(Could there be a plan for violence to erupt when the Centre holds assembly elections in J&K? In this concluding part of a two-part series, the author analyses the situation based on conversations over the past few weeks in Srinagar, rural Kashmir, and Washington DC.)
The way a lot of people in Kashmir see things, the situation there has gradually normalised—despite the worry and deep unease among some of them about the sporadic killing of Pandits and migrant workers from other parts of the country.
Poll Violence Could Erupt in the Valley
Ordinary citizens as well as politicians in Kashmir say they wonder if major terror attacks, or even a big explosion of violence or/and street agitations might take place whenever polls are held to elect an assembly. That could derail the whole process.
Conversations in recent weeks with Think-tank analysts and policymakers in Washington DC revealed that that speculation is in their minds too.
Many Kashmiris Now Seem Happy With Governance
Elections would, of course, be an obvious opportunity for those who might want to prevent stabilisation, and the trend towards normalcy in the erstwhile state. As things stand, people at large in Kashmir, often say there is more responsive governance now, less corruption, and increased developmental work.
A village school teacher, for example, says he gets to school at 9 am and stays till 4 pm. And he gets back to work by exactly 2 pm on Fridays, after prayers during lunch break. Evidently, supervisors from the education department make regular rounds. And he does not seem resentful.
During the first two years, and more so, after the constitutional changes of August 2019, common people often said that nothing has changed. They complained of unresponsive and cynical governance, continued corruption, and said that the panchayats and municipalities that had been elected, in most cases, had not been empowered.
Now, municipalities are apparently being consulted for drawing up development plans, and project funds are being released through them.
What Will Ensure Fair Elections in the UT?
On the face of it, this should augur well for elections to be held for the next level of representatives—an assembly. Indeed, long-established politicians, as well as new aspiring ones have been keenly watching the process of constituency delimitation, and signals from the centre regarding elections.
There could be an unprecedented voter turnout provided there is no major violence. One doesn’t now hear people talk on the lines of `lava is building, and will burst at some point’—as people often said in the first couple of years after the constitutional changes.
What one does hear is suspicious speculation about the sporadic killings, who is behind them, how many terrorists might lurk, how many of them might be well-trained foreigners, how many might be ready across the Line of Control, and whether the levers of control have shifted to Afghanistan.
Can Centre’s Strategies Restore Political Balance in J&K?
Some observers speculate that some of the most powerful members of the Central government have somewhat different strategies about whether to prioritise elections, or stabilisation. One line of thinking is to clear the mess of the past before moving ahead with political processes.
Some of the steps that have been taken include sacking or transferring several government employees and putting a squeeze on the Jamaat-e-Islami in Kashmir. Those pressing this strategy apparently feel that this process needs another year.
They don’t want long-established politicians, some of whom have patronised troublemakers, to return to influential roles until that work is completed.
It is striking that there has been no visible opposition among people at large to these moves to sideline those suspected of making trouble in the past, especially those who were within the labyrinth of government.
Voting Rights To ‘Outsiders’ May Ruffle Feathers
The current Corps Commander in Kashmir has emphasised on professionalism in the army, dialling back the repeated visits of the many who brought big talk, airy promises, and open palms to the cantonment. This is a commendable step.
Regarding the army, there is much speculation over whether the government will finally decide that forces’ personnel posted in Jammu and Kashmir for a year or more should be registered to vote.
Such a move would cause resentment in Kashmir, and be negatively viewed abroad. Plus, putting soldiers in voting queues would divert them from being on full alert to prevent violence during elections, even if they do not participate in securing polling booths. (That is generally the task of paramilitary forces.)
Their voting could, however, change the electoral dynamics, most notably in the newly carved Lal Chowk constituency. The Badami Bagh cantonment and the Tatoo Ground army camp both fall within this new constituency. Other citizens from various states who live and work in the Union Territory could also be given the vote. That could potentially change the electoral dynamic in several other constituencies.
High Turnout Probable Across J&K
If there is no violence, the turnout for assembly elections would most likely continue the trends since 1996 when elections were first held in the shadow of major insurgency. The difference between rural and urban turnout has remained wide, but the turnout in both categories has generally increased in each successive election since then.
Thus, if 20 to 30 per cent of rural voters turned out in 1996, and almost none from urban areas, the numbers had, by 2008, reached about 20 to 30 per cent in urban areas and 70 per cent in rural areas. And, despite the devastating floods of September-October in 2014, the turnout increased a bit further in the assembly elections of November-December that year.
The rural-urban divide reflects a point I made in The Generation of Rage in Kashmir—that the most vociferous anti-state activists in Kashmir often are the children of those employed in powerful government jobs.
Given the degree to which the constitutional changes of 2019 have been accepted now, there should be every reason to expect an even greater turnout for the next assembly elections—unless there is a major round of violence.
(The writer is the author of ‘The Story of Kashmir’ and ‘The Generation of Rage in Kashmir’. He can be reached at @david_devadas. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)