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The Vacuum of Mainstream Politics in Kashmir

By denigrating mainstream politics in Kashmir, the Modi government at the Centre has created a dangerous vacuum, reversing the gains of the past couple of decades. 

Restoring normalcy in Kashmir is a big challenge. However, the even bigger challenge would be restoring mainstream politics.

Even though the revocation of the special constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir and its reorganisation into two Union Territories was ostensibly aimed at hitting separatist tendencies, in fact, the developments have impacted mainstream politics even more. This space has been choked with restraints and restrictions on the one hand, and detention of prominent party leaders on the other.

In the situation as it has evolved, there is an inbuilt process of demonisation, not only of leaders and parties, but of mainstream politics per se. The home minister has made frequent references to dynastic rule, ‘three political families’ and the corruption of the political class. It is they who are being held responsible for the powerlessness of people and for whatever has gone wrong in the state.   

However, neither the detention of political leaders nor the vilification of mainstream politicians characterises the real crisis of mainstream politics in Kashmir. The real crisis relates to the relevance of this politics following the revocation of the special constitutional status of J&K.

Operating within the larger context of separatism, the mainstream political parties were known for their ‘pro-Indian’, ‘pro-Constitution’ and ‘pro-Accession’ stance. While the separatists challenged the very claim of the Indian state on Kashmir and rejected the accession of the state of Jammu and Kashmir to India, the mainstream parties founded their politics on the finality of Accession and swore by their loyalty to the Indian constitution.

In this pro-Indian politics, J&K’s special constitutional status formed the core of their politics or a fundamental starting principle with which they could address Delhi as well as their own constituencies. The principle of autonomy within India was what enabled all Kashmir-based political parties including the National Conference, People’s Democratic Party, People’s Conference, or any other party to address Kashmiri identity politics. 

Also read: Resume Political Engagement in Kashmir, Schedule Elections at Earliest: US to India

With the revocation of the special constitutional status of the state, the very base of mainstream politics has been taken away.  As things stand now, there is nothing that mainstream politicians can offer to the Kashmiris. It is not only the NC that has been ideologically hollowed out by taking away the possibility of ‘autonomy’ but also the PDP, which can no longer talk of Kashmiri identity. The same is true for other parties. Even if the politicians associated with these parties are set free to mobilise people, they will find themselves in great disarray. Their ideology has been made irrelevant and they stand discredited.

Sheikh Abdullah. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In Kashmir where separatist politics is a reality, the irrelevance of mainstream politics is not a good omen. A vacuum in this politics is an advantage for separatist politics. This has been made clear by Kashmir’s history where two periods stand out politically: the period between 1953 and 1975 and the post-1989 period. 

The years from 1953-1975, which saw the rise of a popular demand for plebiscite, is very crucial for understanding how the separatist psyche evolved in Kashmir and became the common sense of Kashmiris. The de-legitimisation of mainstream politics was not only due to the Centre’s conduct of farcical elections marked by uncontested returns but also by the lack of opposition and dissent within the state. Rather than the popular mandate, it was the will of the Centre that remained important in the ‘making’ or ‘unmaking’ of the leader or government.

It was not only Sheikh Abdullah who was removed from power but many of his successors were changed at the initiative of the Centre, including Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed, who was chosen by the Centre as Sheikh’s successor, Khwaja Shamsuddin and Syed Mir Qasim. The National Conference, which was the most popular local party, especially after its land reform initiatives, was so ‘Congress-ised’ that it did not surprise many when it merged with the Congress after a decade. When the democratic space became so choked, mainstream politics became discredited and therefore irrelevant for people.

What became the ‘mainstream’ for the Kashmiris meanwhile was separatist politics. It was the slogan of ‘Plebiscite’ raised by Sheikh Abdullah and the Plebiscite Front that now came to represent popular sentiment. The support that was at one time enjoyed by the National Conference shifted to separatist politics.

Also read: By Detaining Farooq, the Centre Signals its Contempt for Kashmiri Representation

The second time when mainstream politics became irrelevant was in the 1989-90 period. Post 1983, democratic processes were again compromised and people made to feel that their mandate did not matter as the Centre could intervene at any time and change the course of politics.

Three incidents – the ouster of Farooq Abdullah’s legitimately elected government as a result of Congress-engineered defections in 1984; the imposition of an NC-Congress alliance in 1986 and the commonly perceived as rigged election of 1987 – ensured that the perception that democratic processes were futile took strong roots. By 1989, it was not only the militancy that had overtaken Kashmir completely, but the popular sentiment of ‘azadi’.

Mainstream politics was totally rejected and as a result all political processes collapsed and the mainstream parties were forced to go into hibernation. For a long period, thereafter, mainstream political leaders could not find an inch of space in Kashmir. When the time came for the National Conference to relaunch its politics prior to the 1996 Assembly election, it could not do so from Kashmir, its major constituency.

It had to operate from Jammu. So difficult was the business of mainstream politics in Kashmir till the end of the 1990s that not many political leaders dared to move around freely in their constituencies. The fear of militants was certainly overwhelming (as hundreds of workers of mainstream parties were killed by the militants). However, it was the lack of trust in democratic politics that led to popular indifference toward this situation. 

