By Karan Thapar
Are we “on the brink of losing Kashmir”, as former home minister P. Chidambaram has claimed? Or is that disturbing statement an exaggeration? There is, of course, a third possibility. Was Mr. Chidambaram deliberately using provocative rhetoric to draw attention to the crisis in Kashmir?
The facts are not conclusive but they are suggestive. Let me recount them but leave you to come to your own conclusion. I will, of course, at the end share mine.
Let’s start with the by-election in Srinagar. There is no need to go back to the summer of 2016 and the killing of Burhan Wani. I’ll take that as given. On the original day of voting the turnout was just 7.14 per cent. When re-polling was done it collapsed to 2 per cent. But beyond the percentages the details are more shocking. Of a total of 35,619 voters only 709 actually voted when re-polling was held. In fact, no voting took place in 27 out of 38 booths.
Not surprisingly, this led the Election Commission to postpone the Anatnag by-poll but many questioned why it did not postpone the Srinagar by-election as well? After all, that was the advice of the Home Ministry in Delhi and the desperate plea of all political parties in Srinagar.
Two questions now confront us. First, with a turnout of just 7.14 per cent can the Srinagar winner really claim to represent the constituency? Can Farooq Abdullah claim to have a popular mandate when 93 per cent didn’t vote?
In fact, there’s a deeper question that must necessarily follow. In the past, when elections in the Valley have recorded impressive turnouts, the Indian state has claimed Kashmiris are embracing India and the situation is close to normal. Now, by that same logic, with a turnout of just 7.14 per cent isn’t this a clear vote of no confidence in governments both in Srinagar and Delhi?
The second awkward question concerns Anantnag. What assurance do we have the situation on the 25th of May will be more conducive for peaceful polling than it was earlier this month? And if it’s not will the Anantnag by-poll be postponed further?
The turmoil that’s overtaken the Valley’s schools and colleges in the last week, forcing the administration to shut them down, is a disturbing omen which suggests that a momentum is building and to hope it will as quickly fizzle out is to rely on good luck. But is fortune with us?
Collectively, these are worrying questions for India’s democracy. At their heart lies the apprehension the Valley is losing faith in India’s democracy. But are we ready to accept that?
Now add to this distressing background two further depressing ‘facts’. First, I don’t see a re-assuring response from either Mehbooba Mufti or Narendra Modi. Yet it should have been writ large and clear for all to see. Does that suggest for them the rapidly deteriorating situation isn’t a priority? It certainly feels like that.
The second ‘fact’ is to do with the army. The recent spate of videos is, I’m confident, not representative of the army’s attitude to ordinary Kashmiris but we need to convince the Kashmiri people of that. The controversy they’ve created has highlighted the issue but has it reassured the Valley? I fear the loudest voices may have had the opposite effect.
Five days before Mr. Chidambaram came to his distressing conclusion, Farooq Abdullah told me Kashmir was heading towards “disaster”. Elsewhere, he went further: “There is dictation being done in Delhi to make India a complete Hindu Rashtra … if this policy of division and one religion continues … I see nothing but a dark future.” That suggests as long as Mr. Modi and the BJP government remain in office things will not improve.
Are they right? I honestly don’t know but I’m scared they could be. I may not agree with everything they’ve said but I’m very worried. Are you?