THE District Development Council (DDC) elections in Jammu and Kashmir, scheduled to be held in eight phases from November 28 to December 19, have assumed great significance in the fractious political landscape of the erstwhile State, as local parties strive to re-assemble the wreck of mainstream politics amid adverse public opinion in New Delhi and Srinagar.
Whereas the audience in New Delhi is viewing them with scepticism, fed as it is with a Hindu majoritarian discourse of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in which any assertiveness to the contrary is bound to be assessed within the narrow context of the national security paradigm, a large section of people in Srinagar are accusing them of “normalising” the August 5, 2019, action of the Central government by agreeing to contest the elections. On August 5, the Narendra Modi government unilaterally stripped Jammu and Kashmir of its special status and bifurcated the State into two Union Territories, one comprising the Kashmir and Jammu regions, and the other comprising Ladakh.
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In this backdrop, winning the DDC elections is a battle for survival and relevance for the National Conference (N.C.) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). On October 15, the two parties pioneered the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) along with Sajad Lone’s People’s Conference, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Muzaffar Shah’s Awami National Conference and Javid Mustafa’s J&K People’s Movement. The stated objective of the PAGD is the restoration of J&K’s special status but its signatories have hinted at a broader goalpost of a dignified solution of the Kashmir conflict.
The Centre amended the Jammu and Kashmir Panchayati Raj Act, 1989, in October to establish 20 DDCs, 10 each in the Jammu and Kashmir regions. Each DDC will have 14 seats. Since the DDC election is taking place on party lines, the stakes are significant for the BJP and its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), which had for decades opposed any degree of autonomy to the restive Himalayan region. In its unidimensional solution model, a freewheeling inward and outward migration in Jammu and Kashmir would end alienation among Kashmiris, although the intent is to stifle the political voice of the salient Muslim population of the Union Territory by realigning its demographics.
The Sangh Parivar hopes to alter the demographics in Jammu and Kashmir through newly introduced “domicile laws” that have thrown open the ownership of land and property as well as employment opportunities in the Union Territory to outsiders with minimal restrictive benchmarks. Before it can fully exploit these provisions to swamp the region with Hindu settlers from other States, it is imperative for it to capture all institutions in the Union Territory and fill them with either non-Kashmiris or a new edition of a pliant Kashmiri leadership that it has incubated in New Delhi, such as Altaf Bukhari’s Apni Party. It is pertinent to mention that in the months following the abrogation of Article 370, the administration under Governor Satyapal Malik and, thereafter, under Lieutenant Governors G.C. Murmu and Manoj Sinha has replaced key Kashmiri Muslim officials in the bureaucracy with “Hindu outsiders”.
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The entire game plan of the BJP-RSS was premised on the notion that the Srinagar-based political parties would abstain from the DDC elections, which are seen as a “mini-assembly” election in the Union Territory, in deference to the natives’ sensitivities. In this context, the decision of the Gupkar signatories to not only enter the electoral fray but also contest the elections in alliance with the Congress poses a formidable challenge to the BJP and the Apni Party.
The BJP’s desperation became evident during the Srinagar mayoral election on November 25, when 11 N.C. corporators, six Congress corporators and four PDP corporators were roughed up by the Jammu and Kashmir Police inside the Srinagar Municipal Corporation’s corporate hall where voting took place. Inexplicably, incumbent Deputy Mayor Parvaiz Qadri, who was one of the election observers, was sent away from the scene.
In another development, widely understood to be the government’s design to contain pro-PDP mobilisation in south Kashmir, the party’s influential youth wing president, Waheed Para, was arrested by the National Investigative Agency in a terror case involving the former cop Davinder Singh. The arrest took everyone by surprise, since Para was instrumental in encouraging the sports culture in Kashmir, an initiative that had won him praise from former Home Minister Rajnath Singh. Mehbooba Mufti condemned the detention of Para in her tweet: “Waheed has no connection whatsoever with this man & is being falsely charged. All just to blackmail & intimidate PDP & other mainstream political parties in J&K.”
Former Srinagar Mayor Salman Sagar told Frontline that People’s Alliance candidates were prevented from canvassing and there was a design to prevent people from voting for them. “The party’s workers are being coerced by different agencies to not meet PAGD leaders. The popular mood is against the BJP’s proxies in this ‘mini-assembly election’ but the agencies are doing their best to orchestrate their victory,” he alleged. Sagar is contesting the DDC elections from Soura and Solina wards. He said the administration had obstructed his outreach programmes on multiple occasions. “A new form of democracy is being thrust on Kashmir, wherein candidates are selected by those in power. I urge Governor Manoj Sinha to ensure that the sanctity of the elections is upheld,” he said over the phone from Srinagar.
Accusations against Gupkar allies
Sensing a collapse of its plans in the DDC elections, which the BJP hoped to win through its alleged proxy, the Apni Party, Amit Shah put out an acrimonious tweet on November 16, referring to the Srinagar-headquartered parties as ‘Gupkar Gang’ and accusing the Congress of working against the national interest by stitching up an electoral alliance with them. He tweeted: “The Gupkar Gang is going global! They want foreign forces to intervene in Jammu and Kashmir. The Gupkar Gang also insults India’s tricolour. Do Sonia Ji and Rahul Ji support such moves of the Gupkar Gang? Congress and the Gupkar Gang want to take J&K back to the era of terror and turmoil.”
