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Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has repeatedly guaranteed "free and fair" elections in Jammu and Kashmir scheduled for this September. But making good on his promise is going to be an uphill task complicated by the assassination last fortnight of moderate Hurriyat leader Abdul Ghani Lone. The attack last week on a newspaper office which had supported Lone's pro-democracy line drove home the warning from extremist groups that anyone taking a moderate stance would be targeted.
To dispel the widely-held belief that "the list of J&K MLAs is drawn up in North Block" in rigged elections, the Centre is concentrating on persuading pro-azadi groups to take part in the polls. New Delhi's line is that by getting elected, they would prove that they did in fact represent the sentiments of the people of Kashmir. These efforts suffered a serious setback when the PM's much-awaited tour of the troubled state ended without any fresh political initiatives being announced. "It's clear the government's J&K policy is in complete shambles," says the Congress' Salman Khursheed.
"We're democrats. We believe in elections but there's no point to it unless they are a step towards resolving the Kashmir problem," Democratic Freedom Party chief Shabir Shah told Outlook. "No effort has been made to create an atmosphere conducive for holding elections," admits a senior BJP leader. Even the PM's general invitation issued in Srinagar to all "lawful" groups to meet him has been met with scepticism, as Shah wasn't given an appointment.
At the very least, says Shah, the PM could have announced the release of alleged militants being held in jails for years without any charges being framed against them. In fact, say home ministry sources, among those currently incarcerated under the Public Safety Act in the Sangrur and Jammu jails are several second-rung Hurriyat leaders who are sympathetic to the idea of taking part in elections. "Keeping them in custody doesn't make sense," says a Union home ministry official. "Hardliners like Jamaat-e-Islami leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Hurriyat chairman and Muslim Conference leader Abdul Ghani Bhat who want no part of elections can be brought under pressure from these young, liberal leaders. They're in the 40 to 50 age group, ambitious, educated and pragmatic. Instead of talking to them, they have been locked up."
The top leaders of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) have come under criticism from their own cadre recently, many of whom have received encouragement during their interactions with officials of embassies in Delhi or tours abroad to take part in elections. The lately-formed Jammu Kashmir People's Party comprising 10 different groups, which also includes religious groups and former commanders of militant organisations, at a recent press conference hinted at participating in the September assembly elections.
The Centre also had high hopes from former Hizbul Mujahideen commander Abdul Majid Dar and Awami Action Committee head Mirwaiz Umer Farooq, among the more popular Hurriyat leaders. While neither could be expected to be openly pro-elections, it was hoped they would field nominees and extend tacit support to them.
To revitalise the election process, drastic steps are being talked about. The challenge for the government is to convince the pro-azadi groups, the world community and the people of Kashmir that the elections will indeed be free and fair. As Khursheed points out, "Why should Shabir Shah or anyone else take part in elections if it is a foregone conclusion that (chief minister) Farooq Abdullah is going to win?" He has a point. When a Hurriyat candidate won a traders' association election in Kupwara recently, the election was set aside and he was replaced by a National Conference (NC) nominee.
Highly-placed sources say the government could postpone the polls by three months, on the pretext that electoral rolls are being revised. The Election Commission (EC) has already indicated that the rolls are in a mess and updating them could take as long as a year. After all, the current list dates back to the '80s. As the state government's term expires in September, J&K would then have to be under governor's rule, removing it from the CM's direct control.
In the subsequent two or three months, whatever "grace" period is granted by the EC, confidence-building measures could be taken. The first priority would be a reshuffle of the highly-politicised bureaucracy and the police. The replacement of people like Farooq loyalist Ashok Jaitly, former chief secretary and now advisor to the government, is seen as essential. And since the upper echelons of the state police are seen as hawks, the induction of moderate officers, it is felt, is important. In recent years, police excesses and custodial killings have escalated rather than the reverse, says Shah.
As a deterrent to rigging, 40 to 50 impartial observers, not necessarily from abroad, have also been suggested. But Jammu-based activist Balraj Puri says, "Rigging is not the only problem. It is also the perception that any government in Srinagar is dependent on the largesse of the Centre to survive. That strikes at the roots of federalism and leads to secessionist movements." Also, according to him, the monopoly status enjoyed by Abdullah has to be challenged.
The other important confidence-building measure would be an amnesty and rehabilitation scheme for militants, apart from the release of political prisoners. According to a home ministry official, goodwill gestures like giving APHC leaders permission to go on Haj might go down well with the international community. "We didn't suffer by allowing Yasin Malik or Lone to go to the US. In fact, the reverse. Lone was more inclined to elections when he came back," he adds.
Union minister and Jammu MP Chaman Lal Gupta wants compensation for farmers who suffered loss of crops and property as a result of the hostilities along the border. "The state must make a claim for compensation which it hasn't done so far," he says. Likewise, monthly stipends for widows and orphans of those killed during the insurgency have been sanctioned but according to reports, have been swallowed up along the way. In fact, the APHC itself is currently unpopular with allegations that its leaders appropriated foreign donations intended for the families of slain militants, a handy club for the NC to use against the APHC.
Puri says that the so-called national parties like the Congress and BJP have reduced themselves to irrelevance in the Valley by playing ball with Farooq. His monopoly, as well as the fear of the gun, have ensured abysmally poor turnouts in past elections, particularly 1996. Faced with the prospect of having to ensure a credible degree of polling, the government is hoping for a "third force" to take shape before the elections.
It is clear that the government has to send positive signals by well-publicised efforts to engage the Hurriyat in formal talks, while continuing its informal dialogue. While the APHC leaders maintain there's no point to talks without a guarantee that at some future stage a tripartite settlement can be reached, there is still hope that an informal understanding can be reached on propping up a third force in the assembly elections. Because without the participation of the pro-azadi groups, the elections could well end up being another farce.
Bhavdeep Kang With Zafar Meraj in Srinagar