For one year now, there has been a complete political vacuum in the mainstream political space in Kashmir. Not only is there an absence of any political activity, but there is also no visibility of political parties and leaders in the public space.
This is a unique situation that did not exist even after the PDP-BJP government collapsed in June 2018. Though governance at that time was in administrative hands, the political environment was intact – parties were issuing statements, holding press conferences, organising protests, conjecturing about elections and/or government formation, and responding to various speculations about Central government’s intentions vis-a-vis the state of Jammu and Kashmir.
After August 5, 2019, when the special constitutional status of the state was revoked and the state was bifurcated into two Union Territories, it has been an altogether different story. There has been almost a complete silence within the mainstream political space.
Initially, the silence was attributed to the detention of political leaders. But even after many of them have been released, the silence has continued on. It has been speculated that it is because of pressure being laid on by the Central government that these leaders have imposed a self-censorship of sorts.
But even this does not explain the complete de-politicisation of the mainstream political space. Politics that was suspended in Kashmir on August 5 last year has not been revived. One can see it clearly if one looks beyond the Valley and notes the difference between Kashmir and Jammu region.
Politics in Jammu
Politics, to begin with, was suspended in the Jammu region as well and even here few political leaders were detained. But very soon, things started to pick up. The region started reflecting its concerns and anxieties about various issues linked with the changes that came about after August 5. Political leaders and organisations, and even members of civil society, started debating the positive and negative implications of the modification of Article 370 and withdrawal of Article 35A.
Concerns were articulated about the effect of the changes on employment and land ownership. Apprehensions were also raised about the impact on environment and heritage. By now, there have been enough debates around the delimitation process, the electoral process and downgrading of the state into the Union Territory. One can clearly see that whatever responses to August 2019 changes have been forthcoming in J&K, these are being articulated in the Jammu region. Even the issues which were traditionally raised in Kashmir like those related to ‘cultural identity’ and ‘demographic changes’ have been raised in Jammu.
But there is total silence in Kashmir.
The unavailability of the political space
Why is this so? Why is there no mainstream response in Kashmir to the August 2019 changes and why are political parties and leaders reluctant to take on the public space in Kashmir to articulate the popular response?
The reason is that the mainstream leaders and parties are in a quandary and don’t know how to approach the people and what to offer them. The political discourse that formed their linkage with the people has become redundant and they have lost their relevance. Even if they make effort to approach people, there is no real political space available.
One major reason for the unavailability of the political space for the mainstream politics is the loss of the logic of its politics. Mainstream politics of Kashmir was driven around the discourse of ‘Kashmiri identity’ – its specificity and exclusive nature, its autonomy vis-a-vis the Centre, and the need of its preservation and protection via the special constitutional status enjoyed by the state.
Though originally constructed by the National Conference, the discourse of Kashmiri identity was to become the logic of the mainstream politics in the post-1947 period. Any political party seeking legitimacy within the mainstream politics would essentially evolve its politics around this logic and would seek to outdo other parties in establishing its commitment to this identity.
Over this period, enough sentiments were raised around the questions linked with the ‘Kashmiri identity’ – whether these were in the form of erosion of Article 370; the manipulation and superimposition of central authority on the state; or in the form of apprehensions around cultural interventions or demographic changes.
Though there were other issues related to governance that were articulated and raised by political parties, however, the bottomline of the politics of each of the competitive political party remained the ‘preservation’ and ‘protection’ of Kashmiri identity within the Indian Union. It was this bottomline or the essence of the mainstream politics that also distinguished it from the separatist politics. The separatist politics contested the very association of Kashmir with India and did not recognise either the constitution or the special status granted to the state. The faith in the Indian constitution and the special constitutional status of the state was the hallmark of the mainstream politics only.
With the special constitutional status of the state gone, one can clearly see the implications for the Kashmir-based political parties. For these parties, the central narrative of their politics has been hit hard and they have been rendered directionless after August 2019.
