State assembly elections have been held in Indian-occupied Jammu and Kashmir in the past and are likely to continue to be held in the future. If history is any guide, it can safely be inferred that they will neither be accepted by the people of Jammu and Kashmir as a substitute to the right to self-determination or plebiscite, nor they diminish freedom sentiments in the valley.
In November-December 2008, the eleventh round of elections, comprising 87 seats, was held in Indian Held Kashmir (IHK). Although elections in this disputed area, which consists of the Kashmir Valley, Jammu and Ladakh regions, have always been a focus of world attention, the circumstances and turnout of the 2008 elections gave them added significance.
Indian officials tend to present elections in IHK before the international community as a touchstone for gauging the current trend and vigor of the freedom movement in the valley and for projecting future political developments. Following the 2008 elections, India claimed in the United Nations (UN) that the peaceful conduct of elections was an indication of the consent and acknowledgement of the people of Jammu and Kashmir regarding Kashmir’s accession to the Indian union.
Voter turnout in the 2008 elections was higher than analysts had expected. The elections were held in the backdrop of an unprecedented mass uprising in the wake of the Amarnath yatra controversy. Most observers had projected that elections would either be postponed or, if they were held, voter turnout would be minimal. However, the elections were held according to the stipulated schedule and a large number of people exercised their right to franchise, contrary to previous elections,, in which successful boycott campaigns had kept voter turnout very low.
The high voter turnout was interpreted by some quarters, including even the Indian National Congress President Sonia Gandhi, as proof that the freedom movement in Kashmir had lost impetus. The question arises whether the election results, or for that matter the conduct of the 2008 elections, really signify that support for freedom has decreased.
This question is examined in this paper based on a consideration of the historical dynamics of the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) state assembly elections, the environment and manner in which the 2008 elections were held, and an analysis of the implications of the elections’ results and aftermath.
Historical Background of the J&K Elections
It is necessary to analyze the track record of J&K state assembly elections to understand the place of elections in the debate on the Kashmir issue, and the historical context of the 2008 elections. The following table provides a quick overview of the results of state assembly elections in J&K since 1951.
J&K Elections Results, 1951–2008
1951 1957 1962 1967 1972 1977 1983 1987 1996 2002 2008
Total Seats 75 75 75 75 75 76 76 76 87 87 87
National Conference 75 68 70 8 ** 47 47 40 57 28 28
61 58 11 26 26 7 20 17
Janta Party __
13 0 0 __
Praja Parishad * 5 3 0 ? ? ?
? ? ?
? ? 0 2 8 1 11
? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? 16 21
? ? ? ?- ? ? 4 ? ? ?
JI ? * * * 5 1 0 * * * *
Independents 0 1 2 3 9 4 2 4 2 15 4
Others 0 1 0
3 3 1 1 0 13 7 6
In the very first state assembly elections, held in 1951, the National Conference (NC), under the leadership of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, won all 75 seats of the Constituent Assembly without any contest as the authorities rejected the nomination papers of the major opposition party—Praja Parishad—on frivolous grounds, and the independent contestants dropped out at the last moment.
In the second elections, held in 1957, the NC secured 68 seats, of which 43 were unopposed, while in 1962, NC candidates ran for 41 seats in the valley and were returned unopposed to 34. In 1967, the Indian National Congress secured 57 seats, of which 22 were returned unopposed.
“On all the three occasions – 1951, 1957, 1962 – the government machinery was completely and unhesitatingly used in support of the ruling party; opponents were disqualified on flimsy and frivolous grounds; the few dauntless candidates dared to stand for the contest were mercilessly beaten or kidnapped; Peace Brigade men were employed to intimidate voters; and when even strong arm methods failed, the ballot boxes were tampered with enabling polling officers to declare the victory of the National Conference party men.” The elections of 1962 were so thoroughly rigged, in fact, that Jawahar Lal Nehru, then Indian premier, was constrained to point out to G. M. Bakshi, the leader of NC at that time (as Sheikh Abdullah was in jail), that “it would strengthen your position more if you lost a few seats to bonafide opponents.”
Rigging and malpractices continued in subsequent elections. The fourth state assembly elections, held in 1967, were characterized by similar electoral malpractices and malfeasance; regarding the 1972 elections, it was confessed by none other than Syed Mir Qasim, who was chief minister of J&K at the time, in his memoir My Life and Times, “If elections were free and fair, the victory of the Plebiscite Front was a foregone conclusion.”
