Lok Sabha Elections in the Valley: An Unclear Vote for Peace

Mushahid Hussain
31 May 2004

Despite the threat by militant outfits and boycott calls by separatist groups, voters in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir exercised their franchise in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. In doing so, the people of Kashmir indicated their desire for peace which was overwhelmingly expressed earlier during the Assembly elections in October 2002. Despite the low turnout, people in Jammu and Kashmir once again clearly indicated their preference for the ballot over the bullet.

Voting Amidst Fear
Pakistan-based militant outfits like the Hizbul Mujahideen and the Lashkar-e-Taiba had issued threats to both voters and those who were contesting in the elections. The run-up to the voting witnessed stepped up violence in the state with militant groups launching attacks against civilians and security forces. Militant outfits also targeted those who were contesting the elections. Those who escaped the bullet included popular Kashmiri leaders like Omar Abdullah, Farooq Abdullah of the National Conference and Mehbooba Mufti of the People's Democratic Party. Attacks were undertaken by militant outfits at several election rallies organised in the state by various political parties. However, backed by elaborate arrangements before and during the polls, security forces were able to foil the attempts to disrupt the democratic exercise. Though some observers said that the 36-36.5 per cent turnout recorded for the six Lok Sabha seats in Jammu and Kashmir was low, the turnout has to be seen in the context of threat issued by militant outfits. The fact that people still came out in large numbers is an indication of a genuine desire for peace in Kashmir.

The final turnout in the constituencies presented a mixed picture. While Jammu, Udhampur and Baramulla recorded a turnout ranging from 35-46 per cent, Srinagar and Anantnag constituencies recorded a low turnout at 15-18 per cent. The relatively peaceful constituency of Ladakh had a high turnout of over 70 per cent. Voting in certain polling segments such as Chrar-e-Sharief witnessed enthusiastic voters coming out in large numbers to exercise their franchise. The holy town of Chrar-e-Sharif, once a staging ground for militants, witnessed a turnout of over 59 per cent.  In some voting segments, turnout was higher compared to similar segments in other parts of the country. For instance, Kupwara in Jammu and Kashmir recorded a turnout of nearly 40 per cent whereas Gandhinagar in Gujarat recorded around 39 per cent turnout.


                                    Results of the 2004 Lok Sabha Elections in Jammu and Kashmir
Constituencies
Voters
Polling Percentage* No. of Contestants
Polling Stations
Winner
Baramulla

940998

35.58 (27.79)

6
1167
Abdul Rashid Shaheen of the JKN
Srinagar

1053733

18.57 (11.93)

13

1080

Omar Abdullah of the JKN
Anantnag

998905

15.04 (14.32)

14

1049

Mehbooba Mufti of the JKPDP
Ladakh

175768

73.35 (81.88)

4
442
Thupstan Chhewang of the IND
Udhampur

1348721

45.09 (39.65)

20
1655 Ch. Lal Singh of the INC
Jammu

1851838

44.37 (46.77)

26
1822
Madan Lal Sharma of the INC
                        Source: Election Commission of India (www.eci.gov.in)
                        * Figures in brackets indicate turnout in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections

While there were some allegations of security forces coercing people to come out and vote, voting was largely accepted as free and fair. Apart from the Indian media, the elections were recognised as free and fair by the international community as well. Pakistani media groups were divided in their response to the voter response in Jammu and Kashmir. A 15 May editorial in Jang lauded Atal Behari Vajpayee who had offered his resignation even before the results were declared. Another Pakistani newspaper, The News, commented that while democracy was the winner in the Indian elections, the same was being denied in Pakistan. It is a well known fact that Pakistan has not provided for free and fair elections in the Northern Areas as mandated by the United Nations General Assembly Resolution No. 46/137 (3), dated 17 December 1991.

Separatists still sing the old tune
Notwithstanding the fact that former Indian prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's initiatives with regard to peace with Pakistan and resolution of the Kashmir dispute had received international support, separatist outfits in Jammu and Kashmir once again sought to disrupt the polls by issuing a boycott call. Despite the recent peace initiatives, the pro-Pakistan Hurriyat Conference asked Kashmiri people to stay away from the polls. A section of observers are of the view that popular support for separatist outfits like the Hurriyat has declined over the years largely due to militancy-related violence. This could be one reason as to why the Hurriyat continues to stay away from a democratic test of its 'representativeness'. The recent split in the Hurriyat is also a clear indication that the faction led by Syed Ali Shah Geelani would continue to obstruct any settlement of the Kashmir problem. Geelani and other pro-Pakistan militant outfits continue to propagate the demand of a plebiscite in Kashmir even though it is well established that the two-nation theory has failed in the subcontinent.

Violence during the elections
The success of the 2004 Lok Sabha elections in Jammu and Kashmir were, however, marred by over 2,500 incidents of poll-related attacks carried out by militant outfits. Of these, around 13 attacks were aimed at contesting candidates. Those attacked during the run-up to the polls include: Congress activist in Anantnag Bashir Ahmed Dar (Banpora, Akingam); Block President Ghulam Nabi Tantre (Kokernag); Congress activist Ishaq Hasan (Vahi); PDP activist Ali Mohammad Bhat (Badgam); National Conference activist Ali Mohammad Mir (Dangrabal, Pampore); PDP activist Abdul Khaliq Wani (Banpora, Pulwama); JD vice-president Mukhar Ahmed Bhat (Srinagar);, former finance minister Abdul Rahim Rather (Bandipora); NC activist Mohinuddin Dar (Pulwama); Congress activist Nar Wali (Baramulla); Mohd. Yusuf Sheikh (Koralpora, Duru); Latif Ahmed Malik (Anantnag); Ghulam Mohd. Shan (Srinagar); PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti (Barnagbal); Tourism Minister Ghulam Hassan Mir and finance minister Muzaffar Hassan Beg (Uri); Congress candidate Ghulam Rasool Kar (Kupwara); Congress candidate Lal Singh (Banihal), NC leader Omar Abdullah (Hyatpora); and, BJP candidate Sofi. Mohd. Yusuf (Lajibal).

Despite the threat and intimidation from Pakistan-backed militants, Kashmiris came out to exercise their franchise in large numbers. Observers are of the view that a majority of the Kashmiri people feel that the attempts by the Indian government to restore peace in the state are genuine and therefore, are ready to brave the bullets to support the peace initiative started by the Indian government. Two successful free and fair elections in the state of Jammu and Kashmir have redressed, to a large extent, past grievances of the Kashmiri people. It is, therefore, important that the effort for a genuine peace are continued despite the threat of violence and attitude of the separatists.