The unionists in Kashmir, ditched by New Delhi and despised by people, had an important decision to make: either to fight the election or boycott. Kashmir’s oldest political party, the National Conference (NC) took the lead and demanded New Delhi a clarification on its stand on Jammu and Kashmir’s limited autonomy; its political rival, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) claimed that the security situation was not conducive for polls.
Both boycotted the polls. Communist Party of India (Marxist) followed the trail.
It was 2018 and the unionists didn’t participate in the first electoral exercise, the Panchayat election after the state government had fallen in June that year. 2018’s political winter extended for months to come. And a lot — if not everything — changed.
In August 2019, at the behest of the Government of India, all prominent unionists, including three former chief ministers, and their workers were imprisoned for several months as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) moved to revoke articles 370 and 35A.
Now, one-and-a-half-year later, the unionists again face an unprecedented situation. The traditional foes have united under one banner, People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD), to collectively oppose “the enemy”, the BJP, in the first democratic exercise to elect a newly introduced third-layer of governance, the District Development Council (DDC).
It isn’t easy for the Alliance; neither coming out of the perpetual state of to be or not to be nor the road ahead. The Kashmir Walla spoke with several unionists, candidates on the ground, and observers to analyze if the DDC poll restricts the political ambitions in Kashmir to issues of water and repairing drains or is this actually the fight for the existence of unionists.
After silence for two years, on 19 November this year, Najmu Saqib, the PDP spokesperson, was back on ground asking people to vote. “The ground isn’t exuberant but lukewarm” in north Kashmir’s Sopore. But the leader of the PDP isn’t on his usual business. He was representing the PAGD and their ideas.
First ideated on 4 August 2019, the PAGD is a political amalgam of seven unionist parties: NC, PDP, People’s Conference (PC) , CPI (M), CPI, People’s Movement, and Awami National Conference. With Farooq Abdullah chosen as the premier, in October this year, and Mehbooba Mufti as vice-president, the PAGD have unitedly fielded candidates for the DDC polls.
The Alliance agreed to fight the election despite scathing initial stances by Mufti and Abdullahs — who on a point or another said they have no interests in elections. That is because Saqib said after “careful deliberation and critical thought”, the leadership understood that “the power that BJP derives from elections is the power they use against the people of Kashmir”.
In a day, he went around seventeen meetings in a day across multiple DDC constituencies and fielded a straight-up question: “Do you believe in the slogan of Naya Kashmir by BJP?”
He believes that if the people, “who have been suffering from economic instability, distrust, and depossessment”, want their rights back then “the PAGD is an option”.
“This election is a referendum,” he exclaimed, “and there will be nothing without us, about us.” That is what Justice Hasnain Masoodi, a senior leader of the NC agrees upon.
To him, the Alliance’s agenda has evolved over the past one year: “Initially, we made a request to Government of India to not tinker with the special status, please, please; any assault to it will be considered an attack on people of J-K; we declared to unitedly fight for protection of special status — and now its restoration.”
Even the DDC polls are imposed upon us, said Justice Masoodi. “Local parties weren’t brought to table,” he said, “it is another unilateral imposition.” But amid the rhetoric of restoration of the limited-autonomy — that the BJP has called “impossible” — fighting the DDC polls on New Delhi’s notice is still viable to the Alliance.
“We see it as an occasion for us to fight for people’s aspirations in a democratic way,” he said. “It is not only about this generation but for the generations to come. We want to use every opportunity, democratic and judicial, to fight for our commitment.”
The BJP has heated up its politics too. The party has brought in its Muslim faces, including Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, and other star campaigners to J-K. And Union Home Minister, Amit Shah, is pushing their narrative from New Delhi. Last week, he targeted the Alliance by calling them a “gang” who “want foreign forces to intervene”. And he also did what the BJP is really good at: forcing the Congress to soften its stance.
“The Gupkar Gang also insults India’s Tricolour,” said Shah. “Do Sonia Ji and Rahul Ji support such moves of the Gupkar Gang?” The Congress backed out soon after. The party said that “the issue was whether we should join hands to fight the local elections and therefore there was partial engagement with them, but … there has been a serious discussion about the ideological implications of that declaration”.
The clouds are clearing as the Alliance and the BJP take their positions. “The DDC election will send a clear and loud message that the people of J-K are now part of dignity, development, rights,” said Naqvi, the BJP leader, “and all this will be fulfilled by BJP.”
As Saqib, the PDP leader goes around the villages and meets people, a sense of uncertainness among the Alliance is visible. Both sections claim they have check-matted their opponents by their political moves — but the truth remains that local politics in Kashmir has always been reactionary. And that continues.
Where does DDC fit in layered governance?
The DDC will be essentially replacing the District Planning and Development Board by elected members. With a term of five years, in every district, rural areas have been delimited to flesh out fourteen constituencies. On the district level, the elected members will subsequently elect a chairperson and vice-chairperson. In eight phases, 280 seats will go for polls this winter, starting from 28 November.
The elected councils will oversee the functions of the Halqa Panchayats and the Block Development Councils in tandem with the line departments of the Union Territory.
They will manage the District Planning Committee, which will also include Members of Parliament representing the area, Members of the State Legislature representing the areas within the District, chairperson of the District Development Council of the District, chairpersons of the town area committees/municipal committees of the district; president of the municipal council/municipal corporation, if any; the district development commissioner; additional district development commissioner, among others. The MP will function as the chairperson of this committee.
