How Many Times Must We Lose the Valley?

The repression and rigging of 1987 proved to many Kashmiris that the freedoms promised to them under the Indian constitution would be violated, not defended. Till today, 1987 continues to repeat itself.

The use of Farooq Ahmed Dar as a human shield by Major Leetul Gogoi has been a polarising moment. So polarising that commentators are deeply divided in the armed forces themselves, with Lt General (retd) H.S. Panag, taking a diametrically opposite view to the current army chief, General Bipin Rawat. All this shock and horror, though, serves to obscure how banal and “ordinary” such treatment seems to Kashmiris. I do not mean that Kashmiris have been used as human shields before, although that has been claimed. Rather, the fact that Dar was one of only 7% of voters in the Srinagar parliamentary constituency who chose to exercise their franchise that day has served to reinforce the popular perception in the Valley that voting and the denial of basic democratic rights often go hand in hand.

In his outreach to Kashmiris, Atal Bihari Vajpayee – the prime minister considered by many Kashmiris as the most sincere in his willingness to change the dynamic – mentioned the lack of free and fair elections in Jammu and Kashmir, taking full credit for changing that. In 2003, he declared, “They asked which world I was living in as votes cast here are not counted and, even if they are counted are not credited to the right party.” In this he was referring to the 1987 state elections, the rigging of which led directly to the outbreak of violence in 1989.

Many today don’t realise that the Hizbul Mujahideen commander we now know only by his nom de guerre of Syed Salahuddin was, as Yousuf Shah, a candidate in those elections. People forget that Yasin Malik, later of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, was an election campaigner. While these are well-known facts, less known is the motivations of those that rigged the elections. By 1987, Rajiv Gandhi’s government had started losing the support engendered by Indira Gandhi’s assassination and the anti-Sikh pogroms that followed. In 1986, he committed the twin blunders of opening the locks in Ayodhya and pandering to Muslim clerics over the Shah Bano case in a desperate and wholly misguided effort to sustain support. His government then pressured the National Conference, then under Farooq Abdullah, to fight the elections in coalition with the Congress.

Until 1987, the local parties of Jammu and Kashmir, whether the National Conference (NC) or the Plebiscite Front, anticipating the state-Centre relations that would come up in other states, tried to maintain a balance between local pride and cooperation with New Delhi, even if the Centre’s dismissal of government after government made this difficult. Rajiv’s decision to force the NC into a coalition with the Congress in 1987 destroyed the NC’s ability to represent itself as anything other than New Delhi’s voice. In turn, though, the NC, by all accounts, went all out to ensure it did not lose any seats to the various dissident parties arranged in a loose coalition under the banner of the Muslim United Front (MUF).

The MUF was unlikely to win many seats, but by the process of incarceration and torture – which included, allegedly, making campaigners drink their own urine – the NC lost even the little credibility it had to defend native pride. We know well what happened afterwards – the tens of thousands of lives we have lost, of civilians and soldiers. For many, there is the convenient myth of Kashmiris always being pro-Pakistan and anti-India. While some undoubtedly were – and certainly the referendum that never took place has haunted Delhi-Srinagar relations – those in favour of working with India dominated the Valley. It was they who stopped the Pakistani irregulars reaching Srinagar airport in 1947 before the Indian army could arrive. It was they who turned over Pakistani spies to the authorities in 1965.

On April 4, 1979, when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged by the Pakistani army, rioters in Kashmir attacked and looted the properties of the Jamaat-e-Islami J&K. For an external observer, it would be hard to predict that a decade later the same Kashmiris would reject India and turn to the Pakistani army for “help”, that it would be the same Jamaat, with Syed Ali Shah Geelani heading its political wing, becoming the voice of merger with Pakistan. It is no coincidence that the Hizbul Mujahideen was often referred to as the Jamaat’s “Youth Wing”.

What happened? In a nutshell, the repression and rigging of 1987 – coming after a host of actions like the never-held referendum, the imprisonment of Sheikh Abdullah and the gutting of the autonomy promised under Article 370 – ended up proving for many Kashmiris that the freedoms promised to them under the Indian constitution would not be defended, but would rather be violated. Those that had counselled accommodation with Delhi, such as Sheikh Abdullah, now began to be seen as the ones that had sold Kashmiris into servitude. This is exactly what happened to Farooq Ahmed Dar when he voted in the recent elections before being beaten, tied to a jeep and paraded across 17 villages over five hours.

