Integrated development, politics and social empowerment in India and beyond

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Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Everything said, the onus is on India to conduct an election that is seen to be fair and free within J&K and around the world

Getting it right in J&K

Free and fair elections are just the first step. The government needs a coherrent J&K policy, not an improvised script.

By B G Verghese

27 August 2002

The election clock has started ticking in J&K much to the dismay of many. The reasoning behind the critics’plea for postponing the poll or holding it under President’s rule is not particularly convincing. Those who have long sat on the fence now seek more time. But time for what ? The argument has several strands. First, the Hurriyat and other dissident elements should be persuaded to contest the elections so that these are more inclusive. This is a laudable objective but its advocates need to answer why these very elements studiously failed to walk through an open door over the past several months, even years. They stalled any meaningful dialogue by the kinds of preconditions that the Hurriyat has again most recently repeated to Jethmalani’s Kashmir Committee, such as tripartite talks with Pakistan. India-Pakistan talks are certainly necessary. But at what stage and on what

The fact is that the J&K Assembly has run its term and elections are due by October. Why should this constitutional imperative be unceremoniously disregarded? It would send out the wrong message. But, the argument runs, elections will not resolve the J&K question. No one has suggested that it will. Elections are not an end in themselves. However, they can clear the air and facilitate new beginnings. A mandate for office will not disable the new government from opening or participating in a dialogue with the Hurriyat or anybody else, either with regard to federal and intra-state relationships or internal reforms and adjustments. Nor is dissolution and fresh polls barred as part of a subsequent settlement. Why should the Hurriyat and others be unwilling to contest the polls, take their seats in the Assembly and bid to form or enter the next government?

Elections are not an end in themselves. However, they can clear the air and facilitate new beginnings

This would put them in a strong moral and political position to influence the further course of events as representative voices. At present, they have little credibility except as the overground face of armed militants or, worse, proxies for Pakistan. The Jaish has warned “turncoats” to beware contesting the polls, which it is out to subvert with the Pakistan government’s full backing. The fear of “friendly fire” engenders doublespeak.

The argument that the Hurriyat and others need time to prepare for elections and that their postponement by a few months will not matter, is specious. Those at the barricades should be ever ready. To be unprepared can translate into not being willing. Postponing the poll for some months in effect implies putting them off at least until spring 2003 as winter precludes electioneering and elections over large areas after November/December.

The demand for postponement could of course be a subterfuge to compel President’s rule, which some see as a prerequisite for a fair poll. But it is the Election Commission and not Farooq Abdullah that is conducting the elections and the EC is exercising due diligence to ensure the integrity of the poll, with special arrangements for Pandit refugees. The greater danger to a genuinely fair poll is the threat of militant violence from within and across the border. It will take courage and political will as much as meticulous organisation and “bandobust” to ensure that that those who wish to vote are enabled to
do so without risk to life or limb.

Were Pakistan and the jehadi groups to up the ante, voter turnout could be low, particularly in the Valley and other vulnerable areas. However, there is no reason why low voting or the placing of security forces on election duty should vitiate the credibility of the poll. A peaceful election boycott would be in order and could impact the result; not threats of violence. That will discredit Pakistan and the jehadis, whatever mask they weak. The Government has said that diplomats, the foreign media and other recognised agencies may observe the poll, alongside Indian election watchers. There will, however, be no monitoring or formal certification of the elections. That must remain the exclusive responsibility of the Election Commission. A constitutionally re-militarised Pakistan has already dismissed the J&K polls as “farcical”. But none will take this seriously coming from a regime that has fixed its own polls, from Presidential to POK, to a nicety.

The [government] should get its act together instead of trying to script its actions as it lurches along

However, everything said, the onus is on India to conduct an election that is seen to be fair and free, within J&K and around the world. The real challenge lies in taking steps to end alienation and tensions within the state by negotiating autonomy/devolution to J&K and between its constituent units. Good governance, an amnesty for those not charged with heinous crime, planning the safe return of exiled Pandits, action on human rights abuses and an accelerated development/employment programme would impart a sorely needed healing touch.

Central to all of this is “self-determination” or “azadi” for J&K within India, not the Parivar’s mischievously communal trifurcation. Upgrading panchayati raj could be one road to regional autonomy within the state, with an option to contiguous districts to come together for given purposes. Otherwise, the Northeast offers creative and varied patterns of devolution which hold lessons for J&K. Talks with Pakistan are necessary. But it cannot wage war and peace at the same time. Musharraf has to choose.
The American agenda in this regard has been self-serving. The US was part of the problem in the past and any Iraqi adventure or strategic opportunity for piping Central Asian oil and gas through Afghanistan to the Arabian Sea could reinforce Pakistan’s role as a frontline state. It is political realities in J&K that will be decisive.

It is therefore for the Indian Government to develop and implement a coherent J&K policy, especially on issues of autonomy and alienation. The elections are but a milestone. It should accordingly get its act together instead of trying to script its actions as it lurches along. There is a real window of opportunity in Kashmir today.

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