The idea of Right to Vote—or universal adult franchise—are being forced down the throat since childhood in schools; and the battles that people have fought to attain it. From the struggle of Indian National Congress (INC) against Britishers to Malcolm X’s ballot or bullet slogan—to attain equal voting rights for Black Americans—institutions and school of thoughts left no stone unturned to make the idea of voting look more divine and dignified. We were told to believe that this right will place us at par.
The idea and concept look fancy, and I would have flaunted myself as a voter, but as a Kashmiri—living through the volatile decades-long conflict—it is hard to cut off the strings. Being born and raised in a conflict zone, my evolution as a young educated and politically conscious Kashmiri was shaped by the stories around me. And in those stories, elections come across as something inexplicably abhorrent and meaningless—or in transparent terms: A calibrated effort by the occupants to disenfranchise the entire population.
In the times of elections, especially Lok Sabha, where India will be choosing its next central government, and Unionists in Kashmir valley drifting towards the tone of separatism—as a Kashmiri there lies several questions: Should I vote? If yes, then for whom?
But, I have never been a voter for a few specific reasons. I remember elections in my childhood. I remember thronging my local school compound with my horde to watch heavily armed paramilitary forces dressed in olive green and mottled camouflage, building their makeshift bankers to secure the polling booths. As a child, assuming to be neutral and too young to understand the complexities involved in a conflict, I can recall exchanging smiles with the paramilitary forces at the scene. Ignorance is bliss, they say.
Now, when I try to connect the dots from my childhood memories, it punctuates the Indian electoral democracy in Kashmir and explains that only people with vested interests can rationalize such a symbolic and meaningless exercise—called elections in Kashmir.
The civilian uprising in 2010 shaped my understanding of Kashmir conflict. My neighbor next door, similar to my age, 20-year-old Maroof died after a teargas shell hit his head. He tried to jump in Jhelum to save himself but drowned on spot. A huge crowd turned up for his funeral and decided to march to Eidgah Janglat Mandi in Srinagar. The security forces posted at Khanabal opened fire at the crowd carrying Maroof and ended up killing my two more neighbors. The remains of Maroof remained on the road for an hour and the crowd dispersed.
This might seem like a personal story, but more or less it is the resonance of every Kashmiri around the corner. We are all made of tragic stories and while making sense of it, it is also important to remember them.
Since then, not being present in the voting queue is my stand for Maroof—and every other Kashmiri—whose blood was spilled by the Indian forces; championing the idea of Indian democracy in Kashmir.
Making sense of elections in Kashmir:
The value and essence of elections make sense when it adds meaning to the residents of that place. In a place like Kashmir, a proverbial prison with the highest military presence, where draconian laws like the Armed Forces Special Power Act (AFSPA) thrives, but justice doesn’t. Getting frisked becomes a habit, and proving your identity on the roadside—inside your home—and still ending up with your car smashed or house ransack by forces in the fall of the night, to getting stamped to walk on the highways that were meant for us, the idea of Indian democracy rots.
Can the co-existence of unapologetic human rights violation and elections, aiming to provide a government and strengthen the system to ensure the execution of fundamental and constitutional rights, make any sense?
Why India wants elections in Kashmir:
There is another strong dimension, where abstention makes sense. In 2014 assembly elections, following a ‘high-voter turnout’ in Valley, Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, tweeted “Kashmiris have chosen the ballot and rejected the bullets,” while speaking on binary terms, carrying an undertone of hyper-nationalism, sought to nullify the complexities involved when Kashmiris make choices amid chaos and confusion. European Union parliament issued a statement hailing “India’s deeply entrenched democracy in Kashmir and its efforts in holding free and fair elections in Kashmir”.
India never missed an opportunity to milk the elections in Kashmir, showcasing valley being all dolled up, misleading the international community, as the diluted stance of Kashmiris.
This is enough to say how “democratic elections” in Kashmir are premised on deceit and falsehood, which essentially seeks to disenfranchise Kashmiris, wielding it as a weapon against us rather than empowering us. So, the textbook idea of elections and the right to vote dies there.
I remember hearing news of the killing of 9 people by Indian government forces in Budgam during Srinagar parliamentary by-elections on 9 April 2017. In this context, I—as a Kashmiri—believe, abstention from voting becomes a profound act of resistance.