On the evening of November 21, the Governor of Jammu and Kashmir, Satya Pal Malik, announced the dissolution of the State’s Legislative Assembly: this came five months after the breakdown of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-People’s Democratic Party (PDP) coalition in the State that followed the BJP’s withdrawal from it, and resulted in the imposition of Governor’s Rule. The communique spelling out the dissolution of the Assembly was released by the Governor’s office minutes after Mehbooba Mufti, the former Chief Minister and President of the PDP, tweeted a letter to the Governor staking her claim to form a government with support from the National Conference (NC) and the Congress. The Governor’s decision came at the end of a day of high-voltage drama in which the PDP, the NC, and the Congress – otherwise rivals, with the NC and the PDP always having been at loggerheads – announced they would come together as a ‘grand alliance of like-minded secular parties’.
“The coming together of such parties in a grouping is nothing but an attempt to gain power rather than to form a responsive government,” the Governor’s communique read. The “fragile security scenario in the [S]tate” made it necessary for “a stable and supportive environment” to be put in place for the security forces engaged in anti-militancy operations, and reports of “horse-trading and possible exchange of money” to buy the support of legislators were cited as the reasons for the decision.
Social Media and matters of state
Interestingly, Mufti’s letter was swiftly followed by a similar missive to the Governor over WhatsApp from People’s Conference (PC) chief and BJP ally, Sajad Lone, whose party has two MLAs. He, too, staked his claim to form a government, stating that he had the backing of the BJP and 18 other legislators. Both Mufti and Lone said that the fax machine at the Governor’s residence seemed to be out of order — Mufti also spoke of having mailed her letter and of telephoning the Governor but being unable to talk to him.
The ‘ fax’ pas became a source of jokes and memes over social media, as it added to the political drama. NC leader Omar Abdullah referred to the ‘one-way fax machine’ as responsible for “the death of democracy”, while Mufti expressed astonishment at how the machine couldn’t receive her fax but “swiftly issued one regarding the Assembly dissolution”. The Governor, on his part, in a statement on the use of social media to send out such letters, asked, “Are govts formed through social media? I neither tweet nor see the tweets.” He also claimed that no staff was on duty as it was a holiday for Eid-i-Milad-un-Nabi in the State, and therefore, there was no one to check the fax machine, a claim hard to believe, especially in a sensitive State like Jammu and Kashmir.
The long arm of New Delhi
The swiftness with which the Assembly was dissolved without checking the claims of the two sets of political parties that said they were in a position to form a government has, not surprisingly, led to the constitutionality of the Governor’s decision being questioned. Former advocate general of Jammu & Kashmir Muhammad, Ishaq Qadri, was quoted by the Press Trust of India (PTI) as saying,
“The constitutional mandate and the Supreme Court guidelines were not followed while dissolving the Assembly in the face of two persons staking claim for government formation… The Governor should have satisfied himself by seeking more documentary evidence in support of the respective claims and then given them a chance to prove their majority on the floor of the House.”
The week’s drama followed the Centre’s time-honoured tradition of “managing” successive governments in J&K.
For long-time observers of the Indian government’s conduct of elections in Kashmir, this week’s drama should not have come as a surprise. It followed New Delhi’s time-honoured tradition of “managing” successive governments in Jammu and Kashmir — from 1953, when Sheikh Abdullah was overthrown and incarcerated and Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad installed in his place, to the installation of a series of leaders who would strengthen New Delhi’s control over the State, to the infamous elections in 1987 that witnessed mass rigging, to the elections following the popular armed insurgency simply being military exercises as the state’s armed forces “escorted” people to the polling booths to cast their votes. Democratic institutions have been used over the years in Kashmir to curb the very democracy they claim to uphold.
An increasingly muscular policy
The last few months have witnessed not just the breakdown of the PDP-BJP coalition but an almost total boycott by political parties of the recent urban local body polls in the Valley, culminating in this latest act that now brings a further spell of President’s Rule in Jammu and Kashmir, once the six-month term of the Governor ends on December 19.
