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Large turnout in Kashmir polls no approval of Indian rule

Jan 09, 2009

People in conflict-ridden Jammu and Kashmir are of the view that the large voter turnout in recently held elections in the state did not mean the end of separatism. The elections were also about securing azadi (freedom) from bad roads, erratic power supply and other day-to-day concerns.

Srinagar: Can Omar Abdullah heal the wounds of people of conflict-ridden Jammu and Kashmir?

Questions like this have been asked after 38-year-old Abdullah, president of Kashmir's largest political party, the National Conference (NC), was sworn in as the state's 11th chief minister on January 5.

The NC won most seats (28) in the seven-phase elections but fell short of an overall majority (44), prompting it to strike a deal with the Congress party to form a coalition government. Congress secured 17 seats in the 87-member House.

Fractured mandate notwithstanding, it was the impressive turnout of over 60% that surprised all and sundry. People rejected poll boycott call of separatist groups and except in Srinagar they came out to cast their votes in large numbers – a rare sight in Kashmir where elections have been a bugbear of separatists. Compared to the 2002 elections, the turnout jumped by 22% in the Kashmir Valley.

The elections took place in the backdrop of a renewed but nonviolent uprising in summers against the Indian rule. Sixty Kashmiris had died in police firing during protests triggered by transfer of 100 acres of forestland to a Hindu board that oversees an annual pilgrimage to the Amarnath cave shrine in south Kashmir.

Azadi sentiment still alive

But many voters made it clear they hadn't divorced the idea of independence from India and that they were driven to the polling stations by their day-to-day concerns.

"We want azadi (independence), and at the same time we also want azadi from erratic power supply and bad roads. We're voting because we need to have our representatives who will address our local issues," many voters told reporters during the elections.

Separatists like moderate Hurriyat Conference chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq reject Indian government's claim that the higher-than-expected turnout was "proof of Kashmiris' faith in Indian democracy."

"Democracy is a battle of ideas but not in Kashmir where elections are conducted under the barrel of the gun," Mirwaiz said. "How can an election in the presence of 700,000 Indian soldiers be called free and fair?"

Another leading separatist, Sajjad Lone said the separatists didn't get a level playing field. "The Indian government provided an uneven playing field for the polls and showed a selective acceptance of democracy," he said, adding that the separatist leadership was either jailed or put under house arrest.

Lone was candid enough, though, to admit that the high turnout was a setback for separatists. He said the separatists erred by not delinking the issue of Kashmir's political future from the day-to-day issues of the people.

Challenges before new CM

Abdullah, on the other hand, faces a daunting challenge in a state known as a graveyard of reputations. His biggest challenge would be to persuade New Delhi to allow some degree of autonomy to Kashmir. Previous government of Atal Behari Vajpayee at the Centre had summarily rejected the autonomy proposal passed by the NC government in 2001.

"His ascendancy to the chief ministership has been very smooth. But it won't be a cakewalk when it comes to governing a sensitive region like Kashmir," Sheikh Showkat Hussain, who teaches international law at Kashmir University, told OneWorld South Asia.

"The Kashmir problem consumed even the tallest Kashmiri leader like (Omar's grandfather) Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah. Omar will have to learn from the mistakes his family has committed," Hussain said.
He said the new chief minister's litmus test would be whenever any innocent dies in a fake encounter or disappears in custody of the Indian troops.

"Getting autonomy from New Delhi is a huge task; let's forget that for the time being. Omar's father is credited with creating the ruthless Special Task Force, an extra-constitutional force that let loose a reign of terror across the Kashmir Valley. We've to see how he would undo his father's monumental misdeeds," Hussain said.

His views were endorsed by Mirwaiz Umar, the Hurriyat head. "Omar Abdullah must now represent Kashmir in New Delhi rather than represent New Delhi in Kashmir as has been the wont with his predecessors," Mirwaiz said. "He should at least deliver on the development front on which he has made many lofty promises."

There're still many voices in the valley, even in the separatist camp, who believe that the England-born Abdullah is a better choice than his father Farooq Abdullah. The senior Abdullah, who ruled Kashmir thrice, is largely seen as careless and flamboyant.

"Omar has a clean image unlike his father. Moreover nobody can say he failed to fulfill his promises because this is his first chance," Shahid-ul-Islam, a militant commander-turned-moderate Hurriyat politician told OneWorld South Asia.

In his election manifesto, Abdullah had promised, among other things, he would provide employment to at least 50,000 youth and weed out corruption that is rampant in the state.

"We've always lived on empty promises, but I hope Omar would be different," said Abdul Rahman Butt, 52, a government employee in Ganderbal district from where Abdullah lost in 2002 elections but emerged winner this time.

Many Kashmir watchers, meanwhile, have warned New Delhi against reading too much into the heavy voter turnout.

Rekha Chowdhary, who teaches political science at Jammu University, says: "For the Delhi government, it is important to put the electoral response in a proper perspective and to learn from the developments that have taken place in Kashmir since June (last) year."

"The rejection of the boycott call is not a rejection of separatist sentiment, nor it is, in the least, an endorsement of the Centre's approach vis-à-vis Kashmir."

She added: "Separatism will remain intact, good electoral response notwithstanding. It is important to address basic grievances, and the bare minimum required is greater momentum in the peace process and minimum tolerance for human rights violations."

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