It has been more than four years since Jammu & Kashmir saw an elected government. The last time the elections for the erstwhile state legislature were held was in 2014, more than eight years ago. Since 2019, Kashmir has been governed, not by an elected administration, but by a hand-picked lieutenant governor who has presided over a rapid-fire of executive proclamations – some devised in Delhi, others brainstormed locally, that have brought far-reaching structural changes in the former state.
There has been a great deal of resentment over the implementation of controversial land and domicile laws, as well as property taxes and other similar measures. In fact, it was actually the new land regulations – enacted in October 2020 – that partly made the recent demolition drives in Kashmir possible. Those drives had generated a wave of public disaffection as earthmovers ran over the private shanties, orchards and commercial buildings allegedly constructed on the government land.
Weeding Out Dissent
The government is convinced that any display of angst over its imperious ways is fundamentally anti-national. That is why it has switched to a hyper-policing mode as evidenced by the rampant use of controversial laws like the Public Safety Act. In 2022, the J&K High Court received 841 habeas corpus petitions, the highest in recent years and a majority of them are related to PSA.
The use of Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), the stringent counter-terrorism law that makes getting bail difficult, too, seems to have shot up. In large numbers, the various law enforcement agencies have pursued members of civil society, journalists, protesters, political and religious leaders, arguing that they are helping terrorism thrive.
But courts are yet to substantiate this, at least in a tangible, meaningful way. The conviction rate under UAPA in J&K remains woefully low (10 convictions in 2021) even though its incidence in the UT accounts for 97 percent of India’s total.
This is the reason that simmering political resentment in Kashmir hasn’t yet been able to find expression. People now think that the only way these executive excesses could be stopped, or at least decelerated, is by having an elected government that would have to be responsive to the public demands in the way which the present government is not.
The Difference Between Grassroots and Legislative Politics
When the Union Minister of State for Home, Jitendra Singh, was recently asked why the government was not restarting the political process when it was able hold big events like G20 tourism meet in the UT, the Minister lost cool and started pontificating at the reporters. "What do you mean by that? Political process is already going on,” he said. “We have DDCs (District Development Councils) in place, BDCs (Block Development Councils), panch and sarpanch councils. Is that not part of the political process to you?” he said. “You should compliment us, Narendra Modiji, that district councils were introduced after 70 years.”
But this view is questioned by the DDC leaders themselves. “DDC is a platform exclusively meant for development. There’s no place for politics. When we organise the Council meets, it's all about developmental public work. Whereas the legislative assembly is for politics. These two don’t overlap,” Bari Andrabi, Chairperson of DDC Pulwama told The Quint. “Legislature has its own significance. It embodies the political aspirations of the public. DDC is not an alternative to politics. It can supplement politics but cannot supersede it.”
Equivocal Messaging on Polls
Yet this sense seems to have evaded the government which over the past two years, has made ambiguous gestures about the prospective elections. In February 2021, LG Manoj Sinha told regional parties that they should cooperate with the Delimitation commission, whose mandate to redraw constituencies has been opposed by the Kashmiri leaders, if they wanted to see early Assembly elections.
“Those demanding early Assembly polls in J&K must help and cooperate with the Delimitation Commission so that the process is completed and Assembly polls are held,” he said.
But it has been more than one year since the commission headed by the retired Justice Ranjana Prakash, then Chief Election Commissioner Sushil Chandra, and State Election Commissioner Kewal Kumar Sharma, tabled the final report on the basis of which the new electoral jurisdictions came into force in J&K. Yet, elections in Kashmir look far from imminent.
Earlier this year, India’s Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Rajiv Kumar said that polls in J&K were due and shall be held after taking the weather, security concerns, and the schedule of other state polls into account. “Fixing, re-arranging polling stations, appointing Returning Officers, Assistant Electoral Registration Officers and rest of the formalities have been completed. We are of the view that wherever these things are completed, elections become due and they must be held.”
Despite ostensibly communicating their imminence, the elections are nowhere in sight. In fact, last month, the Election Commission wrote to Chief Electoral Officers of five poll-bound states asking them to file Special Summary Revision of voters list with 1 October being the qualifying date.
And since J&K is not among these five states, it means that there would be no polls this year as well. This has now cemented the belief that polls in the Union Territory (UT) would be held only after the Parliamentary elections take place. “I think neither assembly elections will be held nor statehood to J&K will be returned until there is new government formation in the Centre,” former Deputy Minister Muzaffar Baig said recently.
He added that the Union government wants a huge participation of people in forthcoming elections which is why they are expected to restore statehood to J&K after the 2024 elections. “The huge participation of people in polls is possible only once they will restore statehood to J&K, so the government will give it back after 2024 elections at the Centre,” he said.
Second Round of Electoral Roll Revision
Meanwhile in March, the CEC announced a second round of electoral revisions in J&K. The exercise started on 5 April and concluded on 10 May. The CEC also said that the commission is aware that there is a vacuum in Jammu & Kashmir which needs to be filled.
Last week, National Conference leader Omar Abdullah demanded the Election Commission to answer why polls were not being held in the UT despite admitting that there was a “vacuum” in the erstwhile state. “Is there a pressure on them (EC) not to hold elections? Let the Election Commission show some courage and say that they are under pressure. There is something fishy,” he said. “Election is our right but we are not going down on our knees for it. If they want to snatch the rights of people of Jammu and Kashmir, if they get some pleasure out of it, let them do it. We also have some self-respect and dignity,” he added.
National Challenges, Regional Implications
But the challenges that recent developments at the national level have posed are going to test how far the protests of regional politicians are going to make a difference.
Despite the Supreme Court’s recent ruling giving Delhi government control over services, the Centre was able to effortlessly thwart the judicially imposed checks by promulgating an ordinance, giving Delhi's LG the ultimate say on transfer and postings of all bureaucrats. This is not good news for the J&K politicians who wish to strike out a path of their own, sometimes in confrontation with the overweening Centre.
Political experts stated that the prolonged absence of an elected government in J&K undermined the framework of conversation between public and the establishment which can become a source of political crises. “Only elected administrations can enter into that kind of correspondence required to build and sustain a connection between the two. That conversation is less efficient under the non-elected governments,” said Noor Ahmad Baba, a political scientist who taught at Central University, Kashmir. "It speaks that things are not as normal as is being claimed.”
(Shakir Mir is an independent journalist. He has also written for The Wire.in, Article 14, Caravan, Firstpost, The Times of India, and more. He tweets at @shakirmir. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)