Adding a new layer of governance, established by amending the Jammu and Kashmir Panchayati Raj Act, 1989, New Delhi has also forced the unionists’s linear line of leadership to paste more candidates on their posters.
“Introduction of the DDC, in a system of self-governance, is an important layer because in terms of budgeting and planning for a district,” said Noor Mohammad Baba, a political analyst and former head of the Political Science department at the University of Kashmir. “But when we have democracy almost suspended and you initiate there, it is very suspicious to me.”
And initially, nobody seemed to be jolly about it in the Alliance. PDP leader Naeem Akhtar, for instance, told a newspaper that the move is “aimed at depoliticisation by cutting up the UT into district assemblies”, and to reduce Kashmiri political aspiration to the solving of district-level water-electricity-road problems”.
The move is clearly to undermine the role of elected leaders in politics, barring them to water drain issues,” added Baba. “It would be a welcomed move … if it had been a part of a larger democratic process, under the supervision of an elected leader. But in the current situation, it undermines the role of the state government in their absence.”
In fact, the BJP has been wanting to devolve the power dynamic in Kashmir. In November 2019, the BJP’s J-K head, Ravinder Raina boasted about it in a party event in Srinagar.
“We have wiped off all earlier rulers,” he had said. “Tomorrow, a young Kashmiri brother or sister of ours will sit on the chair and Farooq Sahab would kneel down… it is time for the new leadership in Kashmir.”
So, the BJP, who has batted for the implementation of three-tier governance system for a long, strongly disagrees with the Alliance’s narrative of the DDC. Sunil Sethi, J-K BJP Chief spokesperson, believes that though it is good for democracy that everybody fights elections, the Alliance is out on streets “due to fear”.
“Whatever crimes have been committed by them are being investigated and they are being prosecuted for that,” he said. “They understand that if they are closer to power, it would be difficult to prosecute them.”
The power of a chairman of the DDC is equal to the power of a minister, on a district level, said Sethi. “[Acquiring] power there gives the Alliance a sense that they will be in a position to bargain — but India will never do that.”
Nonetheless, the Alliance’s leaders are playing their cards gradually. Mufti, the premier of the PDP, recently visited Pahalgam after the government has evicted nomads of their “illegal occupation of land”. The nomad eviction is becoming a major poll issue for the Alliance, who say it is a part of “the August decision”, where the government is bringing laws “only to vacate the permanent residents from here and settle outsiders.”
“Tell me who are outsiders?” asked Sethi, in anguish. “Are people of India outsiders? As a citizen of India, either UP-ite, Biharis, or a Kerelaite, anyone can settle in Kashmir; why should not he?”
The J-K BJP’s chief spokesperson further told The Kashmir Walla that the Alliance is against his party’s ideology of “wanting strong nationalistic values in Jammu and Kashmir”.
“We don’t want a scoop of sub-nationality within a nation,” he added. “We aren’t stopping Muslims from coming to Kashmir, then where is the demographic change. These ideas are not permissible.”
The rift and ground situation
In south Kashmir’s Shopian, 42-year-old Raja Waheed is upbeat. Interested in politics since his student days, he has been walking under the PDP leadership for a decade. This year, he resigned from his government job as a teacher to fight the DDC.
The sudden addition of a new layer of governance has given Waheed a chance to represent his ideas in an election, he said. “If it had been the Assembly [election], I would not be the priority. I got a chance, I’m the second line of leadership in the PDP now.”
To him, and his people, he said, the election is “very important”. “Since that August, there is suffocation among people,” he said. “Now we have a chance to express our thoughts and channel our anger through democratic ways.”
However, he said, he understands the larger fight. “Who would be happy if an elected leader’s powers are devolved?” he asked. “The DDC gives me a chance but at the cost of our identity.”
While he walks with the PDP leadership, swearing to the Alliance, many others refuse to. Before the Alliance can find its ground, there are reports of rift and rebel at the foundation. The primary view suggests that the parties have fielded proxies, a reference to fielding a candidate of their own on an independent ticket. However, officially, the Alliance speaks otherwise.
Saqib, the PDP leader, said that his party welcomed these leaders fighting against the Alliance on several seats as it “is mushrooming democracy”. “But there are people of cadre level who have certain aspirations, and ambitions, to become something in life,” he spoke of ground-level leaders in his party, fighting against the Alliance, “some simply get swayed.”
“We will certainly sort it out,” he added. To this, Justice Masoodi, said, “Leaders have understood that the Alliance is more important than their differences.” Right now, the Alliance need not divide on difficulties, he said. “There is no rift and whatever there is on the ground level, we will look.”
After these parties had boycotted the panchayat elections, the BJP walked over them significantly. The Hindu-nationalist party that has never won a seat in Assembly from the Valley is gaining roots from the ground level of governance. Though the Alliance’s decision to take part in the election plays to New Delhi’s narrative of democratic space in Kashmir, they fight a difficult battle to tackle people’s allegations of hypocrisy.
The BJP’s Sethi argued that the Alliance’s “lust for power made them contest”. While the PDP spokesperson, Saqib concluded: “If Kashmiris shy away from elections now, the BJP again gets a reason for more military control over Kashmir.”