India’s ‘Military Elections’ in Kashmir

India had two excellent opportunities over the past seven months to show the world that Kashmir has finally entered the Indian fold after seven decades of resistance.

The first opportunity came in May when the world watched New Delhi bask in the glory of one of the largest electoral voting exercises in terms of population. The other opportunity came in November, when the entire state machinery of India – the election commission, the federal government, Indian political parties, media, police, and the military – all shifted national focus to Kashmir elections to elect a pro-Indian legislature (No country in the world recognizes this assembly but it serves a domestic purpose: to show the Indian public that Kashmir is part of the union). These two opportunities came amid growing signs that the new Indian Government is suddenly obsessed with Kashmir to the exclusion of all other important and urgent issues and problems that a large, populous country like India is grappling with. Narendra Modi, the new Prime Minister, made several visits to the occupied territory; where New Delhi deploys more than half a million Indian soldiers to suppress a largely anti-Indian population.

This attention to Kashmir by a newly elected Indian government would have been positive had Modi reached out to Kashmiris and to Pakistan to settle the oldest dispute on the agenda of United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Instead, it is evident now that India’s right-wing Prime Minister is sowing the seeds of a fresh and accelerated conflict in Kashmir, and increasing regional tensions as a result, not lowering them.

Those frequent visits confirmed the suspicion that Modi saw Kashmir as a question of ego. He represented religious extremists and nationalists, and won the election on a paranoid agenda of Pakistan-bashing, and what better way to appease his constituency, win new voters, and fulfil a religious destiny than by conquering Kashmir for good (In contrast, no Pakistani politician or party mentioned India in the run up to the May 2013 elections in Pakistan. Unlike India, voters in Pakistan have shown little interest in India-bashing as an election-rallying cry). Modi appeared to believe he could finally achieve a resounding Indian victory in Kashmir, permanently integrate the occupied territory into India, and give a historic and final snub to Pakistan.

He did what no other Indian Prime Minister could: hold electoral rallies in Srinagar, occupied Kashmir’s capital, amid threats from Kashmiri freedom fighters and activists who are resentful of Indian presence. Most Kashmiris stayed away, so Modi brought in busloads of minority Kashmir Hindus from nearby Jammu to fill the space in Srinagar rallies.

So desperate was Modi for an electoral victory in Kashmir that he even resorted to criticism of Indian military and admitted it has been involved in arbitrary killings. Indian Army is hated and despised in Kashmir for mass graves, torture, sexual harassment and the use of rape as a weapon of war. Indian soldiers have been committing rape with impunity in Kashmir for quarter-century. Many Indian women activists believe that Indian soldiers carried this rape culture back to India, and that this has been a contributing factor in India’s current ‘rape epidemic’.

On Dec 8, 2014, Modi startled his army commanders and soldiers when he appeared to be offering the Indian Army as a sacrificial lamb to win over Kashmiris. He referred to his government putting on trial five Indian soldiers for killing three Kashmiris in 2010. The three were found guilty a month earlier in November. This was the first time since India invaded and occupied Kashmir in 1947 that India had admitted to such a mistake. “This is a wonder of the Modi government,” he told the audience in the Srinagar cricket stadium. “This is the proof of my good intentions before you.” This frenzied focus on Kashmir came with an orchestrated campaign in Indian media predicting a large Kashmiri voter turnout because of Modi’s personal interest in Kashmir elections.

So, how did India’s political investment in the two elections – India’s general election of May 2014 and the Indian-controlled election in Kashmir of November 2014 – pan out?

Put in simple words, both exercises backfired. India’s ruling elite was surprised to see a consistent and admirable Kashmiri refusal to play along even after nearly seven decades of Indian efforts to woo Kashmiris to participate in the Indian political process. Of course, if one scans the Indian media, and the reports written by Indian journalists and reporters, most of these reports adhere to the official Indian line on Kashmir and show little effort on the part of the writers to scrutinize and question the official version.