The 1977 elections, were termed by many as relatively free and fair, and the only real elections ever held in Jammu and Kashmir. The perception that these elections were transparent is based primarily on the grounds that there was, for a change, no intervention from Delhi, but the domestic electoral malpractices and irregularities conducted by NC brought the fairness of these polls into question as well. Malpractices and misconduct at the domestic level were clearly observed in the seventh elections, held in 1983: “the election machinery in the state functioned as a subordinate department of the National Conference. Even the senior officers of the state government flaunted their contribution to the return of NC to Power… the valley of Kashmir [the Indian government] had allowed several polling stations to count more votes than the number of voters on the rolls.”
The oft-cited watershed elections of 1987 changed the political course in the state. In these elections, the NC–Congress alliance managed to win 66 of the 76 seats, while the Muslim United Front (MUF) could win only 4. “The fate of Yousaf Shah’s third final attempt to become a legislator in the State assembly is replicated throughout the valley and some parts of Jammu region. India Today recorded the happenings of spring 1987. Its eyewitness report speaks of a pattern of ‘rigging and strong-arm tactics all over the valley,’ ‘massive booth capturing (forcible takeover of polling stations) by gangs’, ‘entire ballot boxes pre-stamped in favor of NC’, numerous citizens “simply not being allowed to vote’ and government nominated supervisors ‘stopping the counting as soon as they saw opposition candidates taking a lead’ Meanwhile, the bureaucrats and clerks administering the process ‘worked blatantly in favour of NC-Congress alliance and the police refused to listen to any complaint.’ ”
Thus, the electoral victory of the NC–Congress alliance was “nothing but a usurpation of power.” Even former chief minister Farooq Abdullah admitted that these elections were entirely unfair, having been covertly rigged. “This indifference to election malpractices on a gigantic scale has given birth to gruesome terrorism in post 1987,” the people of Kashmir took up guns to attain their political rights.
After the 1987 elections, hundreds of thousands of troops were deployed in the valley to curb the militant freedom movement. Governor rule was imposed in 1990, and the local administration obtained permission from the Indian government to extend it further every six months until 1996. The state assembly elections, due in 1992, were postponed several times. When they were finally held in 1996, they were strongly boycotted by the people and so heavily rigged by the authorities that they were declared a “farce.” “The Indian political establishment, however, insisted, against all evidences to the contrary, that the elections had been ‘free and fair.’”
In view of the interest of the international community, in particular, the US and Britain, India projected the 2002 elections in the valley as a referendum indicating that people had reconciled with the ground realities and were ready to repose their confidence in Indian democracy. The Indian deputy prime minister at the time, L. K Advani, described these elections as a victory for India and a triumph for democracy. However, the genuineness and transparency of the poll process was contested by the international media and nongovernmental organizations, and even within India as well.
It is important to note here that every IHK election has had its own dynamics and political environment, and been marked by struggle between pro-Indian and pro-freedom parties. The assemblies were formed and worked regardless of whether they enjoyed any support from the public, and whether the ruling party had any legitimacy or moral grounds for its rule. It is against this background that the dynamics of the 2008 elections should be examined.
Dynamics of Elections 2008
The turnout and results of the 2008 elections need to be seen in the context of internal and external political dynamics operating at the time in J&K. The following discussion outlines the strategy adopted by the Indian government to assure a higher turnout in the elections, including the undemocratic means adopted to silence the boycott campaign, as well as the public perceptions and external factors that may have influenced the voting.
Pre-Elections Scenario and Official Election Strategy
July and August 2008 saw a historic peaceful mass uprising in Jammu and Kashmir against the Amarnath land controversy and economic blockade. The valley rang with slogans of freedom from India and public sentiment was so vociferous that holding elections seemed impossible. Almost all political parties participating in the elections wanted the polls to be postponed and analysts opined that the political environment of the state was so unfavorable that “the government will be lucky if they get more than 10 percent of people to come out and vote.” In fact, many noted Indian intellectuals demanded that the government of India liberate the people of Kashmir.
In this backdrop, the Election Commission of India, after several rounds of talks with the political parties, decided to hold elections in the state in seven phases from November 17, 2008 to December 24, 2008. While freedom slogans continued to echo in mainstream political quarters, the Indian authorities devised a comprehensive strategy to make the elections a success story for the government.