The BJP rank and file, along with a battery of news channels, put their act together to amplify that sharp denunciation of the Congress. Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said of the Gupkar allies: “Farooq Abdullah has no compunction in seeking the support of China for the restoration of Article 370, Mehbooba Mufti said she won’t hoist the tricolour unless the J&K flag is restored. Does the Congress support the statements of Farooq Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti?”
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The BJP’s accusations against the Congress and the Gupkar signatories were not only misleading; they betrayed the party’s doublespeak on multiple counts. While the party accused the N.C. and the PDP of colluding with foreign powers, it is the Narendra Modi government that facilitated the visit to Kashmir of a 27-member European Union delegation in October 2019. Although the delegates travelled on the private invitation of a Brussels-based non-governmental organisation, Women’s Economic and Social Think Tank, it was understood to be a covert BJP operation with the express purpose of building a normalcy narrative vis-a-vis Kashmir. The Modi government had no compunction to achieve that goalpost with testimonials from foreign observers.
Whereas the Home Minister is berating the Congress for forming an unholy nexus with the “Gupkar Gang”, he conveniently fails to mention that the BJP has teamed up with the N.C. in Ladakh. The BJP and the N.C. are partners in the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council in Kargil (LAHDCK), which is headed by the N.C.’s Feroz Khan. The BJP’s Muhammad Ali Chandan holds key portfolios of health, revenue and agriculture in the council.
While the Home Minister is not mincing words to limn an anti-national image of the Abdullahs and Muftis, it is his department that ended their detention before the Supreme Court ruled in the matter. Although it goes without saying that booking three former Chief Ministers of Jammu and Kashmir under the draconian Public Safety Act was open political vendetta, what merits highlighting are the recurring inconsistencies between the actions and proclamations of the Home Minister on grave issues concerning national security. The Minister appears to be acting on the whim that he can make any proclamation against anybody so long as it suits his party’s electoral interest because prime time television endorses and amplifies every utterance of Modi and Amit Shah without scrutiny.
The Congress, if it had the will to offer a steadfast and aggressive ideological counter to the BJP’s majoritarianism discourse, would have pointed out these contradictions and stood firm on its alliance with the PAGD. But it chose to flip-flop in the matter. The party’s national spokesperson, Randeep Surjewala, clarified a day after Amit Shah’s diatribe that “the Congress stands against anybody who seeks interference into our territory by any foreign power. We also are against anybody who disrespects our national flag.”
The Congress did not have a candidate on the first list of the PAGD for the DDC elections, but on the second list announced on November 15 it had three candidates. On the third PAGD list, which was announced on the day Amit Shah attacked the Congress, the party did not have a single candidate. Mehbooba Mufti took to Twitter to express her disappointment: “Today yet again through false propaganda, BJP has put Congress on defensive about its participation in PAGD. The pattern where BJP propagates falsehoods & sets the agenda thereby forcing Congress to toe the same line is why this country lacks a robust opposition.”
On a similar note, the CPI(M)’s Mohammed Yousuf Tarigami told this reporter that there ought to be a forthright stand from political parties, particularly the Congress, over the BJP’s political and communal experimentations in Kashmir. “Vacillations will not help India or the Congress or for that matter any other political party,” he said over the phone from Kulgam.
An off-the-record conversation with Congress leaders in Jammu and Kashmir gives one the impression that they have been instructed not to get entangled in nationalistic binaries set up by the BJP-RSS. The thinking within the party is that ignoring the BJP’s nationalist rhetoric is the only way to take the shine off it. There is optimism in the party that it has a fair prospect of winning in the DDC elections in Jammu and that it will perform best by keeping the focus on issues surrounding jobs and COVID mismanagement.
If the Dogras and other Hindus of Jammu repudiate the BJP’s trenchant nationalism and vote for the Congress, it will be seen as a mandate against the derogation of Article 370. This would mean a tremendous loss of face for the BJP and would encourage the Gupkar signatories to draw up the contours of a more coordinated and combative struggle for the restoration of special status to Jammu and Kashmir.
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The BJP realises the magnitude of the odds it might encounter. It is trying everything within its reach to prevent that. There is a growing chorus among the N.C., the PDP and their allies that the Union Territory administration is trying to scupper their campaign on the pretext of security threat. A number of N.C. and PDP leaders were whisked away to safe houses in the past week. One N.C. candidate, Rayees Mattoo, tweeted: “Detained at hotel in Srinagar while as my competitors are in constituency. For God sake please tell me if this is the way to hold election”.
On November 21, Farooq Abdullah, who heads the PAGD, wrote to State Election Commissioner K.K. Sharma alleging that its candidates were not allowed to canvas ahead of the elections. “A strange and unique feature has come to the fore. Candidates put up by the PAGD are immediately whisked away to ‘secure locations’ in the name of security and confined to those ‘secure locations’… This comes across more as an attempt to interfere in the democratic process than any real concern for the well-being of the contestants.”
Yousuf Tarigami, PAGD convener, told Frontline over the phone that PAGD candidates were bundled into “clustered accommodation”. “Who wins and who loses, the decision must lie with the electorate. Democracy must finally win. For that, the process must be made secure and credible. It is advisable not to put avoidable restrictions on the candidates and instead, their legitimate movement for the campaigning in their respective areas must be effectively facilitated,” he said.