The Kashmiris almost entirely boycotted India’s general elections in May. Kashmiris inside the Indian-occupied part, in Azad (free) Kashmir, in Pakistan, and in Middle Eastern and Western diasporas echoed the national Kashmiri mood of not recognizing the legitimacy of Indian elections. The international media, which generally ignored the Kashmir issue, paid attention this time. For example, in a April 2014 report filed by Biyojeta Das, the Indian correspondent for Aljazeera English, from “Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir,” the headline said brazenly, ‘India elections fail to inspire Kashmiris: Low voter turnout and boycott mar parliamentary elections in India-administered Kashmir.’ Das interviewed 24-year-old Kashmiri cartoonist Mir Suhail, and started her report by quoting him: Four politicians dressed in crisp white khadi tunics and caps hold ballot boxes with the words "vote for me" – but they have only one shadow, a towering gun-toting soldier with a malicious smile.

"This is why Kashmiris don't vote," said Mir Suhail, 24, a political cartoonist, who created the image to sum up the mood of detachment towards the ongoing parliamentary elections in Indian-administered Kashmir. Suhail said his memories are punctuated with gory images of rifles, blood, barbed wire and army boots. "People are in a limbo. Elections don't change anything," he declared, sipping tea along the Jhelum River.

This was Kashmir’s verdict on the May 2014 general elections in India. But what about Kashmir-specific elections of November and December 2014 in which Modi was certain that his personal charm and wardrobe style would totally sway Kashmir for the first time since the Indian occupation of 1947? The election in Indian-occupied Kashmir was a military exercise par excellence, a vote under the barrel of the gun. Thousands of Indian intelligence officers and soldiers were entrusted to making Modi’s push in Kashmir successful. With political and military focus and money, India initially succeeded in forcing voters out in a couple of Kashmir districts. There was euphoria in the Indian media, and inside Modi’s office in New Delhi. Indian anchors came out to say Kashmiris reject Pakistan, that Islamabad’s claim that Kashmiris consider themselves Pakistanis had been proven wrong and that history has been made.

These Indian cries of victory proved premature, however. One or two districts of Kashmir showed high voter turnout in the first day of balloting in November 2014, but the images of voters clamoring to participate in elections organized by Indian Army and intelligence stopped coming after the first day. Social media circulated dozens of pictures from polling stations across the Indian-occupied territory showing empty polling booths and Indian election officers waiting for Kashmiri voters that came sparingly or never showed up.

As in any military-controlled ‘election,’ Modi’s party, the BJP did manage to come out second. But the biggest story was this: Kashmiris refused to give the political parties taking part in the Indian-controlled election mandate to form government. No party secured enough seats to form government, and no coalition was possible.

In the end, within the first week of 2015, India had to dismiss the election and declare Governor’s Rule in Indian-occupied Kashmir. This effectively meant that Kashmir would be ruled from New Delhi, directly by Modi, as the state has always been. India’s ‘Military Election’ in Kashmir exploded in New Delhi’s face, and Modi’s dream of writing a new chapter in Indian history, where he could claim that Kashmiris have finally integrated with India and rejected Pakistan, had been defeated for now. Following India’s latest failure in Kashmir, Indian media tried to put on a brave face. A headline by an Indian news site, firstpost.com, on Dec 23, 2014, read, “J&K results 2014: BJP's Mission 44 failed but Mission Kashmir won.” (The ‘Mission 44’ alluded to Modi’s attempt to win a majority in Kashmir’s Indian-controlled assembly).

Why India Failed

There is a simple answer for the question: why India failed to impress Kashmiris despite committing massive resources in Kashmir elections? India can do tricks to hide the fact that Kashmir is an Indian-occupied territory, and annexed by force, but everything that India tries to do there glaringly reinforces this reality. Take for example Modi’s repeated visits to Kashmir. Every time he came in, supposedly to urge Kashmiris to stop boycotting elections and vote for India, the occupation army would put the state in a lockdown, shut down the internet and cell phone services in most parts of the territory. When Modi addressed secured rallies in Srinagar, every Kashmiri man, woman, and child who dared to come out on the street anywhere in the city would be a suspect in the eyes of Indian occupation soldiers, and would be harshly treated and thoroughly searched before being let go.

Even those few Kashmiris who recognize Indian rule, like the state's last Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, now ridicule India’s actions that prove it is an occupation force. Abdullah made fun of the busloads of BJP supporters that were transported from Hindu-majority to Srinagar in November and December 2014 for Modi’s rallies. "Why not just have the rallies there?" he tweeted.

The writer is a journalist who regularly contributes for print and electronic media. Twitter : @AQpk

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