Staggered Poll Process
One of the most significant elements of the government’s strategy was to conduct the polls in seven long phases. The 2008 elections were the longest election exercise ever conducted in the state; earlier, in 1996 and 2002, elections had been held in four phases. Considering that the fifteenth Lok Sabha Elections were conducted in all of India in five phases in 2009, the process for the IHK elections was indeed ridiculously long. There can be no other explanation for this than that the strong uprising in the valley would have made it too difficult for the Indian government to manage elections in larger phases. By finely segmenting the process, the government was able to deploy a large number of security forces in the respective constituencies to curb potential resistance from the people.
Increased Stakes of the Majority Population
In order to develop the stakes of the majority population, a record number of election contenders were facilitated in being fielded in the fray. As many as 43 political parties and 1,354 candidates, including 517 independents, contested the seven-phased assembly elections for the 87 assembly seats. Thus, there were on average 16 candidates for each constituency.
A large number of the contesting political parties had no presence in the state, least of all in Kashmir, yet they spent quite lavishly on their campaigns. The reality of their support base was revealed in the election results: out of 43 political parties, only 8 parties could win seats, along with the four independents. Similarly, of the 1,354 contenders, 1,100 lost their security deposits; in comparison, in the 2002 elections, only 373 candidates had lost theirs.
Fielding a large number of candidates in the elections helped the government in creating an environment and increasing the stakes of the local people in the election process.
Use of Security Forces
Certain incidents, actions and reactions on the part of the government in New Delhi show that the same anti-democratic spirit and attitude marked the execution of the 2008 elections as observers had noted in previous elections. There was unprecedented deployment of security forces; some 538 companies of the central paramilitary forces were deployed, including 388 companies of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), supplemented by 60 to 70 companies of the J&K police and Rashtriya Rifles. The leadership of the pro-freedom and pro-boycott movement was prevented from taking out peaceful rallies—a democratic right recognized even by the Election Commission of India—and “their plans for march thwarted by enforcing official curfew or even by undeclared curfew.”
Moreover, the state authorities did not allow the independent national or international media to oversee the election process. The validity of this “democratic exercise” was summed up in these words by the Chairman of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (Mirwaiz) (APHC-M), Mirwaiz Umar Farooq: “The elections were held under the barrel of gun. You can’t have free and fair polling in the presence of hundreds of thousands of armed troopers…Whenever we planned to hold anti-poll rallies, curfew was imposed in the valley…and they call it democratic process.”
According to observers, creating a curfew-like situation in the valley during the elections was a well-thought-out and deliberate stratagem to get desired electoral results. When civil liberties are curbed by overt or covert coercion, democratic institutions cannot work as they are entitled to: the idea of a “free and fair” election conducted under the menacing shadow of security forces is oxymoronic.
Restrictions on the Pro-Freedom Leadership
Although freedom of expression is part of the fundamental ethos of democracy, New Delhi refused to grant this basic human right to the people of Jammu and Kashmir. In the wake of land controversy, a Coordination Committee had come into being comprising of all the pro-freedom leaders, representatives of the business community, lawyers and government employees, and this Committee decided to boycott the polls. Contrary to the elections held in 2002, the boycott appeal regarding the 2008 elections was unanimous and backed by the valley’s civil society. It was therefore expected that, with a united campaign, the appeal would have a large following in the valley.
However, prior to the 2008 elections, most of the leaders of this group were either detained under the Public Safety Act or placed under house arrest. This strategy helped the authorities to curb the potential political threat at the very outset, and thereby minimize its effect on the polling percentage. It is quite logical to assume that, had the pro-freedom leadership been allowed to conduct its boycott campaign, the results would have been different.
Subtle Shift in Pro-India Parties’ Manifestos
The pro-India parties generally articulate the sovereignty of India over Jammu and Kashmir but during the 2008 elections, a subtle shift—apparently an election strategy—was observed in their traditional stance. The mainstream parties persuaded the masses that the state elections had nothing to do with the issue of Kashmir’s freedom, but concerned the local administration and the state’s civic problems. They acknowledged the role of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference in the freedom movement and its right to political space, but de-linked the issue of freedom from the day-to-day problems of the people. Addressing an election rally, the president of National Conference, Umar Abdullah, said “Elections have no bearing on the Kashmir issue and these are only to resolve the day to day issues of the people.” It is not difficult to see why the masses, who have been living miserable lives for more than six decades, chose to see some hope in this sloganeering.