Also read: There is No Wisdom in Turning All Kashmiris Into Antagonists

Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Credit: Facebook/Atal Bihari Vajpayee

Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Photo: Facebook/Atal Bihari Vajpayee

It took some effort on the part of then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to create an environment in which mainstream politics could find relevance in Kashmir. Against the larger background of peace initiatives and the offer of dialogue with Kashmiris including the separatists, it was Vajpayee’s promise of ‘free and fair elections’ that succeeded in generating a positive response towards mainstream politics in Kashmir. What helped in reversing the attitude of Kashmiris was a sense of participation in the process of their own governance.

The presence of the PDP, another Kashmir-based regional party along with the National Conference, created competition and the Kashmiris felt a real stake in electoral politics. This new paradigm of competitive politics, where it was the ‘mandate’ of the people rather than the ‘will of the Centre’ that mattered, facilitated the deepening of ‘electoral democracy’.

Every successive election since 2002, whether assembly or local panchayats, became more competitive and more participatory. By the time the 2014 assembly election took place, the democratic space had been quite extended and mainstream politics was thriving in many ways. 

This did not, of course, mean that separatist politics had ceased to exist. Separatist strength was visible in the massive popular participation in various agitations from 2008 to 2010. However, what was peculiar about this period was that despite separatist assertions, democratic politics continued to assert its relevance.

The best proof of this could be seen in 2008 when soon after the massive separatist upsurge around the Amarnath land issue, the Assembly election was contested successfully. The separatist call for election boycott failed and people participated in the election in large numbers. Similarly, following the massive upsurge that lasted the entire summer of 2010, the panchayat elections were held with more than 80% participation. What was significant about this mainstream politics was that its legitimacy was not challenged even by the separatists. 

Understanding the difficulty of operating within the larger separatist environment, the mainstream parties had strategised their political existence. Rather than claiming to represent the whole spectrum of political sentiments in Kashmir, they restricted themselves mainly to the ‘politics of governance’. The fact that this politics of governance was not seen to be competing with separatist politics made it easier for competitive politics to gain ground in Kashmir.

Another strategy used by the mainstream parties was to ‘mainstream’ the separatist agenda. In the post-2002 phase, mainstream parties took up every issue raised by the separatists, including those related to militarisation and human rights violations. This ‘hijacking’ of the separatists’ agenda by the mainstream parties (a term used by the separatists to critique the mainstream parties) was not to the liking of separatist organisations. Apart from contesting the exclusivity of their politics, the mainstream parties, in the process, were also challenging the relevance of separatist organisations. 

Also read: No Resolution in Sight, Kashmir’s Problems Are Being Increasingly Made Invisible

While the deepening of competitive politics did not automatically lead to the withdrawal of separatist politics, it did create an alternative political space in which the grounds for dialogue with people could be created. Since much of the separatism in Kashmir was generated by the collapse of democratic politics (as in the 1984-1987 period), the extension of this space had its own significance in the potential resolution of conflict. 

In a situation where the raison d’être of separatist politics lay in challenging the Indian state, it was the mainstream parties that carried the responsibility of representing the face of Indian politics in Kashmir. By asserting its existence, this politics was automatically challenging the exclusivity of separatist politics. There were many ways in which the separatists were feeling the pressure, including in the changing responses of Kashmiris to mainstream politics.

Over time, many separatists themselves chose to shift to mainstream politics, Sajad Lone being the most prominent separatist to do so. 

It was already a matter of great concern that the mainstream politics had started facing a crisis after the formation of the PDP-BJP government and more so after the killing of Burhan Wani in 2016. As a reflection of this crisis, the 2019 parliamentary election recorded a low voter turnout. The extension of the separatist space in Kashmir during this period could be witnessed in the form of ‘new age militancy’ or the presence of large numbers of people at encounter sites and at the funeral of militants. The crisis has been so accentuated by the recent developments that it has led to a political vacuum in Kashmir. 

How is this vacuum going to be filled? In the government’s current scheme of things, there is no priority to politics. The strategies pronounced to deal with Kashmir include the idea of empowering Kashmiris through economic incentives, public and private investments, and providing jobs to youth.

There is no strategy to restore the mainstream political space. The only official reference to politics relates to panchayats. From making visible the panchayat leaders to empowering panchayats to holding block level elections – one can see that the panchayat leaders are being propped up as the real representatives of the people. 

While it is important to boost grass-roots politics in Kashmir, this cannot be a substitute to ensuring politics at higher levels. In any case, in the absence of a vibrant mainstream space, the panchayats cannot be made fully functional. A comparison between the 2011 and 2018 panchayat elections in Kashmir clearly makes that point. While there was keen competition and massive participation in the 2011 Panchayat elections, in 2018 many of those elected were returned unopposed; and many panchayats were left vacant for want of contestants. 

On the whole, mainstream politics in Kashmir has been operating in a very precarious situation. It has become much more precarious after August 5, 2019

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).