by Afsaana Rashid
- Indian-administered Kashmir -
In what is being hailed as a victory for democracy, the Indian-administered state of Jammu and Kashmir recently concluded a two-month round of elections at the end of December. Despite calls from separatist groups like Hurriyat Conference to boycott the polls, Kashmiris came out in overwhelming numbers to vote.
Separatist groups opposed the elections, calling them "futile" in their quest for self-determination. Though voter turnout exceeded everyone’s expectations, most voters feel that it should not be misconstrued as the defeat of separatist politics, especially given the numbers who heeded their calls for protest and anti-poll demonstrations.
One such demonstration turned violent in Koil-Pulwama on December 13th. Twenty-one year-old college student Muzaffar Mushtaq was killed when Jammu and Kashmir Police and Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) troopers opened fire after protesters pelted them with stones. Eyewitnesses say that total chaos ensued.
Members of the media also suffered at the hands of security forces during the fourth phase of elections, held on December 7th. While covering a protest in Sopore, the hometown of Syed Ali Shah Geelani (a prominent separatist leader and chairman of his faction of Hurriyat Conference), photojournalists and reporters were beaten up by police and CRPF. Mukhtar Khan, an Associated Press photographer, bore the brunt of the attack and was hospitalized with severe injuries.
Although most people came out to vote on their own, there were instances where that was not the case. In Kralagund, in the border district of Kupwara, most voters were coerced to participate."The people who did not come out to vote in the last assembly elections had to face the wrath of [state] troops. Some of them were fired upon, so we were compelled to vote," reported a group of voters who were waiting their turn at the polls.
The state administration imposed an undeclared curfew and enforced severe restrictions on polling days. Geelani and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq (chairman of his faction of Hurriyat Conference) were put under house arrest as authorities did not want to risk a derailment of the election process. The administration also muzzled separatist voices by arresting various leaders, and though some have been released, there are others who are still detained.
The elections for state assembly, spread over seven phases, were held from November 17th to December 24th. The counting of votes began on December 28th across district headquarters.
The New Delhi-based Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) made tremendous gains during the 2008 assembly elections and won 11 seats. In the previous assembly, the party had just one legislator. Alleged to support a Hindu base that wants to establish Hindu rule across India, the party initially had very little political influence in Jammu and Kashmir. Their progress in the elections is viewed as significant since it’s rumored that its legislators will demand the annulment of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which gives special rights (such as land ownership) to the residents of Jammu and Kashmir.
As many as 10 seats went to small parties and independents.
As no single party was able to win a simple or absolute majority in the 87-member state assembly, the National Conference Party (NC), which has a strong base across Jammu and Kashmir, formed a coalition government with the India National Congress (INC). With 28 seats, NC emerged as the single largest party in the house, but fell short of the 44 needed for a simple majority. The People’s Democratic Party (PDP) came in second with 21 seats, while INC earned 17 seats and finished third in the race.In a power sharing agreement, NC leader Omar Abdullah was sworn in as the new Chief Minister of Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir state on January 5th and will fill this post for the next six years. He previously served as Minister of State for Commerce and External Affairs in the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government. Tara Chand, from INC, has been appointed as the state’s Deputy Chief Minister.
Born in 1970, Omar Abdullah is the youngest Chief Minister in Kashmir’s history. Underage voters were frequently seen casting their votes illegally during the seven phase assembly elections. Kashmir’s youth feel that since Abdullah is young, he will be able to understand their problems better than the previous administration.
Youth like Shameem Ahmad hope that the new government can curb unemployment.
"Thousands of educated youth are without jobs and it’s high time attention is paid to our genuine demands,” he says. “If the new government cannot provide government jobs to all, they can still play a role in setting up enterprises and industries across the state so that employment is generated."
Teacher Abdul Rauf has his eye on a larger issue.
"It is true that people voted for better governance, regular power supply, clean drinking water and good roads," he says, "but the government has to take a few extra steps. It should motivate New Delhi into carrying out meaningful talks with separatist groups so that the Kashmir issue is solved once for all."
About the Author
Afsaana Rashid is a journalist living in Indian-administered Kashmir and the author of Waiting for Justice: Widows and Half Widows, a book that addresses the plight of many women whose husbands have been subjected to enforced disappearance or custodial killings over the past two decades of Kashmir's conflict. Formerly the chief correspondent for Kashmir's English daily, Khidmat, she now writes for The Tribune, one of India's largest circulated newspapers. She was also a senior correspondent with Daily Etalaat, and has written for The Kashmir Times and Kashmir Images. She received her Masters in Mass Communication and Journalism from the University of Kashmir.
In 2005, Afsaana was awarded a fellowship for her work on the impact of conflict on the subsistence livelihoods of marginalized communities in Kashmir by Action Aid India. The following year, she was awarded a Sanjoy Ghose Media fellowship for her work in conflict areas. She also received a UN Population Fund-Laadli Media Award for best reporting in adverse conditions on gender issues in April 2008.
Devoted to covering human rights violations, Afsaana hopes to give a voice to the voiceless.