, like Apni Party, played a critical role in encouraging the voters to come out and vote. This shows how relevant these parties are, and denunciation of political groups is not in the interest of Kashmir nor the national interest.

The voices of the voters were very clear – they wanted their dignity as Indian citizens. They made it clear that they were exercising their voting right to reaffirm their faith in democracy, but they also wanted Delhi to listen to them. Some voices from Pulwama, the south Kashmir district, now part of Srinagar parliamentary constituency, were loud and clear:

“Delhi should resolve our issues, our youth, unemployment and  confer the dignity that we deserve as Indians.” It was a profound message to Delhi, stop seeing the people of Pulwama through the prism of tragic and horrifying February 14, 2019 terror attack on CRPF convoy that left 40 troopers dead. There were few individuals involved in the terror assault not the whole population. This was a plea to demolish the wall of distrust, as the mistrust has cast a shadow over the lives of their youth.

This message needs to be read and re-read by Delhi and decode it in consultations with the stakeholders in Kashmir. Any selective prism would not reveal the complete picture.

I am sure that in next two phases this trend will continue, but should be remembered that real celebration will come only when the bridge of trust between Kashmir and Delhi is rebuilt. And, another good news in this voting pattern is that after this kind of historic voting percentage, the Election Commission will have to hold Assembly polls in J&K. Election Commission has a constitutional duty to uphold the value and credibility of votes. Kashmir has started speaking, now it’s turn of ECI to do its job.