Cynics contend that all politicians want is to make a quick buck. If that's true, those
contesting the ongoing Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) elections might do well to consider that there are easier
and safer ways of making a living. What journalists wryly call the 'scoreboard' - the register of fatalities
in terrorist violence - has continued to grow each day. Many of the targets have been high-profile candidates.
On September 28, the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) attempted to assassinate the Nationalist Congress Party candidate from Devsar, in southern Kashmir. She, along with her brother, was critically injured; her father and three others died in the explosion. The day before that, her party colleague Abdul Gani Veeri was attacked at Bijbehara. And the day before that, another National Conference (NC) candidate, Ayesha Nishat, was fired on at Wachi. The previous day, terrorists fired on the Congress (I)'s Mohammad Shafi Banday and the National Conference's Sheikh Rafiq, both standing from Shopian.
No major attacks took place on September 22, apart from the murder of an inconsequential NC activist, Ghulam Mohammad Parrey in Beerwah. No surprise that terrorist groups felt the need for a little peace and quiet, since September 21 had been a particularly busy day: Minister of State for Tourism, Sakina Itoo, escaped a fourth attempt on her life near Meerhama, in Kulgam. A 22-year-old villager, Maimoona Akhtar, who had come out to support Itoo was killed, along with a police constable. Before dawn the same morning, two Communist Party of India (Marxist) cadres were also killed by terrorists, along with a two-person truck crew from Punjab who had nothing whatsoever to do with the elections.
With the total numbers of political activists killed in acts of terror specifically directed against the ongoing election process now at over 81, few people in their right minds ought to have any reason to vote. And yet, some 41 per cent of voters chose to do so in the second phase of polling, conducted on September 24 in districts of Jammu and Srinagar (over 47 per cent had voted earlier, in the first phase). While fewer voters came out in the core urban segments of Srinagar, which gave birth to the rebellion of 1988-1992, participation was high in the surrounding countryside. Abdul Gani Bhat, the chairperson of the secessionist coalition, the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC), attributed the levels of voting to coercion by security forces in some areas and to the existence of a 'personality cult' in others.
Both arguments are fairly easy to debunk. Bhat's 'cult' reference was directed at the Shia religious leader Aga Rohullah, whose father Aga Syed Mehdi was assassinated by terrorists last year. But Shia voters were also protesting Sunni chauvinism of the kind symbolised by the assassination and, indeed, by Bhat's remarks. More important, Rohullah supports the National Conference, and many Shia communities, traditional Congress (I) voters who are often relatively less affluent than their Sunni counterparts, hope the new political alignment will yield tangible developmental benefits.
Debunking the notion of state coercion of voters to exercise their franchise is a problem even easier to address. First, there were few credible accounts of such coercion having taken place, and no reporters' eyewitness accounts whatsoever. Second, it is hard to understand why, if the Indian Army exercised such coercive pressure, turnout was still so low in some areas where such pressure is alleged to have been exerted. The only explanation would be that residents of the Kashmir Valley are, in some neighbourhoods, inherently more terrified of the state than in adjoining areas - a dubious explanation at best. Even more curious, individuals allegedly 'coerced' by soldiers to vote nevertheless felt free to hold demonstrations against the elections and even chant anti-India slogans in front of those very soldiers. Finally, proponents of the thesis need to consider one simple issue: if the Indian Army was able to so easily terrify an entire population on September 24, it would have long ago succeeded in crushing the insurgency now underway for over 13 years.
Sadly, the media has paid little attention to the very real terrorist coercion evident through J&K to prevent participation in the voting: threats rendered credible by the fact that, while not one member of anti-election political groups has been shot at, killings of pro-election individuals and leaders have been widespread. This fact is likely to be crucial to voter turnout in the third phase of elections in the hard-hit areas of southern Kashmir.
It has passed largely unnoticed that these elections have attracted a rich spectrum of ideological interests. While secessionist groups like the People's Conference and Kashmir Revival Movement have elements formally participating, a large number of pro-independence figures, pro-Pakistan figures, one-time terrorists and individuals with current links to terrorist groups have entered the election theatre through the medium of mainstream opposition parties. Southern Kashmir, in particular, has seen a good deal of behind-the-scenes deal making with local terrorist groups, particularly the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HM). This is, without dispute, the most politically inclusive election J&K has seen in decades. Terrorist violence and intimidation is, sadly, depriving the people of the State of the opportunity to have an election that is as inclusive in terms of grassroots participation as well.
Praveen Swami is Chief of Bureau, Mumbai, Frontline. This article appears courtesy the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal.