Read, Debate: Engage.

Inside Kashmir’s protracted fight for democracy

November 29, 2023
tags:#India, #Kashmir, #democracy, #elections
located:India, Pakistan
by:Umer Maqbool
They took bullets for participating in the world’s largest democracy. Now they are being denied the right to vote.

Forty-six-year old Qaiser Jamsheed Lone, a former legislator in Indian-administered Kashmir, vividly remembers the day when his uncle was killed by armed militants while campaigning for provincial assembly elections.

His uncle, Mushtaq Ahmad Lone, a minister in the then provincial government, was assassinated on 11 September, 2002 in Tikkipora, a remote village  in northern Kashmir’s Kupwara district.

"A militant dressed as a female managed to sneak into the women’s enclosure at the election rally," recalled Lone. "He lobbed a grenade and fired indiscriminately towards the dais where my uncle was addressing people. My uncle was hit by bullets and died on the way to the hospital." 

Three months later, his other uncle, Ghulam Mohiuddin Lone, was murdered by militants on 5 December, 2002 . "He was about to get home after arriving from Jammu when two militants fired upon him from a point blank range," he told FairPlanet. "I lost my two uncles within a span of three months for being part of electoral politics in Kashmir."

Predominantly-Muslim Kashmir is split between India and Pakistan, with both countries claiming the region in its entirety. Since the eruption of an armed militancy in Indian-administered Kashmir in 1989, separatist groups have been boycotting elections, claiming that New Delhi is promoting them internationally to portray a referendum by Kashmiris in its favor.

Separatists in Kashmir advocate for a United Nations referendum or plebiscite that would allow Kashmiris to determine whether they prefer to join India, Pakistan or seek independence. They argue that elections conducted by the Indian Election Commission cannot be a substitute for a referendum. Meanwhile, pro-Indian political parties that align with New Delhi's view that Kashmir is part of India, actively participate in elections.

Amid the conflict, dozens of pro-India activists have been killed in the last three decades. And while armed militants and pro-independence politicians have been labeling pro-Indian politicians like Lone traitors, Pakistan, which also administers a part of Jammu and Kashmir, regards them as "puppets of India."

Previously, New Delhi encouraged participation in Kashmir's elections, but the current Indian government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has hesitated to conduct elections in Jammu and Kashmir for the past five years. This has left the 14 million population of the region without an elected government.

Since 2018, the region has been without its own government and is directly ruled by India's federal government through appointed governors. Finally, in 2019, the federal government in India revoked Kashmir's semi-autonomous status, a longstanding ideological goal of the BJP.

"We took bullets for taking part in elections, but now we are being denied our constitutional right of having an elected government. How long will they keep democracy in suspension here?" asked Lone. 

Now, people like Lone across the region are fighting for the restoration of democracy in Kashmir.

Five years without an elected leader

On 21 November, 2018, when Kashmir’s last Assembly was dissolved by then governor Satya Pal Malik, it was widely anticipated that elections would soon follow to pave the way for a democratically-elected government.

The Assembly was dissolved in a controversial decision following the alliance of two rivals attempting to form a government in Kashmir. The governor's office justified the dissolution, citing concerns that any resulting government was unlikely to be stable. "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 office stated.

The office also cited reports of "horse-trading and possible exchange of money" to purchase the support of legislators.

But India’s Election Commission did not immediately hold re-elections, citing security concerns given the region’s frequent protests and history of militant activity. 

Finally, on 5 August, 2019, the BJP-led government revoked Kashmir’s constitutional autonomy and split it into two Union Territories. The election was then postponed for an additional two years, this time citing the need for redistricting electoral constituencies.

The regional pro-India political parties in Kashmir and political observers widely contend that India's federal government aims to install a government in the region that is aligned with its interests to avoid potential confrontation amid lingering resentment over the unilateral constitutional changes made in 2019.

They claim that elections are not being held because the BJP is not in a position to win elections in Kashmir and the regional parties, who support autonomy of Kashmir, have better prospects of forming government whenever the election is held.

Omar Abdullah, a former chief minister of Kashmir and vice-president of the National Conference, a regional political party, has repeatedly said that the BJP has no intention of holding elections in Kashmir as it fears defeat. 

"They [BJP] are not in a mood to hold elections because they know that people are not with them," Omar told reporters on 29 September, 2023 at Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian-administered Kashmir. "Leave Kashmir aside, the BJP will be at the receiving-end from the people in Jammu as well. That is why they don’t have courage to hold polls."

Zaffar Choudhary, a political analyst and editor-in-chief of The Dispatch, echoed a similar analysis, stating that India’s federal government is delaying polls in Kashmir because "it cannot afford an electoral outcome which brings an anti-BJP party or alliance to power in Kashmir." 

"The federal government wouldn’t like to see a situation in which a non-BJP party wins in Kashmir and forms a provincial government," he told FairPlanet. "A non- BJP government in Kashmir has the potential of a regular confrontation between New Delhi and Kashmir due to the constitutional changes made in 2019."

Since five years have elapsed since the Assembly's dissolution and elections have yet to be conducted, Pro-India political parties in Kashmir are now advocating for the restoration of democracy through various means.

"We have held protests and petitioned the India’s Election Commission to hold elections in Kashmir so that the region would have an elected government," said Muhammad Yosouf Tarigami, a former lawmaker and spokesman of the Peoples Alliance for Gupkar Declaration, a conglomerate of pro-India political parties seeking a restoration of Article 370, the constitutional provision that granted a semi-autonomous status to Jammu and Kashmir before August 5, 2019. "Our battle for restoration of democracy would continue despite curbs and restrictions."

He said that the association of parties is also mobilising public support for their cause in other parts of India.

In March this year, the region’s major pro-India political parties met the Election Commission of India and reminded it that "denial of assembly elections in J&K would amount to a denial of the fundamental and democratic rights of the people of Jammu and Kashmir." 

Last month, the region’s major political groups held protests in Jammu, the winter capital of Indian-administered Kashmir, demanding elections.

Harshdev Singh, former cabinet minister in Kashmir's provincial government and president of Jammu-based Panthers Party, a prominent advocate for the restoration of the democratic process in Kashmir, declared that democracy has been strangled to death in the region.

"We will not give up and will continue whatever needs to be done for restoration of democracy," said Singh, who has taken the matter to India's highest court to push for elections in Kashmir.

Meanwhile, India's Election Commission, perceived by many as influenced by the federal government despite claiming to be neutral, insists it will announce Kashmir provincial polls based on an assessment of security and other relevant factors.

Cries for restoration of democracy proliferate

The Forum for Justice and Human Rights in Jammu and Kashmir, an informal group of Indian veteran bureaucrats, academicians and journalists, in a report released in August 2023 said that the failure to hold an assembly election has added to the widespread Kashmiri perception that federal governments in India fear democracy in the region.

The report further states that the delay in conducting election is a violation of Article 25(b) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Radha Kumar, New Delhi’s former interlocutor on Kashmir, said that there can be absolutely no justification for delaying the election. "The election should be held immediately," she told FairPlanet.

Image by Steve Eason.

Article written by:
Photograph (1)
Umer Maqbool
India Pakistan
Legislative Assembly of Kashmir.
© Shah-Jehangir
Legislative Assembly of Kashmir.
Qaiser Jamsheed Lone, a former lawmaker whose two uncles were assassinated during the armed conflict in Kashmir.
© Umer Maqbool
Qaiser Jamsheed Lone, a former lawmaker whose two uncles were assassinated during the armed conflict in Kashmir.
Political analyst Zaffar Choudhary stated that India’s federal government is delaying polls in Kashmir because it fears the victory of a party that might enter into confrontation with it.
Political analyst Zaffar Choudhary stated that India’s federal government is delaying polls in Kashmir because it fears the victory of a party that might enter into confrontation with it.
Ghulam Mohiuddin Lone and Mushtaq Ahmed Lone, the uncles of Qaiser Jamsheed Lone who were killed in Kashmir conflict. .
Ghulam Mohiuddin Lone and Mushtaq Ahmed Lone, the uncles of Qaiser Jamsheed Lone who were killed in Kashmir conflict. .