The very core of their politics which distinguished them from the separatists does not exist any more. It is not only the NC with its ideological commitment to autonomy that has been affected, but also the other parties including the PDP, the People’s Conference and the like. One can explain the silence of the PDP in the context of its disintegration on the one hand, and the continued detention of Mehbooba Mufti on the other. But the silence of the People’s Conference, which before August 2019 had staked claims about the formation of government with the support of BJP, is quite meaningful in this context.
This is not an ideal situation. The absence of mainstream politics in Kashmir is not good news as separatism (besides militancy) continues to have a base here and often seeks to assert itself (more recently in 2008, 2010, 2016).
As the history of Kashmir’s politics clearly shows, there is an inverse relationship between mainstream politics and separatism. Separatism tends to flourish in a political vacuum.
This is what happened during 1953-1975 period, when separatist politics took root in Kashmir. This was the time when the ruling National Conference, under the leadership of Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed, lacking legitimacy, lost much of the political space to the Plebiscite Front that contested the very basis of the state’s accession with India.
As democratic politics was discredited, the separatist politics expanded. The mass base of this party shifted to the Plebiscite Front. This happened again in 1984-1987 period when the mainstream politics was compromised in a massive way. The Congress as the ruling party in the Centre not only engineered defections and ousted a popularly elected NC government (in 1984) but also forced an unpopular alliance with the party (in 1986). With the final election fiasco in 1987, the stage was set for armed militancy and separatism.
Meanwhile, it has also been established that mainstream politics that is fairly democratic, competitive and credible can help in containing the separatist politics. Thus there was no separatist streak in Kashmir during 1975-1983 period.
This period is also is known for fairly participative politics that was not superimposed from above and was organically linked with a local party (NC) and a local leader (Sheikh Abdullah and later Farooq Abdullah). It is during this period that Kashmir is known to have witnessed two most credible elections (1977 and 1983 elections) that helped generate a legitimacy for the mainstream politics. Legitimacy was attained by mainstream politics in the more recent 2002-2014 period as well and though the intensely competitive and locally grounded politics did not automatically result in the elimination of separatist politics, but it offered sufficient challenge to separatist organisations and leaders.
The spate of exclusive control of Kashmir’s political space that came in the hand of the separatists in 1989-90 was broken in 2002 when people started giving credence to the mainstream ‘politics of governance’ and started participating in elections in large numbers. The power of the mainstream politics to limit the scope of separatist politics could be seen in 2008 when after a massive separatist upsurge around Amarnath land row, people rejected the separatist call for boycotting the elections and registered massive voter turnout.
Similarly, after the 2010 agitation, they again chose to register massive participation (80%) in the panchayat elections in 2011. The legitimacy of the mainstream politics during this period, which even the separatists acknowledged, was in itself a big constraint for separatist politics.
In terms of the political space, it is a challenging time in Kashmir. In the political vacuum, one remains in the dark about the real situation on the ground. The only thing that is getting registered is the increasing presence of militants, indicating an increasing space for separatism. However, how much the separatist space has expanded, one does not know.
One doesn’t even know the meaning of the silence that has been persisting since August 2019. In the absence of political parties and leaders, there is no way we can know it. The minimum that is required is some kind of politics, some presence of political leaders and parties. However, how does one bring about that politics. Can a ‘new politics’ be built and can parties, like Apni Party which was launched a few months ago, succeed in filling the vacuum?
The answer to the crisis of mainstream politics does not certainly lie in imagining a ‘new politics’. A new politics cannot be imagined from above. It has to be organic and has to evolve within. Certainly, experiments like Apni Party are not going to work for the simple reason that this politics is not locally rooted. What has happened with the old politics is that it has lost its linkage with the people and that is the reason as to why it has lost its space.
In Kashmir, we are dealing with a very precarious situation. To contain separatism, the best option lies in a creating credible mainstream political space. However, the irrelevance of mainstream politics has led to a political vacuum. Restoring mainstream politics is the biggest challenge at the moment.
Rekha Chowdhary, formerly professor of political science, University of Jammu, is currently Fellow, IIAS, Shimla. She is the author of Jammu and Kashmir 1990 and Beyond: Competitive Politics in the Shadow of Separatism (Sage, 2019) and Jammu and Kashmir: Politics of Identity and Separatism (Routledge, 2016).