‘Democracy ends where J&K begins’, tweeted Omar Abdullah, the former Chief Minister of the erstwhile State of Jammu & Kashmir as it completed five years under direct Central rule on 19 June 2023. The phrase succinctly sums up the state of electoral politics and representative democracy in J&K particularly after the abrogation of its special constitutional status and downgrading it into two Union Territories (UTs) on 5 August 2019.
The last time elections for the State’s Legislative Assembly were held in J&K was in 2014. In 2023, even as J&K is a UT with an Assembly, the President’s Rule under Section 73 of the J&K Reorganisation Act, 2019 continues to be enforced. With no elections in sight, this move is an effective disenfranchisement of tens of millions of people in the world’s largest democracy.
Expansion of Electoral Space From 2000 to 2010
A look back into the trajectory of electoral politics in J&K highlights a continuing saga of dismissals of Prime Ministers and rigged elections. Needless to say, J&K had its own Prime Minister and Sadar-i-Riyasat (President of the State) before 1965 when the J&K Constitution was amended through the Constitution of Jammu & Kashmir (Sixth Amendment) Act, 1965. In 1953, Sheikh Abdullah, who was the Prime Minister of the State, was dismissed and jailed. Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad, a loyalist to the Centre at the time, was installed as the Prime Minister.
‘In the two decades that Abdullah was held in custody, the Indian government intervened and eroded the very foundation of Article 370 that guaranteed the special constitutional status to J&K’, writes A G Noorani, the eminent constitutional law scholar, in his seminal book, ‘Article 370: A Constitutional History of Jammu and Kashmir’. This was followed by a spate of rigged elections. Assembly elections of 1987 are a case in point, also widely believed to be the trigger for the insurgency of the early nineties.
Yet, despite all odds and a strong resentment from separatists against participation in elections, the decade between 2000 and 2010 saw incremental progress in the expansion of the electoral space. Politics became more competitive with the emergence of more mainstream political parties like the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), disrupting the dominance of the National Conference and Indian National Congress.
A host of other smaller political parties also emerged during the time. The staggering voter turnout of 60.92% in the Legislative Assembly elections of 2008 as compared to 43.70% in 2002 confirms the relative expansion of electoral politics in the region. This was despite a widespread agitation as part of the Amarnath land row in 2008. By this time, the people of the State had realised that elections are important for day-to-day governance, or as the slogan would go, ‘sadak, bijli aur paani’ (roads, electricity and water).
State of Elections in J&K Since 2014
However, all the incremental progress began to reverse after the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) rose to power at the Centre in 2014, and later cobbled an alliance with the PDP in the State in 2015. In 2018, three years later, it unceremoniously pulled out of the coalition. BJP, both within the Government and outside of it, left no stone unturned to delegitimise the mainstream political parties of Kashmir.
This was for the first time that in the history of the State's constitutional relationship with the Union, a national-level political party went on a vilification spree against the regional parties in J&K. Accusations like ‘acting on the directions of Pakistan’ levelled against them became a norm; they continue. Worse still, according to the Government dossier released in 2020 that contained charges against the former J&K Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, the Public Security Act was invoked against him due to his ‘considerable influence’ and his ability to draw voters to polling booths. Irony dies a thousand deaths in J&K. Same is the case with democracy.
This coupled with the developments after August 2019 destroyed whatever little confidence people had in the democratic process. Close to five years after 5 August 2019, J&K awaits the return of statehood as promised by the Home Minister of the country. Elections to the Legislative Assembly seem a distant reality even after the delimitation of the electoral constituencies and a revision of the electoral roll last year. The disenchantment is palpable even among those who earlier reposed faith in electoral politics, and were hoping for a solution to the political problem of Kashmir through participation in the democratic process.
This clearly shows that electoral politics in J&K is under a permanent siege particularly since 2014 when the Assembly elections were last held. This makes an exception to the widespread notion about elections in J&K, once used as an indicator of normalcy in the region. If the Government could conduct the local-level District Development Council (DDC) elections in 2020, one wonders what makes Assembly elections an exception. That the Central Government appears as much averse to conducting elections to the Legislative Assembly in J&K as those who earlier boycotted them should sound alarm bells to everyone who cares about J&K and its future.
The onus is on the Government to put an end to the exclusion and vilification of the people of J&K, and Kashmir valley in particular, and restore the faith people had in the democratic process and the Constitution. This should at least begin with allowing a representative government in the region followed by the restoration of statehood.
(Burhan Majid is an Assistant Professor of Law at the School of Law, Jamia Hamdard, and a doctoral fellow at NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)