By-elections in Kashmir: Turnout Indicates Popular Support For Electoral Politics

Md. Sadiq

28 April 2006

The huge turnout in the by-elections held on 24 April 2006 to four Assembly seats in Jammu and Kashmir has institutionalised the revival of political participation in the state. If the Assembly elections of October 2002 marked a turning point in violence-torn Kashmir, the turnout in the by-elections has clearly indicated that Kashmiris have cast their vote in favour of peace and normalcy in the state. Despite intimidation and threats issued by militant outfits, over 70 per cent of the electorate exercised their franchise in the by-elections. Unlike the past, there were no allegations of rigging or coercion by security forces and the by-elections were declared 'free and fair'. While the huge turnout clearly indicated popular support for reviving the political process in the state, it was also a clear message to militant outfits that they can no longer intimidate Kashmiris to stay away from electoral politics.

Popular Participation For Peace
By-elections to four assembly constituencies ' Pattan, Sangrama, Rafiabad in Baramulla district and Bhaderwah in Doda district ' were held on 24 April 2006. Three of the seats were vacated by the incumbents and two of them sought popular mandate fighting from a different platform. Mohammad Dillawar Mir and Moulvi Iftikhar Ansari were elected from Rafiabad and Pattan on the National Conference ticket in 2002. Both Mir and Ansari resigned from the National Conference (NC) to join the People's Democratic Party (PDP) to contest the same seats in April 2006. Congress leader Mohammad Sharief Niaz stepped down from Bhaderwah to make way for his cousin and Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad. As Mr. Azad is not a member of either of the Houses, the by-elections were a crucial test for his popularity in the state. The Sangrama seat fell vacant after then Minister of State and PDP member Ghulam Nabi Lone was assassinated by militants on 18 October 2005. The process of filing of nomination papers for the by-elections began on 31 March 2006. The government had deployed over 2,400 security personnel in the by-election areas to boost security as reports had indicated the possibility of terrorist outfits undertaking attacks to derail the electoral process. PDP's candidate from Sangrama had earlier narrowly escaped a militant attack on 1 April 2006. Intelligence inputs indicated that militant outfits had become active in the by-election areas and were planning to target candidates and voters in order to ensure that there was less participation. Besides the Jammu and Kashmir Police, two battalions of the Central Reserve Police Force, roughly comprising 2,400 jawans, were deployed in the by-election areas. Reports also indicated that militant outfits were in a state of confusion due to the growing support for peace and revival of the political process in the state. Though separatist outfits and militant groups were urged to take part in the polls, they once again chose to ignore the popular sentiment and stayed away from the elections. Separatist outfits including the Hurriyat Conference, led by Syed Ali Geelani, and Democratic Freedom Party's Shabir Shah issued boycott calls in the by-election areas urging people not to vote. However, despite the boycott call and threats issued by militant outfits, Kashmiris participated in large numbers as indicated by the turnout figures released by the Election Commission.

Ballot Takes Precedence
The by-elections were marred by isolated incidents of violence involving militant outfits in which one person was killed and 32 people were injured. Two poll related violence were reported with militants exploding two grenades (one in Pattan and the other in Sangrama) that injured 22 persons including 5 security personnel. One live grenade was detected in Pattan, which was defused by security forces. In the run-up to polling, three grenade explosions were reported in Pattan and one Improvised Explosive Device (IED) blast took place in Sangrama on 23 April. However, no injuries were reported in these attacks. The massive security deployed by the government ensured that militant outfits were unable to derail the political process. The overall polling percentage of 75 in the state of J&K was the highest witnessed in the last 16 years, which clearly indicated that Kashmiris had cast their mandate in support of the political process. While Rafiabad assembly constituency witnessed 72. per cent polling (compared to 52.5 per cent in 2002 and 44.05 per cent in 1996 Assembly elections), Pattan recorded 67 per cent (compared to 41.5 per cent in 2002 and 71.38 per cent in 1996) and Sangrama polled 62.2 per cent (compared to 23.1 per cent in 2002 and 60.26 per cent in 1996). In Jammu region 76.04 per cent poling was registered (compared to 54.42 per cent in 2002 and 61.46 per cent in 1996) in Bhaderwah assembly constituency and the seat was won by Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad who defeated his BJP rival Dhantar Singh by 58,015 votes. Bhaderwah witnessed the highest polling percentage of followed by Rafiabad, Pattan and Sangrama.

In the by-elections for three other seats in north Kashmir, the People's Democratic Party (PDP), an ally of the ruling Congress, won Rafiabad but lost Pattan to the National Conference (NC) and Sangrama to an Independent candidate. In Pattan, Mustafa Kamal of the NC defeated the PDP's Moulvi Iftikhar Ansari by a margin of 2,771 votes. Mr. Kamal is the younger brother of the former Chief Minister, Farooq Abdullah. Dillawar Mir of the PDP retained his Rafiabad seat, defeating the NC's Mohammad Maqbool Mir by 8,659 votes. Independent candidate Shoaib Lone wrested the Sangrama seat from the PDP, defeating its Javed Baig by a margin of 6,318 votes. Mr. Javed Baig is a nephew of Deputy Chief Minister Muzaffar Hussain Baig. Mr. Lone, son of the slain PDP leader and former Minister, Ghulam Nabi Lone, was backed by the party rebel and former Minister, G.H. Mir. The NC did not field any candidate against him.

Terror Beaten by Numbers
The Kashmir by-polls of 24 April were significant as they were held in the backdrop of the ongoing composite dialogue between India and Pakistan which have led to greater linkages and interaction between the two parts of divided Kashmir. The popular mood in Kashmir is in favour of peace and normalcy in the state. Ever since the successful assembly elections of October 2002, support for bullet has been replaced by a popular mandate for ballot and development. Militant outfits and separatist groups such as the Hurriyat Conference are in a state of confusion whether to pursue the path of dialogue or continue to promote militancy. The Hurriyat Conference, which had boycotted the first roundtable conference organised by the Prime Minister's Office, appears to have realised that it stands marginalised in the current political situation in the state. Reports indicate that the Hurriyat Conference is now reportedly planning to participate in the second roundtable conference to be held in Srinagar in May 2006. The desperation of militant outfits was once again visible when suspected Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) militants killed 35 Hindus during 30 April - 1 May in the two mountainous districts of Doda and Udhampur. The targetting of the minority Hindu community clearly indicated that the turnout in the by-elections had alarmed the militant outfits and their cross-border patrons. Observers say that while the violence levels in Kashmir may not come down, the pressure is clearly on the separatist and militant outfits to respond to the popular sentiment which has been indicated by the huge turnout in the by-elections.