People’s Democratic Party, disconnecting the election process from the freedom movement, exploiting regional as well as religious sentiments, and bridging the gap between pro-freedom parties and the NC, presented its self-rule doctrine, proposing contours for resolving the Kashmir problem. PDP did not challenge Indian sovereignty during the election campaign but did propose shared sovereignty over Jammu and Kashmir between Pakistan and India.
A week after the emergence of PDP’s Self Rule document, the NC released its 53-page “Vision Document,” which primarily focused on good governance and development and emphasized the curbing of human rights violations, the release of political prisoners, and, most interestingly, resolution of the Kashmir problem by taking on board all three parties, i.e. Kashmiris, including the pro-freedom parties as well as militant groups; Pakistan; and India.
It is believed that the growing popularity of PDP, which is speedily replacing the NC in valley politics, and the recent echo of freedom are the main reasons for the shift in the NC’s policy, although it is so far only verbal. It ostensibly assures the people that the National Conference would encourage talks for a lasting resolution of the Kashmir problem. Notwithstanding the realization that the dispute should be resolved through negotiations between all stakeholders, Farooq Abdullah introduced the idea of “Autonomy Plus,” which, according to him, would be the best solution for the Kashmir problem.
The Bahartiya Janata Party (BJP) also released its 16-point election manifesto which emphasized the correction of regional imbalances in the state, appointment of provincial councils, and grant of citizenship rights to refugees from Pakistan. It is interesting to note that the BJP, instead of focusing on its traditional election plank—the abrogation of article 370 and complete merger of the state with the Indian union—emphasized the issue of discrimination of Kashmir’s Muslim rulers against the Hindu-majority region of Jammu.
The Indian National Congress issued its manifesto just a day before polling began. While releasing the manifesto, Ghulam Nabi Azad, a former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, said “Our main plank is development, dialogue and promoting normalcy and we pledge to the people of Jammu and Kashmir that Congress is fully committed to the comprehensive devolution of power to Jammu and Kashmir state so that its people would be free to realize their full potential.” There was, however, no significant difference between this manifesto and the one released by the Congress in the 2002 elections.
Indeed, a common attribute in the manifestos of nearly all the parties was the absence of hardline discourse against militant or pro-freedom forces in the state; rather, in different ways, they proposed talks for resolving all issues, including the Kashmir problem. The strategy of de-linking the Kashmir issue from state governance and tacitly acknowledging the place of pro-freedom political parties is also clearly reflected in nearly all manifestoes and pledges.
This subtle shift is considered one of the most significant reasons for increased public participation in the polls; as Gautam Navalakha was able to comment: “People are wise enough to know that assembly polls do not amount to disowning the right to self determination.”
Silence of the Militants’ Guns
The armed struggle for the freedom of Kashmir had, in the past, provided active backing to the pro-freedom leadership during their election boycott campaigns. However, during the 2008 elections, militant organizations, for the first time since 1990, publicly announced that guns would not be used to influence the elections. Although they called for a boycott of the elections, they did not try to forcibly stop voters from exercising their right to franchise. The silence of their guns in the course of polls was acknowledged by none other than NC patron Dr. Farooq Abdullah, who said: “I would like to frankly state that we owe a lot to the militant organizations who silenced their guns as in case they had used it we would have been in trouble.”
It is believed that the militants preferred to use peaceful means to attain their objectives in the 2008 elections in view of the changed geopolitical situation of the world as well as the success of the peaceful mass uprising in the valley that had preceded the elections. The fact that no armed conflict arose during any phase of the elections is one factor underlying the higher turnout.
Pakistan’s Changed Role
It is generally believed that Pakistan changed its policy on Kashmir in the era of former president Pervez Musharraf, and that virtually the same policy is being followed by the current civilian government in Pakistan. Various statements of the current President of Pakistan are cited to substantiate the view that a paradigm shift has indeed occurred in Pakistan’s Kashmir policy.
Moreover, Pakistan also appears to have erased the line it previously drew between the pro-freedom and mainstream parties in the valley, as NC and PDP leaders are now received in Islamabad as the political representatives of the people of Kashmir.
