A mockery of democracy

For an Assembly that prides itself on being the successor of the pre-August 1947 government of the State of Jammu and Kashmir – judging from events over the past couple of weeks-brought to us by an increasingly vibrant media, general elections have more so than before,

proved to be little more than a battleground for bouncing about political issues solely pertinent to Pakistan, than of the needs and aspirations of the voters of that part of the territory of Kashmir that they have gleefully taken responsibility to administer. Widepsread accusations of rigging and other means of foul play in the process by all parties involved, only add to the mockery meted out to our largely gullible citizenry.

That educated and progressive elements of the citizenry are no longer willing to play the role of herded sheep is a development slowly but surely surfacing on the landscape. One such public endeavour that necessitates mention is a civil society referendum undertaken by Jammu Kashmir Students Liberation Front (JKSLF – Yasin Malik Group) in the weeks leading up to election day. Forty members of their group surveyed the public throughout nine out of ten districts (barring Neelam) on this side of the LoC. The sole question they put to over 200,000 interviewees was: Are you satisfied with the current political set-up/structure in Azad Kashmir? Using a simple yes or no as the basis for it’s compilation, 92% of those who were willing to take part in the survey answered with an emphatic ‘no’.

What was perhaps more revealing was that 147,000 of those surveyed and who responded with a ‘no’, feared giving their details (CNIC card number and personal info) in case they were reprimanded or disadvantaged as a result of expressing their views. They included government servants, members of the police force and those that worked in business. Ultimately, the survey was concluded with 55,000 signatures of which only 6,048 stated that they were satisfied with the current political set-up. The results not only underline the aloofness of the political structure from matters of local governance but also amplifies the public’s ‘conditioned’ lack of freedom to express themselves. The fear of economic loss or social ostracism in a society heavily reliant on public funds and business opportunities being channelled through Pakistan and a social structure that compels one to honour the collective desires of their clan are immense and almost irresistable.

Remembering that the winning party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) entered the political fray in Pakistaniadministered Kashmir – way back in the early 1970’s – to bolster Pakistan’s support for the ‘Kashmir Cause’, gives us an idea of the underlying theme dominating politics in this region. That rather than focus on the governance needs of the local population, the motive is to extend and cement Pakistan’s over-riding infatuation with wrestling the Kashmir Valley away from the Indians. This theme is still obliquely referred to in current Pakistani media discourse. For example, commentators have derided the un-democratic manner in which the current Assembly elections have taken place by suggesting what would the world and – in particular – the Indians think when they see pitch battles of opposing parties occurring outside polling stations? The dilemma of ‘how do we criticise them for holding sham elections when we are no different here’ provides the dominant context.

A defeated and devastated Sardar Atiqque (MC – Muslim Conference leader and ex. PM) rhetorically repeating his commitment to the integrity of Pakistan and having absolutely nothing to say on the governance needs of Kashmiris, provides further compounding evidence.

Coming closer to the actual process involved in electing representatives to the AJK Legislative Assembly, it should be clear that the AJK Election Commission does not operate as an independent entity. As it is set-up and funded by the ‘actual’ governing mechanism (Kashmir Council in Islamabad) rather than the ‘supposed’ (AJK Legislative Assembly), it follows that the Commission’s code of conduct could not dissuade Pakistan’s federal parties to use this opportunity to enact a battlefield of competing muscle or even as a dress rehearsal ahead of Pakistan’s general elections due by 2013. Further, some of the terms enunciated were clearly unrealistic. Of particular note were the following two articles: Article 5 of the code of conduct states that candidates cannot use State resources for campaigning and article 11 sets a limit of 20 lakh to be spent on individual election campaigns. It is difficult to imagine Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani (PM of Pakistan and chairman of the Kashmir Council that is unnacountable to the AJK voter) coming to Kotli on a helicopter to aid the local PPP candidate’s campaign on his own expense. As for the 20 lakh expenditure limit, just the vehicle fuel expenditure of many candidates exceeded that.

As far as the voting lists were concerned, it should be remembered that the last population census was conducted in 1998 (even then, there are various issues attached to how they are compiled) and as the AJK Election Commission didn’t have the necessary resources to generate the lists themselves, the duty was shifted to workers of the AJK land revenue department. Various allegations have surfaced of ‘favouritism’ shown towards particular candidates as well as loopholes at every stage of voter list compilation. Many duplicate and non-existant lists were even alerted to before the day of election.

Despite an age of transparency, the election results appeared true to form. The federal party in power in Pakistan always seems to induce the victory of it’s like-minded avatars this side of the Jhelum River. The withdrawal of the MQM (Muttehida Qaumi Movement) on the eve of the elections is telling in this respect. They allege that the PPP asked them to ‘share’ a couple of seats (that the MQM had previously won in 2006) amongst the 12 migrant seats in the Assembly. Further, the PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz) appeared dismayed at being unable to capture all the migrant seats in Punjab where they run the provincial administration. By the MQM describing the election process as a malafide exercise, they are only echoing a sentiment possessed by a growing number of concientious citizens, albeit their motive and timing indicating a wholly different origin.

Returning back to the genuine needs of governance of the local population, the motives of the whole exercise indicate a Pakistani State yet to come to terms with local realities. It would probably balk at criticism of non-State party involvement, even though it’s private media has extensively discussed it and agreed on the principle of non-involvement. That voters in it’s administered part of Kashmir do not have an accountable system of governance, let alone an ability to carve out their own identity of citizenship is a festering sore. It continues to adamantly describe itself as a mediator on our behalf and deny us the privilege to represent ourselves.

Three of our citizens have lost their lives in this futile exercise, scores have been injured, others have allegedly been enticed by an income support programme attributed to the late Benazir Bhutto. The other day, our area had electricity for just 15 minutes in a whole 24 hour period. On the same day, our local MLA was celebrating his fourth consecutive victory at the polls. Electricity is just one of the 52 subjects of governance that our Legislative Assembly has no right to legislate on.

Author is a writer, broadcaster and activist working for civil society development in Pakistani administered Kashmir and can be mailed at sahaafi@gmail.com.