Ahead of the general elections likely to take place in April-May 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said at a gathering during his recent visit to Jammu, that the Centre would ‘break the backbone of militancy’.
The Election Commission of India (EC) is understood to have received a communication from the Jammu and Kashmir Director General of Police, Dilbag Singh, around the same time. Well-placed sources revealed to The Quint that the DGP has made it clear that providing security to the candidates of the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections simultaneously would not be possible. This serves as the first indication of the deferment of Assembly elections.
Governor’s Rule was imposed after the BJP withdrew support from Mehbooba Mufti’s government on 19 June 2018. In December, the Assembly, under suspended animation, was dissolved by Governor Satya Pal Malik, after none of the political parties succeeded in forming the government.
Even as a Supreme Court judgment has advised fresh elections to be held within six months, in disturbed states like Jammu and Kashmir, the EC normally goes by the advice of the police, security and intelligence agencies.
In contrast to the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections in 2008-09 and 2014, the EC has not been able to hold an election with strong voter participation after the turmoil triggered by Burhan Wani’s death in July 2016.
Coming Together of Guerrilla & Civilian Forces
The Muftis left everything to the police and security forces. Mainstream politicians surrendered their space to militants. Many of them called Wani and his guerrillas “our own brothers”, and none of them contested the separatists politically. The vacuum led to a 1990-type situation, and soon there were ‘killings’ by forces, massive funeral rallies and gun salutes, parades by droves of heavily-armed guerrillas coupled with a deluge of inflamed passions across an unbridled social media.
According to senior police and security forces officers, over half of the counterinsurgency operations got botched up due to political intervention. Mehbooba’s advocacy of a unilateral ceasefire with militants, took a toll on human life.
For the first time in 29 years, J&K witnessed a situation in which the guerrillas and the civilian populations blended into one force. In both 2008 and 2010, there had been fewer militants.
Militancy in J&K Linked to US Troops’ Withdrawal from Afghanistan
During the last seven months of Governor’s and President’s Rule however, the intensity of public resistance, as also the militants’ writ, had fallen considerably. Only one major incident of civilian killings in security forces’ firing occurred at an encounter site. Over 250 militants have been killed, mostly in the second half of 2018.
Officers in the police and security forces believe that currently there are 250 to 270 militants active in the Valley. Around 40-50 could be inducted by December. If the operations continue at the current pace, the number of militants could reduce to 50-60 by the end of current year. Still much of the restoration of the 2014 situation is essentially linked to the withdrawal of the US troops from Afghanistan. Even an American intelligence report has warned that Pakistan’s jihadist groups could divert to India and cause violence.
Lukewarm Response to Local Polls
Given the lukewarm response to the recent municipal and Panchayat elections in Kashmir, restoration of a 2014-like peaceful situation is arguably pivotal to the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections.
“Until that happens, none of the ex-MLAs and ex-ministers will dare to visit his constituency. Good turnout in the polls will happen only after the mainstream politicians fill up the space. Ideally the elections will follow the political activity. It’s not the other way round,” said a senior leader. “As of now, there’s tremendous fear of the gun and a social boycott. None of us stays at home, visits constituencies or holds a public meeting. It’s completely the reverse of the festival of democracy and enthusiastic electioneering in 2014”.
EC’s decision to hold by-elections for Srinagar and Anantnag Lok Sabha seats in April 2017 proved to be disastrous. Eight people were killed on the day of polling in Srinagar-Budgam. CRPF men were herded out of polling stations by angry crowds. The turnout was a paltry 7 percent — the lowest in over 30 years. The violence and low voter turnout led to the cancellation of polling in Anantnag. It could not be held ever in the last 30 months.
Notwithstanding the outlandish statements by some BJP leaders, including the PM and Governor, statistics of the recent municipal and Panchayat elections are disheartening. Out of 40 urban local bodies in the Valley, polling took place in just 14.
Out of 10,32,498 voters, just 31,541 exercised their right. In other words, turnout in the much-trumpeted municipal polls in the Valley was a dismal 3.05 per cent—lowest in all elections.
Low Voter Turnout: ‘Referendum Against India’
Even as boycott by both the mainstream regional majors—NC and PDP—of the 2018 municipal elections was unarguably the biggest factor behind the low turnout, political analysts are unanimous on the fact that not more than 25-30 percent voters would have defied the separatists’ boycott calls and threats from militants, under current circumstances. It would be just 5-6 percent in South Kashmir.
However, mainstream political activity could be revived in case of restoration of normality in several segments. In that case, voter turnout could increase to 40-70 percent in the Lok Sabha elections, and much higher in the Assembly elections. A year of good governance and redressal of grievances could usher in a conducive and sustainable atmosphere.
Since both, the UPA as well as the NDA leaders at the highest level, have exploited the high-turnout elections as the “peoples’ referendum against separatists, terrorists and Pakistan”, there’s every possibility that the other side could use a low turnout election as “Kashmir’s referendum against India”.
Parties like the NC and the Congress, which are emerging as the natural beneficiaries of the failures of the PDP-BJP regime, will obviously exert maximum possible pressure on EC for early assembly elections. But the opinion of security agencies could defer assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir to the autumn of the current year, or even the spring of 2020.
(The writer is a Srinagar-based journalist. He can be reached @ahmedalifayyaz. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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