This apparent shift with regard to valley politics was first observed during the 2002 assembly elections, when Pakistan tacitly supported the APHC faction(Mirwaiz), more precisely Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Conference, a constituent of APHC(M), to field its proxy candidates in the election fray. Since Islamabad’s position has a heavy influence in the valley, its silence over the poll process and its warm reception to the leadership of mainstream parties taking part in the elections must have been a factor in the relatively higher voter participation.
Post 2008 Elections Trends
The results of the 2008 elections indicate some new trends. The de-linking of the freedom movement from the elections enabled PDP to improve its position and expand its influence to Jammu, where it won 2 seats, bringing its total seats in the state assembly to 21. In 2002, PDP had won 16 seats from the valley but in the recent polls it got three more seats in the valley as compared to the 2002 polls. Looking at the overall picture it is obvious that PDP is replacing the NC in the valley and its rising popularity may prove to be a greater setback to NC in the future.
Realizing that their party is in danger of being marginalized in the face of the new political force in the valley, the NC leadership is revisiting its past attitude. In fact, in the course of the election campaign, the elected Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Umar Abdullah, apologized to voters for the wrongs done by his party and his father, Farooq Abdullah.
Another new trend concerns the BJP: its strong position on the Amarnath land dispute paid off very well for the party, enabling it to reach its highest ever tally in the state and secure 11 seats in Jammu compared to only 1 seat in the 2002 elections.
However, the allotment and then re-allotment of the land worked against the Congress, which lost 2 seats each from the valley and Jammu, however, it got one seat in Ladakh, making a total of 17 in all as compared to 20 seats in 2002.
Since no single party was in a position to form the government independently, a coalition government of the NC, which won 28 seats, and Congress, which won 17, was formed. This outcome was similar to that of the 2002 elections when, due to a fractured mandate, a Congress–PDP coalition had been formed.
While the NC–Congress coalition began steering the state government, pro-freedom quarters in the state became embroiled in a heated debate regarding whether or not to boycott the 15th Lok Sabha elections. The Amarnath land transfer issue had urged the pro-freedom parties, especially the two factions of the APHC, to come closer, and it seemed that the unification of the two factions was just around the corner, but things fell apart when election results revealed a relatively high voter turnout. This was viewed by APHC (M) and People’s Conference as proof that their reluctance to boycott the elections had been well-founded, and that participation, and not boycott, was the way forward. APHC (M) and Peoples Conference made their separate statements to the effect that the decision to boycott the elections had been a mistake and election was a non-issue with regard to Kashmir dispute.
Sajjad Lone, the chairman of People’s Conference, went a step further and decided to contest the 2009 parliamentary elections from the Baramulla constituency. Although Lone is the first leader from the pro-freedom camp to participate in the Indian parliamentary elections, his move is not surprising as he was known to be uncomfortable with the boycott strategy of the pro-freedom camp. It was he who fielded the proxy candidates during the 2002 state assembly elections, a step that created distance between APHC and its own constituent People’s Conference. Although he joined the APHC boycott call for the 2008 elections, his main motivation was the charged political environment of the valley and the fact that the people appeared inclined towards boycott.
No sooner had Sajjad Lone decided to contest the Indian parliamentary elections, when senior APHC (M) leader Abbas Ansari, in the capacity of Acting Chairman of APHC (M) during the chairman’s personal visit to New Delhi, gave a statement in favor of Lone’s decision to contest and strongly condemned the boycott appeal against the Lok Sabha elections. This evoked a strong reaction in the valley and people came out to protest. The resentment of the people was cooled only when the APHC (M) chairman called a press conference, after the two phases of Lok Sabha had passed, and appealed to people to boycott the elections as doing otherwise would undo the progress achieved by past sacrifices for the right to self determination. The subsequent three phases elections witnessed lower turnout in the valley.
The moderate voter turnout witnessed in the eleventh state assembly elections was misread even by the pro-freedom leadership of APHC, resulting in its confusion over the subtle reality that the elections and their results do not make the Kashmir dispute irrelevant or marginalized. On the other hand, Indian government claimed again that Kashmir’s accession to India had been tacitly ratified by the participation of the people in the state assembly elections. This assertion begs the question: the people of Kashmir were promised a plebiscite by the UN General Assembly in 1948, and basing their decision on elections is illogical, illegal and fundamentally wrong.
Notably, the state assembly does not have any mandate to determ