In the aftermath of Kashmir polls: Can India and Pakistan agree to confine itself to three subjects: defence, foreign affairs and communications?

In the aftermath of Kashmir polls

By Kuldip Nayar

STATE elections in Jammu and Kashmir may not have provided many answers but it has made one thing clear: the All-Parties Hurriyat Conference has been exaggerating its strength.

It was wrong in assessing the mood of the Valley because the voters rejected the Hurriyat’s call to boycott the polls. Nearly 61 per cent of the voters queued up before the polling booths in the severe winter to elect their representatives. As many as 354 candidates contested to return 87 members to the assembly. It was democracy versus the boycott call.

The problem with the Hurriyat is that it is frozen in time — when the Valley was agog with the demand for azadi. People have moved on because they have realised over the years, after losing thousands at the hands of the security forces, that the ground realities are far different from what the Hurriyat has been peddling.

This does not mean that the Valley’s alienation from India is over. It only means that the Kashmiris are questioning the Hurriyat’s way of seeking a settlement with New Delhi. They are sick and tired of violence and extremism and want peace and normalcy which they believe will give them back the tourists and free them from terrorists. Even those with guns did not disturb the polls lest they invoked the voters’ anger.

Without doubt, the Kashmiris want to have an identity of their own. The pattern of voting indicates that. Both the National Conference (NC) and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) have won practically all the seats in the Valley — the first getting 28 and the second 21 — underlining the aspirations of the Kashmiris to be different from the rest of India. The NC asked for autonomy plus and the PDP proposed self-rule and dual currency. Yet neither have talked of a status outside the Indian Union. It is, however, significant that the PDP increased its tally from 16 to 21 by taking a hawkish line. It looks as if it will continue to do that.

New Delhi would be deluding itself if it believes in the aftermath of the elections that it can arrive at a settlement without the separatists. They represent a dream which tickles the imagination even if it remains unfulfilled. However, there is a new opportunity for the governments at Srinagar and New Delhi to start afresh; to begin a dialogue with the separatists in order to hammer out a settlement which is acceptable to India, Kashmir and Pakistan.

The disconcerting fallout of the elections is reflected in the sharp division between the Kashmir and Jammu regions. The NC has won four seats in the Jammu region, and that too from Poonch where the Muslims have a majority. The party has also lost three per cent of the votes. The PDP has increased its support by 3.8 per cent but mostly from Poonch and Rajouri. Communal polarisation is also visible because the BJP which had only one seat has now returned 11. Its voting percentage has also increased in the Jammu region — from 12.4 to 21.8.

The Amarnath temple controversy over the piece of land allotted temporarily to the shrine management board came in handy for the BJP which was able to mix religion with politics and reap the harvest of agitated Hindu voters. The party also benefited from the negligence of the Jammu region as pointed out by various commissions. In comparison, the Valley’s main parties found less support from Hindus.

The Hurriyat too has no base in the Jammu region because it has preferred to give its movement an Islamic edge. The new government at Srinagar will have to give the Jammu region a sense of participation which it lacks. Otherwise, the sentiments for Jammu to be part of a neighbouring state in India may intensify.

The Congress, part of the ruling coalition after the last election, has suffered the most. It has lost 10.7 per cent of the electorate, 5.3 per cent in Jammu and 5.4 per cent in the Valley, although in terms of seats, its loss is only three. Its tally has been reduced from 20 to 17. The main reason for this is that it has been held responsible for the Amarnath land debacle, although it was the PDP minister who had approved the allotment when Ghulam Nabi Azad from the Congress was chief minister.

The NC and the Congress which have joined hands to form a coalition government represent the middle-of-the-road approach. Their problem will be to figure out how to deal with hardliners PDP and BJP. The PDP will try to distance Kashmir from the rest of India while the BJP would be for closer integration.

Election results show that the PDP, which has increased its vote percentage by 6.1, was helped by the Jamaat-i-Islami, headed by pro-Pakistan Syed Ali Shah Geelani. The NC and the Congress coalition have an absolute majority, 45 in the House. Yet, the history of relations between the two is not a happy one. The first government in the state was that of Sheikh Abdullah, the NC chief and grandfather of Omar Abdullah.

Jawaharlal Nehru was the prime minister of the Congress party. They were friends and comrades-in-arms in the struggle of independence against the British. This was an ideal combination. Yet they fell out and Sheikh Abdullah remained under detention for almost 12 years.

Once Nehru wrote to the Maharaja of Kashmir saying, “the only person who can deliver the goods in Kashmir is Abdullah.” But they went so far apart that Nehru wrote to him: “I greatly regret that you should have taken up a position which indicates that you do not value any friendly advice that we might give and, indeed, consider it as improper interference….”

Omar Abdullah, son of Farooq Abdullah, has an advantage because he knows the Gandhi family well. But personal relations may matter little if and when Srinagar pushes to implement the autonomy resolution which Farooq vainly tried to do when he was in power a few years ago. The central government’s authority, according to the Instrument of Accession Act, extends to three subjects: defence, foreign affairs and communications.

If New Delhi agrees to confine itself to three subjects, most of the separatists may go along. They have asked for azadi, but have yet to define it. Is New Delhi ready to roll back from the extra space it has occupied since the Instrument of Accession Act? Can Pakistan do likewise in Azad Kashmir, giving it all the subjects except defence, foreign affairs and communications? Elections in Jammu and Kashmir have provided yet another chance to sort out these questions.

The writer is a leading journalist based in Delhi.