Kashmir: Voting Amid Violence

Kashmiri Elections: A Hat Trick of Failures

Kashmir election worker in an empty polling station
Kashmiri election workers wait for voters to show up in Srinagar, Sept. 24, 2002 (Photo: AFP). 

Almost all reports clearly confirm that most Kashmiris decided to refrain from casting their votes in the Kashmir elections. A silent verdict of the people of Indian Occupied Kashmir (IOK) was registered in many polling stations. By staying away from the elections, the Kashmiris seemed to have responded to the calls of APHC [All Parties Hurriyat Conference] leadership [which called for a boycot of the polls].

While the Indian officials are once again quoting the figure of 41 percent [voter turnout], the independent accounts clearly point toward other directions. One wonders how the officials reach this figure. One Indian reporter announced that the heaviest polling that took place was around 37 percent and the lowest was less than 10 percent. If this is true then logical analyses would put the figure below 37 percent, yet one reads that the polling percentage in the third phase was about 41 percent.

Why have the Kashmiri voters refrained from casting their votes? Many reasons account for their nonparticipation.

Perhaps the most important and well-known reason is that the people of Kashmir did not opt for elections. They have repeatedly asserted for a plebiscite. The holding of a plebiscite has been repeatedly dismissed by the central government of India. The logic that influenced the Indian decision-makers was that holding an election with an anticipated massive turnout would make the international community understand that the Kashmiris are quite satisfied with the Indian rule.

Besides, the massive turnout could have lent legitimacy to India’s rule. But “The election is a fraud, we want freedom” was the rallying cry of the people in Kashmir. The people have seen so many rigged elections in the past.

Second, many writers, and particularly the Indian writers, have been stressing that most voters avoided going to polling stations primarily because of the fear factor. While the fear factor seemed to have worked in some ways, it is essential to understand who was injecting it.

Two sources seem to be somewhat obvious candidates: the Indian security forces and the militants.

There have been innumerable stories regarding how the Indian security forces threatened and herded the people of IOK to polling stations in pursuit of securing a higher percentage of votes. All democratic principles, so vociferously proclaimed by the Indian officials and analysts, were brushed aside in order to show the desired voting percentages. “Nobody has voted, so we’ve got an order to collect them.” “We have to collect them to show that people have voted,” explained Indian soldiers in full battle gear to a Newsweek reporter.

In obeying orders, the soldier would not even spare herding those voters who are underaged and not listed on voter registers. Not only did the Indian soldiers forcibly take the identity cards from the people and ask them to collect them from the relevant polling stations, but also they have regularly made announcements from the local mosques’ loudspeakers threatening severe repercussions for all those who did not vote. The Indian Express reported on Oct. 2 that the men of the Rashtriya Rifles and their groups of counterinsurgents were out early in the morning, knocking at almost every door asking for votes and threatening consequences. It was further reported that a villager stated that they came back at 11:30 a.m. and hit the villagers with sticks and rifle butts and dragged them to the polling booth.

Apart from the violent doses that are regularly injected by the Indian security forces, instances of violence associated with the militants also have been reported. While the Indian authorities want the elections to provide much-desired legitimacy, the militant elements want the elections to fail.

But it needs to be mentioned that very few militants have inflicted violence on the civilian population of IOK. Most of the militant attacks are directed against military targets. The political leadership such as the APHC has been far more effective in dissuading the Kashmiris from voting than have acts of violence by the militants. Besides, the militants that are projected as part of the freedom movement rarely indulge in such acts, as acts of this nature are likely to alienate the very people for whom they have taken up arms.

However, one cannot overrule the possibility of such acts by those who keep changing sides and are commonly referred to as “renegades.” For years, India has been wooing freedom fighters, though with limited success. “India welcomes and rewards militants who turn themselves in, sometimes allowing them to form their own private militias,” reported Newsweek. It is an open secret how some people have enjoyed the patronage of the Indian security forces and have indulged in many acts of violence at the behest of their patrons.

Undoubtedly, one distinguishing feature of the third round of polling was that it was accompanied by a spate of violence. Compared with the previous two rounds, the violence level was relatively higher. However, it needs to be stressed that the Kashmiris remained away not because of the fear factor, but because they opted to extend a positive and enthusiastic response to the calls of their leaders. It is time that the Indian leadership realize that a vast majority of the people of Kashmir are not only familiar with the rigging of the past elections but are totally disillusioned with the rule of the puppet regimes in Kashmir.

The third major reason that is often quoted regarding the total disillusionment of the Kashmiris is poor governance. IOK has been continuously ruled by corrupt and inept administrations. To make things worse, the state has been under virtual occupation by the Indian security forces, and the forces have behaved like occupying forces rather than treating the Kashmiris as their own citizens. Nevertheless, the main source of the accumulated frustrations has stemmed mainly from India’s denial of allowing the Kashmiris to exercise their right of self-determination, which was promised to them by both the United Nations and India.

The three phases of recently held elections in IOK have made it amply clear that India has experienced a hat trick of failures to motivate the voters to participate in the Kashmir elections. While the Indian officials have been quoting rather high figures of voter turnout, it is indeed difficult to ascertain their authenticity. The reports appearing in the international media depict a rather dismal picture. Even sections of the Indian media have confirmed low voter turnout. The final phase will be conducted on Oct. 8, and soon after the results will be made public. The final figure will reveal the elements of exaggeration along with related detailed stories of coercion and intimidation, though much has already been written in many newspapers and magazines.

Whatever is the result of the recently held elections in IOK, the parties involved (India, Pakistan, and the Kashmiris) must begin to embark upon a path leading to peace. Peace implies the resolution of the Kashmir dispute. The election by itself cannot produce the desired resolution of the dispute. Even ruling National Conference President Omar Abdullah [who ultimately lost his seat in the election —WPR] has clearly acknowledged that the ongoing assembly elections in Kashmir can in no way lead to a final resolution of the Kashmir dispute.