It cost us much blood to reverse some of what we lost in 1987. In the Fall of 2005, I interviewed a senior Hurriyat leader with a few of my colleagues. Violence levels had dropped, India and Pakistan were talking, the LoC had been opened up – to a very limited degree – to travel and trade. There were even rumours of Syed Salahuddin coming across and taking part in elections, of becoming plain old Yousuf Shah again. In response to our question on Salahuddin – or Peer sahib, as he is sometimes known – contesting elections, the Hurriyat leader sat silently for a moment, and then one skinny arm shot out from under his pheran and he declared, “Let him come! We will see how big is his gun.”

We tried to hide our grins at the (unintended?) double entendre, but it became our stock phrase for a few days. We seemed that close to a return to democracy that we were discussing how an election candidate-turned-militant could turn back into an election candidate. Today, a ‘renegade’ Hizb commander like Zakir Musa threatens to chop the heads of the Hurriyat leadership. This is how far we have fallen, and the militants are firmly in charge again.

At that time there was still hope. We went from Srinagar to Sopore, where a young, recently elected, municipal councillor showed us around the trash-lined streets in a city that paid some of the highest taxes in the state, and told us of his dreams for urban renewal. The 2005 municipal elections were the first in 25 years. There was hope. Later I would travel to Mattan, in Anantnag, where a Kashmiri Pandit, the patriarch of the lone Hindu family in the district, had been elected. Minorities in such small numbers very rarely win in first-past-the-post elections – and he had, among a handful of others. He grinned at me and gestured to soldiers standing guard near a temple, “You think they keep me safe? It is my neighbours.”

I did not know whether to believe him. From the face of his son, I did not know if his family believed him either, but there was hope. Not to overstate things, those taking part in the elections made sure to distance themselves from claims that this was a referendum on the political dispute. Nevertheless, the empowering of local leadership to represent their own people, their own point of view, helped those of us who were arguing that freedom could be possible within the ambit of the Indian constitution and taking part in the democratic process did not merely mean a meek surrender to Delhi. The large turnouts were a positive indication, unlike the abysmal turnouts now.

A few years later, we had more reasons for that hope. Kashmir held panchayat elections in 2010 and I oversaw a project that helped train some of the sarpanches and panches to fulfil their duties, to negotiate with the state authorities and the military. They were nobodies, newly come to power in a state that had not seen panchayat elections in decades. They were nobodies, with no security, the greatest believers in democracy, and we let them die, killed by militants, by thugs, by political opponents and just strangers.

Municipal elections have not happened since 2005, they are now overdue by seven years. The municipalities are again dictated to by clerks and babus. The same holds true of the panchayats. The thing is that nobody cares. Those used to exercising power in the name of security do not wish to surrender it to those elected in the name of democracy. The police and administration do not want to listen to villagers – these pesky panches, sarpanches and municipal councillors that they are used to bullying.  The MLAs and MPs, whose exercise of power since at least 1989, but in fact stretching back to Sheikh Abdullah’s jailing in 1953, has always been hemmed in by New Delhi, have no interest in sharing power with panchayati institutions or municipal councils either. And the militants, does anybody really think they want democracy? For them, these nobodies were a nuisance at best, traitors to “the movement” at worst.

In the midst of it all stand the armed forces, both the paramilitary and the military, who have endured violence, humiliation and hardship, seen their colleagues bleed and die, just to see it all come around once again. I am told that when the NC moved the Autonomy Resolution in the Jammu and Kashmir assembly in 2000, some soldiers grumbled, “Who is he to ask for autonomy? After all, it was our votes that made him chief minister in 1996.”

Who will ask the armed forces to believe that we actually do mean to bring peace to the Valley, to bring democracy? They have, arguably, seen a hard-won peace frittered away for the gains of greedy politicians.

Merely holding free and fair elections will not “solve the Kashmir problem”; for that you need a bigger debate on freedom and autonomy than we seem to be willing to have. Nevertheless, investing the democratically elected with real power to represent their constituents is India’s strongest card to play, our most important appeal. Weakening this approach is the most self-defeating thing we can do, but it seems, like an addict, we cannot stop ourselves from self-harm.

So 1987 recurs, again, and again. We invest nothing in deepening democracy, in defending the freedoms of Kashmiris. Instead we try to enforce a “peace” by taking away rights, by bludgeoning a population into submission.

Again and again we hear mainland politicians asking Kashmiri youth to give up stone pelting, to give up guns, to vote, be a part of the largest democracy on Earth and yet, when has taking part in the democratic process ever really led to greater freedom to them? When Indian liberals say that freedom can be achieved within the bounds of the Indian constitution, why should they believe us? Is it really so hard to understand, then, why they shout for freedom from us, rather than with us?

Join The Discussion