This period of Governor’s Rule also witnessed an increasingly muscular policy being pursued by the state to curb the popular armed opposition to its rule in Kashmir. The lines between civilians and militants have begun to blur, with the former increasingly becoming fearless, thronging encounter sites to help militants flee. As a result, even they are facing bullets, being targeted by the state as “overground workers” of the militants.
The lines between civilians and militants have begun to blur, with the former increasingly becoming fearless.
The build-up to dissolution
The most recent developments come in the wake of the NC and the PDP repeatedly, over the last few months, asking the Governor to dissolve the Assembly, drawing his attention to the possibility of horse-trading as rumours were rife of a Sajad Lone-led Third Front being created to lead the state. A few days ago, Muzaffar Hussain Baig, a senior PDP leader, had hit out at his own party for boycotting the recent local body elections in the state. “Sajad Lone is like my son… If Sajad (Lone) is interested in (formation of a Third Front), it should be encouraged,” he said.
It was perhaps this fear of a split in the PDP (a PDP leader, Imran Ansari, recently formally joined Lone’s PC), and to ensure that a Third Front did not emerge, that made PDP leader Altaf Bukhari announce the formation of the PDP-NC-Congress alliance the day before the Assembly was dissolved. In an interview to the Economic Times , Bukhari said,
“This is an indigenous response to an extraordinary situation… Article 35 (A) and 370 are the main issues. We have the support of 60 legislators. We came together for people and there is no ashirwaad (blessings) of New Delhi.”
The dissolution of the Assembly could also be seen as having created a win-win situation for the Valley-based NC and PDP whose sole motive of late has been to keep the BJP out of the government in Jammu and Kashmir and regain lost ground by swearing to protect the ‘special status’ of the state.
The NC had already been pressing for dissolution of the Assembly for some months, something the PDP, too, had been echoing for a while — and this has finally taken place. The PDP is not even looking to approach the courts in the matter of Assembly dissolution. Simultaneously, it has ensured that Sajad Lone is not able to head the State.
For the PDP and the NC, a Third Front government comprising the BJP and a new regional party could have been politically dangerous.
For the PDP and the NC, a Third Front government of which the BJP was not only a part, but also included a new regional party, could have been politically dangerous, with the capacity to eat into their already marginalised base in the Valley. Lone, as Chief Minister, could have become a challenger for both Mufti and Abdullah. The two parties already had a taste of this in the recent urban local body polls, when the PC-backed independent candidate, Junaid Azim Mattu, became the Mayor of Srinagar. With the dissolution of the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly now, that probability has now been thwarted.
The politics of 'proving loyalty'
After the Assembly was dissolved, BJP national secretary Ram Madhav accused the PDP and the NC of having received instructions from “across the border”.
“PDP & NC boycotted local body polls last month because they had instructions from across the border. Probably they had fresh instructions from across the border to come together & form govt”, Madhav said on Twitter.
This invited a sharp riposte from both Abdullah and Mufti forcing Madhav to backtrack, but he followed it up with a fresh jibe, again over Twitter
- “it ws genuine love btw NC n PDP tht prompted a failed govt formation attempt, u shud fight nxt elections 2gether.” (sic)
More importantly, that Madhav—who had helped to put together the PDP-BJP coalition—clearly thought nothing of questioning the loyalties of the NC and the PDP is indicative of the New Delhi’s continued desire to play mischief. After all, the two parties have repeatedly affirmed their faith in the Indian constitution and its democratic principles; yet, time and again, they have to prove their ‘patriotism’, only because they lay claims to represent Kashmiri Muslims.
Revisiting fringes, mainstream, and democracy
Meanwhile, Congress leader—and former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister—Ghulam Nabi Azad castigated the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in New Delhi for having tried hard for the last five months to break other parties in the State: he said that after the BJP failed to muster a majority and saw that there was the possibility that a grand alliance—in which it had no part—might be formed, it decided to dissolve the Assembly. At a press conference, Abdullah admitted that forging a grand alliance between the NC, the PDP and the Congress for the next Assembly elections would not be beneficial for the State, for that would leave it with no legitimate opposition voices: in such a case, he stressed, “the only space that remains is for the fringe”. He said that the three parties had come together to stake a claim to form the government only to help bring out the State from the current mess.
It remains a matter of debate what the ‘fringe’ actually is, following minimal enthusiasm from the people.
