|Analysts say high voter turnout in the recent elections does not mean Kashmiris have abandoned separatist aspirations [GALLO/GETTY]|
As Indian administered Kashmir prepares to swear in a newly-elected government, analysts say the disputed region may have reached a milestone in its political relationship with New Delhi.
By coming out in the freezing cold to vote in large numbers in state and assembly elections held over seven stages in November and December, and defying the boycott call by the separatists, the people of Jammu and Kashmir have shown that they want political engagement with the federal government.
The state’s 6.4 million voters – the turnout was 61 per cent – believe that only by lobbying their elected representatives could they fight for improved electricity, roads, and water services.
“I voted so that I know who to go to when I need something. I want a decent road so that my son can go to school in a bus instead of walking three kilometres,” said carpet weaver Nafisa Butt.
People like Butt have voted for peace, political moderation and economic development. She lives in Muslim-majority Kashmir. The other part of this state, Jammu, is Hindu-dominated.
However, some analysts have warned that the high voter turnout should not be interpreted as meaning Kashmiris are reconciled to Indian rule and have forsaken the aspiration of ‘azadi’ or freedom.
“The election result does not signal the death of the separatist movement. It is a milestone, certainly, but it would be too simplistic to say it marks the start of a new era,” said Inder Malhotra, a New Delhi political analyst.
Two-level voting power
Wajahat Habibullah, a former civil servant in Kashmir, agrees, saying that voters were operating on two levels.
“The yearning for azadi is still powerful but elections are not a contradiction. The two co-exist in people’s minds.”
Analysts are calling on New Delhi to monopolise on the election result.
“It’s a triumph for democracy and openness but New Delhi must make the most of this spirit of reconciliation by listening to people’s aspirations,’ said Amitabh Matoo, the former vice-chancellor of Jammu University.
While the separatists appear to have lost ground and were largely ignored when they called for an election boycott, they cannot be dismissed as irrelevant.
Analysts believe they still embody the wider aspiration of freedom, a fact acknowledged even by their political rival, Omar Abdullah, the new chief minister of the state.
There was no clear winner in the election. Abdullah’s pro-India National Conference party emerged as the largest party with 28 out of the legislature’s 87 seats.
He has joined hands with the Congress party, which won 17 seats, to form the new government.
“Separatism is not dead. They are down but not out. The elections can’t be de-linked from the bigger issue of resolving Kashmir’s future which is still pending,” Abdullah told Al Jazeera.
In Srinagar, a pro-separatist bastion, Ramzan Jaleel, who works as a cook on one of Kashmir’s famous houseboats, saw nothing contradictory about his desire for independence and voting in Indian-sponsored elections.
Just a few months ago, he had been out on the streets in large pro-azadi demonstrations. Then he took part in elections, implying a tacit acceptance of Indian rule and democracy.
“Separatism is not dead. They are down but not out”
Omar Abdullah, the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir
“No, no, I don’t accept rule by New Delhi. I will never abandon the dream of azadi. But I am also a citizen. I have basic needs for myself and my family. Will the separatists provide those? Only the government can, so I voted,” Jaleel said.
Kashmir has been claimed by both India and Pakistan since 1947 when British rule ended.
Around 68,000 people have been killed in a separatist insurgency since it broke out 20 years ago.
The Indian armed forces are a powerful and pervasive presence on the streets and in everyday life which is hugely resented by Kashmiris who see it as a military occupation.
And despite the holding of peaceful elections, the state remains a flashpoint – volatile and unpredictable. Just a few months before the elections, massive anti-India protests led to the death of about 50 people and the implementation of a curfew.
Reduce military presence
Kashmiris are hoping that New Delhi will seize this positive moment to reduce the number of soldiers in the Valley.
What they expect from the newly-elected Abdullah, who is inexperienced but energetic and enjoys much goodwill, is a stable, clean, government that can deliver jobs and basic amenities.
New Delhi, delighted at this unexpected New Year gift, probably hopes that it can blunt separatist sentiments even further by investing in infrastructure and providing jobs.
However, separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani sees no scope for this. He recently issued a statement which said: “The freedom struggle will go on. The elections haven’t changed the fact that this struggle must reach a logical conclusion.”
Both sides face huge challenges – the separatists by how to push ahead with their goals and the government on how to keep voters happy while seeking a lasting solution to one of the world’s most intractable problems.
Abdullah’s party has consistently argued for more autonomy for Kashmir and says that he will continue fighting for such a policy. But the various governments in New Delhi have been unwilling to play along.
This time round, there is little euphoria about any major breakthrough following the election.
Kashmiris have seen their hopes dashed too many times before when New Delhi failed to make any special effort to resolve the Kashmir dispute, preferring to let things drift or fester.
According to Suba Chandran, the deputy director of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi, there needs to be some new thinking in New Delhi.
“We’ve had so many missed opportunities that cynicism is setting in,” he told Al Jazeera.
“We need someone to think out of the box, fast, and make the most of this moment.”