A Common Kashmiri’s Catch-22: To Vote or Not to Vote

Gowhar Geelani

GowharGowhar is a writer, journalist and columnist, who has served Germany’s public broadcaster, Deutsche Welle [Voice of Germany] as Editor in Bonn, Germany. He is a regular columnist with many English newspapers, including Rising Kashmir, and also writes features for www.dawn.com. In the capacity of Chief Editorial Adviser, Gowhar also edits a monthly English Sports Magazine. Previously, he has contributed features for the BBC web.

He can be contacted at gowhargeelani @ gmail.com

‘To Vote or Not to Vote, That is the Question’

In May, 2013 I wrote a piece about a common Kashmiri’s predicament which he/she faces when it comes to the election times. The crucial decision time of boycotting the elections to honour the supreme sacrifices for ‘Azadi’ or participating in the process for administrative purpose, local governance, and of course the much talked about ‘bijli, sarak and pani’”. I described this precarious situation as “a puzzle we seldom cared to solve”.

As the assembly and Indian parliamentary elections in disputed Jammu and Kashmir are approaching, the casual discussions inside many a Kashmiri home and also the heated debates on shop railings amongst passionate young and old folks are gaining momentum. People are weighing pros and cons of the election boycott politics religiously followed and articulated by one section of the resistance camp. They are also applying their own measuring rod to determine the merits and demerits of the pro-election politics of the pro-India camp.

voting_booth_in_kashmirNo doubt, some sections of the Kashmir society are looking at the participation in these elections only through the prism of local governance, routine administration, and day-to-day affairs. There is also a group of educated middle-class that is of the view that issues like development, environment, healthcare, education, etc should be declared “conflict-neutral” by both the camps — the resistance as well as the pro-India one.

The yardstick applied by other sections concludes that being part of any election process under the Indian constitution is “plain betrayal”. This section of people constantly reminds others of the sacrifices offered by the Kashmiri people — especially the youth — for the ongoing “movement for freedom, liberty, justice, equality, dignity and peace”.

‘Bijli, Sarak and Pani’
There are a few who raise concerns about the lack of basic facilities in the rural and remote parts of the Kashmir Valley. Sometimes arguments like “urban-rural divide” are made to bring home the point. Whether or not there exists any “urban-rural divide” in relation to the facilities or lack of these, the fact of the matter is that people from Handwara and Kupwara aspire for ‘Azadi’as much as people in Srinagar or Shopian do. There exists no division vis-à-vis the larger collective political aspiration. However, there remains little doubt that the facilities are lacking in the remote parts of Kashmir than in Srinagar city or major towns.

The counter-argument is that people indeed want ‘bijli, sarak and pani’ (electricity, roads and water) but that in no way suggests they have given up on their demand for freedom. People paying taxes to any government — oppressive or people-friendly, legitimate or illegitimate, cruel and vindictive or kind and popular — have the right to have access to clean drinking water, uninterrupted power supply, macadamised roads, quality healthcare and modern education, and sustainable development.

What’s so horribly wrong about it?

Have the Intellectuals Failed People?
Let us face a simple fact: The intellectuals of Kashmir have failed in providing convincing answers to this burning question of ‘to vote or not to’. Whether the participation in elections process amounts to “betrayal” or it remains a “normal democratic exercise” for redress of day-to-day grievances is a valid question which should be debated threadbare. There should be some convincing answers without confusing people with loaded jargon.

The fact remains that despite massive participation of people in pro-Freedom rallies there is also massive voter turn out during J&K the assembly and Indian parliamentary elections. These are two contrasting realities which no one can deny.

Barring the elections in 1977, 2002 and 2008, all previous elections in Jammu and Kashmir have mostly witnessed mass-scale rigging. This remains a fact well documented. Even Indian politicians, intellectuals and historians agree to this. The election exercise has been a total farce in the 1990s. The Indian military, army and paramilitary forces literally dragged people to the polling booths and coerced them to exercise their adult franchise, which was obviously travesty of democracy. Elections of 1996 were perhaps the last nail in the coffin of Indian democracy in Kashmir.

India obviously sells the massive participation in Kashmir elections as “victory of democracy” and also a “referendum” to its control over the region. She conveniently forgets what India’s first Prime Minister said and promised on 2nd Novemeber 1947 at Lal Chowk, Srinagar: “The fate of Kashmir will ultimately be decided by the people. We have given that pledge and Maharaja (Hari Singh) had supported it. It is not only a pledge to the people of Kashmir but to the world. We will not, and cannot back out of it.”

The regional pro-India forces talk about these as a vote for ‘bijli, sarak and pani’. The resistance camp calls for a total boycott but there is little or no effect of this boycott call on the ground.

The resistance leadership obviously has to think beyond the customary press release boycott calls. A boycott call hasn’t worked in the past and is unlikely to work in future.

All pro-India MLAs and MPs have access to local people and enjoy freedom to hold their rallies in a controlled environment. In the spirit of free speech and free movement, the resistance leadership should also be allowed to go before the people with its viewpoint.

Some Important Questions:
The question which should be posed to the so-called mainstream (pro-India) politicians is this: “Even after ruling Kashmiris for the past six decades all you can promise is roads, water and electricity. Isn’t this in itself an acknowledgment of the fact that even that isn’t your mandate, because you have failed to deliver? Their pep talk on zero tolerance on human rights abuse, removal of draconian AFSPA, demilitarisation, and political solution to Kashmir dispute sounds like a flop 3D horror movie anyway!

On the other hand, the resistance leaders keep repeating their election boycott call, arguing that the pro-India political forces in Kashmir are “collaborators of Indian occupation” and therefore inflicting oppression on Kashmiris. Even after such a passion arousing argument, people do come in large numbers to cast their vote. The question that the pro-Freedom camp must answer is WHY? Why give the boycott call when you already know what the outcome is going to be? Why give India and their agents in Kashmir a chance to sell election participation in the manner they wish to? Why not think beyond a failed political strategy?

If the voter turn-out is no referendum to India’s rule in Kashmir (which obviously it is not), the simple question is why do people vote then? Because the participation in elections suggests that people who vote actually believe in democracy as a process to address day-to-day grievances.

Similarly, one may ask, how is the massive participation of people in pro-Freedom rallies a referendum for Kashmir’s ‘Azadi’? It definitely is. Peoples’ participation in huge rallies telegraphs their collective political aspiration for freedom. The half-a-million-strong ‘Azadi’ rallies are a stamp of attention so that the world listens what Kashmiris aspire for. People participate in ‘Azadi’ rallies knowing well that they could face the music of bullets. They scream ‘Hum Kya Chahate, Azadi’ [We Want Freedom] from their lungs to communicate their political goal in no uncertain terms.

Whether this is hypocrisy, political maturity, greed, or compulsion for survival remains a valid question, though. It is a Catch-22.

P.S: A word for Indian intellectuals and some members of the Indian civil society who give unsolicited suggestions and preach Kashmiris that their future lies bright and secure with “emerging power, India”. Don’t they feel embarrassed by the fact that even in the 21st century, 66 years of rule over Kashmir, all they can promise is ‘bijli, sarak and pani’. Better, they focus and address the socio-political issues confronting them, and which need immediate attention than becoming apologists of the Indian military siege and immoral control over Kashmir. It is time to reflect on how women could be safe in ‘vibrant’ India? How minors are not gang raped in broad day light in the metros? How the farmers in Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Odhissa avoid committing suicide because of debts and high interest rates? How Dalits are treated as human beings? How jobless, millions of them, are provided jobs? How millions do not address nature’s call in open air? Stop selling dreams to Kashmiris!