Kashmir ballot – a sign of hope or one more false dawn

November 19, 2008

Kashmiris in the part controlled by India have, by all accounts, turned out in far higher numbers than expected to vote in elections to the state assembly this week.

While New Delhi sees each such vote as an implicit recognition of the legitimacy of its rule there, the Kashmiris themselves are  trying to make a distinction between voting for representatives to help improve their lives and the larger, long-running goal of freedom.

Independence is a separate issue and there isn’t a contradiction in lining up to vote for a state assembly that is under the Indian constitution an integral part of the country, a 70-year voter told our reporter.

He said he would be back on the streets shouting  slogans for “azadi” (freedom) if there are more demonstrations of the kind that shook the Valley just a few months back, sparked by a  government decision to hand over land near a shrine in the troubled region to a Hindu trust for the benefit of  pilgrims.

But the separatists had asked the people not to vote regardless and a turnout of 57 percent in Bandipora in northern Kashmir,  up from last time’s 31 percent doesn’t make them look very good.  This is a government figure and even if the real figure was  lower it was certainly far higher than the 25 percent that they were privately hoping for, said the Kolkata-based newspaper, The Telegraph.

 A BBC reporter said he could not enter a polling booth in Ajas village, so great was the rush of people coming out to vote,  braving bitter cold and the fear of violence.

So are there winds of change blowing in the Himalayan region, especially after cataclysmic change in Pakistan which has long supported the Kashmiris struggle for separation but is now battling Islamist militants in its western region for its own survival?

It is early days yet. Monday was only the first day of a staggered polling process that runs into the second month to ensure security forces can be rotated across the state . Srinagar, which is really the hotbed of the separatist sentiment in the Valley, is to vote later and that vote will be closely scrutinised. Any optimism after the first phase of polling was misplaced, the Kashmir Times warned, noting there was a large presence of security forces in Bandipora and therefore coercion or forcing people to vote which has happened in the past couldn’t be ruled out.

“It will be wishful thinking, as some official circles have claimed, that the people of Kashmir have rejected the separatists call and disapproved their stance on the disputed nature of Kashmir by turning out in large number in the election,” it said. The people joining the polls have said clearly it is only for redressal of day-day-problems and nothing to do with a solution of the Kashmir problem, it said.

Still,  ”the absolutism of the separatists – no vote till Kashmir is free of Indian rule – did not find many takers, at least in the first  phase,” said the Telegraph.

And who knows this may just be a new start, it said. If there is peace and stability, and the new administration succeeds in rebuilding trust, perhaps the appeal of separatism may lessen, the newspaper said.

We have been here before, though, including the last round in 2002 when a coalition government led by a regional group and the Congress party was installed amid high hopes. It quickly ran aground , ending in some of the biggest anti-India protests in years.

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