Saturday, September 14, 2002
M A I N   F E A T U R E

Upbeat mood battles terrorist threat
Ehsan Fazili

A group of children beating drums during an election rally in Lolab, Kupwara. Children, though non-voters, are a permanent fixture in election rallies in Kashmir.
A group of children beating drums during an election rally in Lolab, Kupwara. Children, though non-voters, are a permanent fixture in election rallies in Kashmir. 

AMID continued threats from separatist militants, Jammu and Kashmir is poised for an election in four phases to the state Assembly, beginning with the first phase on September 16. The process, spread over 60 days and ending on October 12, has been devised in such a manner that adequate security can be provided to all areas of the state.

Interestingly, the focus this time is on people's desire to have the basic amenities and good governance and the mood of the electorate, unlike in the last election, is far from sullen. In fact, there is enthusiasm and participation despite the boycott call given by the Hurriyat. Thus, the number of candidates, besides those belonging to mainstream parties like the National Conference and the Congress, is on the increase as many other parties like the BJP, BSP, Panthers Party, Janata Dal (U), Peoples Democratic Party of former Union Home Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and the Awami League of Kukka Parray have joined the fray. There are a number of Independents too.

Director-General of Jammu and Kashmir Police A. K. Suri stated that militants had asked the people not to participate in elections and were killing political activists, especially those of the National Conference. Despite the threats, the police chief said, people were participating in the election meetings in large numbers. According to officials, between August 2 (when the election schedule was announced) and September 2, different national and regional parties have held 302 election-related public meetings. Of these, 119 have been held by the National Conference, 45 by the Congress, 39 by the BJP, 29 by the PDP, 21 by the Panthers party, 17 by the BSP, nine by the RJD, eight by the JD (U), seven each by the CPI (M) and the Awami League and three by Muttahida Mahaz. Candidates of the Kashmir Resolution Movement will also participate in the poll.


With campaigning at its peak in the districts of Baramula and Kupwara — which comprise 15 Assembly segments in north Kashmir that will go to the polls in the first phase on September 16 — some crucial issues have surfaced. "Our war is against the malpractices of the present government…there is poverty, educated youth have not been getting jobs, public funds are being misused and futile exercises are being undertaken in the name of development" are some of the grievances of people in five segments of Kupwara district. "We cannot leave the public, particularly our youth, to suffer," said the supporter of an Independent candidate in Lolab constituency of Kupwara district.

Mirwaiz Omar Farooq, founder chairman of the APHC, said his party did not disagree with the elections, aimed at choosing the members to the state Assembly. "These are not in any way linked to the basic issue of the resolution of Kashmir or the political future of Jammu and Kashmir. These elections, being projected as a solution to the Kashmir imbroglio, are no substitute to self determination," he said. The founder chairman of the APHC remarked that some parties felt that the Hurriyat should have participated in the elections to prove its credentials and representative character. "We as a forum have always said that we are ready to prove our representative character provided the mechanism is neutral, free and fair," he asserted. "We have seen what has happened in the past. Geelani and others have participated in the system. We saw what happened in the MUF. All that only proved that people of Kashmir had lost faith in the system of elections," Mirwaiz said. "The government of India is trying to project these elections as a step towards the solution of Kashmir issue, which clearly they are not. The issue is still alive and is yet to be addressed."

Though the Hurriyat Conference has announced its non-participation in the elections, it has not directly issued a poll-boycott call like it did in 1996.

According to Mirwaiz, the National Conference, whose main agenda in 1996 elections was the grant of autonomy, had failed to deliver. Sajjad Lone, chairman of the Peoples Conference, a constituent of the separatist Hurriyat Conference, maintained that the forthcoming elections were a break from the past. "It is for the first time that the international community seemed to have conveyed through the USA that these elections could be used as a platform to resolve the Kashmir issue," he averred.

Senior separatist leader and chief of the Democratic Freedom Party Shabir Ahmad Shah, who recently held the second round of talks with the Ram Jethmalani-led Kashmir Committee, said that the forthcoming elections were not a "question of life and death." "It would have been a referendum only when two groups — the mainstream political parties and the separatists — had been in the field. I do not see much significance in these elections as these are going on the same old lines - from Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah to his grandson," Shah commented. "If we had been given a chance to show our representative character then things would have been different. But we have not been given that chance," he said.

The ruling National Conference, which returned to power after a gap of about seven years in 1996 with an absolute majority in the 87-member House, looks at these elections as a major challenge after 1977 when Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah had returned to power with a similar thumping majority. As in the last elections, the grant of greater autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir continues to be the main plank of the party, but the party is also harping on promises it has fulfilled over the past six years. It has, however, suffered a number of setbacks: its activists have been switching loyalties after the announcement of the election schedule. Minister of State for Education Aga Syed Mehmood, who was denied the ticket this time, has filed his nomination as an Independent candidate from Budgam constituency and is pitted against his own nephew and NC nominee Rohullah. Another NC MLA from Amirakadal, Mohammad Shafi Bhat, has also filed his nomination as the Congress candidate from Amirakadal constituency after he was denied a ticket by the NC. A National Conference nominee in the 1996 elections, Abdul Ahad Yattoo, who lost to Congress candidate Iftikhar Hussain Ansari in 1996, has also now switched over to the Congress.

The party general secretary, Sheikh Nazir Ahmad, who had been close to Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, believes that the atmosphere for free elections does not exist. Candidates cannot go to far-flung areas to put forth the party viewpoint and understand the basic problems of the masses. "We have been at the receiving end right since 1947," Sheikh Nazir declared, adding that there was a need to restore peace and stability in the region. A number of attacks had been made on ruling party workers and leaders. The Industries Minister and younger brother of the Chief Minister, Mustafa Kamaal, survived an attempt on his life in the Tangmarg area on September 2, the day when two of his party workers were killed in separate incidents. He is seeking re-election from Gulmarg constituency.