Sunday, 23 November 2008

The call of the Valley

By Karan Thapar

I thought of the National Security Advisor, as the first day of voting ended in 10 Kashmir constituencies last Tuesday. In an interview in August, he had stuck his neck out and predicted normalcy would return within “a week to 10 days”. He was confident a credible election could be held on schedule. At the time, I thought he was being reckless. Others were less circumspect. They said he had been foolish. A few even mocked him: “four days to go and guess who’ll be wrong?”

“I think the situation is far less serious than what is being portrayed,” the NSA had said. “People have started comparing it with the 1990s. Certainly the situation is nowhere near that.” This was a surprising comment, given the lakhs of protestors who paralysed the Valley with their cries of “jeeve jeeve Pakistan” and “Bharat teri maut aie”. In fact, to maintain order, a curfew was imposed virtually all over Kashmir. As I heard the NSA speak, I could feel my jaw drop. Afterwards, he added: “I’ll probably be shot for saying what I did.”

Of course, it’s far too early for M.K. Narayanan to start blowing his trumpet. Only one phase of polling is over. There are six more to go and the process will continue till Christmas. Between now and then, a lot could go wrong and who knows, Tuesday’s astonishing outcome could spark off the return of violence. A re-buffed Hurriyat and angry militants may reverse their decision to campaign non-violently for a boycott.

But, that said and done, consider the facts from last Tuesday and what they seem to suggest. The turn out was 69 per cent. That’s 25 per cent more than the 2002 assembly elections and 33 per cent more than the 2004 Lok Sabha polls. In constituencies like Bandipora, Sonawari and Surankote, where fear of a boycott was the greatest, 57, 60 and 74 per cent voted, an increase of 83 and 85 per cent for Bandipora and Surankote compared to last time round. Clearly, Kashmiris wanted to vote and did.

The question is, what made them do so in such large numbers and what message should we read into this outcome?

Two facts seem to account for the turn out. First and foremost, the boycott campaign has been non-violent. Both the Hurriyat and the militants have consciously and publicly eschewed violence. This time there was no fear. As a result, the number of candidates contesting shot up. Bandipora, with 66 villages, had 19, which meant the ability to bring out friends and relatives increased by the same scale. The fact that in Safapora many came out to vote for the lotus, knowing it’s the BJP symbol but not put off by that, shows that the attraction of a candidate you know and want to see win was enough to overcome any reluctance to cast a vote.

So what’s the message from the Valley? Perhaps Hilal Ahmed, a local businessman, put it most pithily. “Kashmir is disputed territory and that is beyond debate. We believe that the issue has to be resolved. But the vote this time is meant to address local issues and it is not about resolving the Kashmir issue.”

This is a vote for better governance, for roads and schools, electricity and water, law and order and for an improved quality of life. But the big question of Kashmir’s future remains. It has still to be addressed.

Within this, there is also a specific message for the Central government and I’m confident the NSA has heard it. Let Delhi not mistake an election for a solution. Equally importantly, let Delhi not drag its feet seeking one. The upsurge we witnessed in summer could easily repeat itself. The sentiments that surfaced then have not been forgotten. They remain dear to millions of Kashmiri hearts. It’s just that an election was not the right occasion to express them. 

But if the big issue of the future is not addressed, they will be heard again. Perhaps sooner than we expect and possibly louder and more forcefully than we can anticipate.

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