It remains a matter of debate what the ‘fringe’ in the Valley actually is, following minimal enthusiasm from the people to back any of these parties. It could be argued that the role that even these three parties have played in administering violent governance in the Valley to carry out the writ of the Indian state and suppress the movement for right to self-determination, their electoral debacles, their role in the dilution of the ‘special status’ of the State over the years, their loss of a connect even with their own cadres on the ground, especially in southern Kashmir, has made them into the fringe in the conflict-ridden Valley.
Reacting to this week’s developments, a prominent leader of the pro- azadi Joint Resistance Leadership (JRL) and Chairperson of the Hurriyat Conference (M), Mirwaiz Umar Farooq referred to it as the murky tamasha of Indian democracy getting more exposed in Kashmir.
“No real democracy can ever flourish under forced control, it can only be manipulations & lies as we are witnessing for the past 70 years!” (sic) he tweeted.
This entire drama of staking claim to form the government followed by dissolution of the Assembly, of rival parties coming together, then taking potshots at each other, and the narrative of Pakistan-blaming, is not new to Kashmir. In the run-up to the 2014 Assembly elections, the right-wing BJP already in power in New Delhi started a fierce campaign in Jammu and Kashmir on the contentious issues of revocation of Article 370, settlement of west Pakistan refugees even as it adopted a hard stance against people who stood for ‘secessionism’ in Kashmir.
This was used by the pro-India unionist parties in Kashmir, particularly the PDP which sought to create fear by saying that the BJP was trying to make inroads in Kashmir — and to ensure that the BJP did not succeed, the PDP should be voted into power. The BJP played the reverse card in Jammu, projecting the PDP as a soft-separatist party and stressed the need to safeguard the state from these anti-national forces. Gaining from this propaganda, both parties won a sizeable number of seats, the BJP in Jammu and the PDP in Kashmir, but neither secured a clear majority to form the government.
In a bizarre move, then, both parties struck a deal in the name of an ‘Agenda of Alliance (AoA)’ and formed a coalition government in the State. In power, however, the BJP did not take its cue from the AoA; instead, it continued to pursue a hard-line in Kashmir, eventually breaking the coalition, possibly to make it a point for the General Elections in 2019. In 2017, one by-election for the Srinagar parliamentary seat witnessed an almost total boycott and a spate of killings as the armed forces fired on people protesting on the voting day. The by-election for the Anantnag Lok Sabha seat that was vacant was never held as the authorities sensed there would be a total boycott in the more restive south Kashmir considered as the hotbed of ‘new-age militancy’.
Following the recent urban local body polls, despite a record low turnout of 4.27 per cent in the Valley, New Delhi expressed its satisfaction because, for the first time, the BJP had made inroads into the political space in Kashmir, not as a partner in coalition but in what is seen as grassroots politics, with 100 seats in the municipal elections, although 76 of them were ‘won’ uncontested.
Any attempt to question politics that ignores the centrality of the people in determining their future is labelled as a 'ploy by Pakistan'.
Missing out the larger picture
That such considerations always miss out on the larger picture of the conflict in Kashmir is, therefore, not surprising. The people in whose name elections are contested are invisibilised, although the Governor claimed that the dissolution of the Assembly was in the interest of Jammu and Kashmir. Any attempt to question politics that ignores the centrality of the people in determining their future is labelled as a ploy by Pakistan to create unrest in the valley. From the main pro-India parties deciding to stay away from the local body polls, to their decision to form a grand alliance and stake a claim to form the government, from the Kashmiri youth voicing aspirations of azadi , to the stone pelting youth on the streets, to the armed insurgency that has massive popular support – it has become convenient to bring Pakistan’s role into everything happening in the Valley.
Unless the root cause of the issue of Kashmir is addressed, any politics practised there will have no positive bearing on the overall situation in the Valley, and will only make more evident how the farce of electoral politics has repeatedly failed to address the people’s aspirations.
[ Samreen Mushtaq is a Doctoral Candidate in Political Science at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. She is currently working as a Research Assistant Consultant on a project with The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy. She can be contacted at [email protected] ].
[All URLs last accessed on November 22, 2018.]
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