Kashmir Results Cut Across Communal Fault Lines

29 December 2008
The Hindu

New Delhi: Not eight weeks ago, it appeared as if Jammu and Kashmir’s communal fault lines were set in concrete. In early October, National Conference president Omar Abdullah warned there was a deep polarisation of voters in Jammu and the feeling of alienation was very strong in the Valley. The communal polarisation, he asserted, was the worst in a generation. Most experts agreed. Parties of the religious right, the People’s Democratic Party in Kashmir, and the Bharatiya Janata Party in Jammu were expected to profit from the communal anxieties unleashed through the summer, after a decision to grant land-use rights to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board led to rioting across the State. But Sunday’s election results debunk the notion that the State consists of three monolithic ethnic-religious blocks – Muslim-majority Kashmir, Hindu-majority Jammu and Buddhist-majority Ladakh. Kashmir’s divisions In the arc of north Kashmir seats running from Karnah to Pattan, the mandate was divided between the two major Kashmir-based parties. While the National Conference took seven seats, the PDP secured six, leaving one to the Congress and another to independent Abdul Rashid Sheikh, who broke ranks with the secessionist People’s Conference and stood for election from Langate. In central Kashmir, the agglomeration of fifteen seats between Kangan and Ganderbal on the one side to Khansahib and Chrar-e-Sharif on the other, with urban Srinagar at its core, the National Conference reigned supreme. Here, the PDP could take just three seats, those of Chadoora, Khasahib and Beerwah – the first two retained by incumbents, and the third captured from independent Hakim Mohammad Yasin. NC’s success NC leaders succeeded by mobilising their cadre to stave off competition offered by the PDP in central Kashmir’s rural constituencies – competition which cost National Conference leader Omar Abdullah the Ganderbal seat in 2002 and also capitalised on low turnout in the eight urban segments, which gave the party’s committed cadre electoral primacy. But in stark contrast, the PDP dominated southern Kashmir, losing just four of the region’s sixteen seats – two to the Congress and one each to the NC and Communist Party of India (Marxist). Here, the PDP succeeded in expanding its reach by widening its constituency among political Islamists, often supporters of the Jamaat-e-Islamia constituency, the party had begun to court in the run-up to the 2002 elections, when it succeeded in securing the support of key regional commanders of the Hizb ul-Mujahideen. Like in northern Kashmir, the support of Islamists has helped the PDP increase its tally from 10 seats to 12. PDP’s opponents Moreover, the PDP’s more resolute ideological opponents appear to have held their ground by mobilising secular sections of the electorate against the Jamaat-e-Islami onslaught. The Congress retained both the Dooru and Kokernag seats, despite a PDP-led Islamist campaign that linked the party’s candidates to a 2006 prostitution scandal in Srinagar. In Kulgam, CPI(M) veteran Mohammad Yusuf Tarigamiagain, a hate-figure for Islamists, was re-elected for a third time running. Interestingly, the sole NC win in southern Kashmir was registered by Sakina Itoo, a single woman professional who has been a favourite target for Islamist ire. In 2002, her campaign was targeted nine times by jihadist groups. Jammu and Ladakh South of the Pir Panjal mountains, the Jammu region also demonstrated that no one party can claim to speak for the entire region. Of the eleven seats in the Doda-Udhampur belt, the NC and Panthers Party took two seats each, while the Bharatiya Janata Party won one. However, the Congress profited from the former Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad’s developmental record in the area, picking up seven seats. Mr. Azad himself won with a staggering margin of over 29,000 votes from the mountain constituency of Bhaderwah. In the nineteen-seat cluster from Bani to Naushera, centred around urban Jammu, the BJP picked up ten of its eleven seats. However, its opponents also did well, with the Congress taking four seats, the NC and independent candidates two each, and the Panthers Party one. Finally, in the six seats of the Rajouri-Poonch belt – often the site of tense Hindu-Muslim relations – the PDP, Congress and National Conference each won two seats. However, the PDP’s victories both came in seats which saw no violence this summer – not areas like Poonch-Haveli, which witnessed rioting. The PDP’s growth here instead appears linked to intra-Muslim conflicts, specifically, the NC-backed Gujjar community and landowning ethnic Kashmiris. Ladakh region, for its part, gave two seats to the NC, those of Kargil and Zanskar. In Leh – the site of energetic Buddhist-chauvinist movement – the Congress succeeded in defeating BJP-backed independent Tsering Samphel, while an independent took the remote Nobra seat.