Monday, September 22, 2008

Polls Uncertain With Jammu Divided From Kashmir

By Athar Parvaiz Bhat | Inter-Press Service News


SRINAGAR, Sep 21 (IPS) - Plans by the central government to conduct elections in Jammu and Kashmir, due originally in November, remain uncertain because of the serious regional and religious differences that have cropped up between the two main regions that make up the composite territory.

Relations between Hindu-majority Jammu and the Muslim-dominated Kashmir valley have been souring since May over a move to transfer forest land to a board that manages a popular, annual pilgrimage to the Hindu cave shrine of Amarnath, deep in the Kashmir Himalayas.

Agitations over the controversial move resulted in the regional People’s Democratic Party (PDP) withdrawing support to the coalition government led by chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad of the Congress party and the state being placed under direct central rule on Jul. 7.

And now, the federal government, the election commission, political parties and civil society leaders are unable to agree on when to schedule elections for a new state assembly.

“I don’t think holding elections would be a good thing to do at a time when the state is passing through a difficult situation. The entire state is on edge due to the communal and regional tension. I reckon that it will cause the situation to deteriorate further,” Balraj Puri, a noted expert on the Kashmir conflict who is based in Jammu, told IPS.

“Let the situation calm down. I think an internal dialogue between the two regions should be started on a priority basis to bring about a rapprochement,” said Puri who favours autonomy for the different regions of the state.

Prof. Rekha Choudhary, who teaches political science at Jammu University, believes that by planning to hold elections the central government appeared to be insensitive to the serious regional polarisation that has occurred. ”I think holding elections in the state in the current circumstances would be a huge risk. We have never seen the kind of hostilities between the regions of the state like what exists today,” she said.

Choudhary said the central government seems to be driven by the belief that holding elections would help bridge the gap between the Jammu and Kashmir regions. “In Kashmir pro-freedom groups that have appealed for a total boycott of the elections are going to gain in popularity by capitalising on the popular mood of hostility against India. And in Jammu, the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which favoured the land transfer to the Hindu shrine board, is going to benefit,’’ she said.

India’s Kashmir state is a classic example of linguistic and ethno-religious diversity and comprises the three distinct regions of Kashmir, Jammu and Ladakh. Together, these regions are known to the world as Indian Administered Kashmir.

About 55 percent of the state’s total population of 10 million is settled in the alpine Kashmir region, traditionally the seat of power. While 98 percent of the people who live in Kashmir are Muslim, Jammu’s population is 60 percent Hindu. Ladakh accounts for two percent of the total population.

About a third of the area of the former princely state Jammu and Kashmir is under the administration of Pakistan.

In 1989, people in Muslim-dominated Kashmir began an armed struggle in favour of freedom from India and this spilled over into the Muslim areas of Jammu.

Political analysts say the mistrust between the Jammu and Kashmir regions has been brewing for a long time. The people and leaders of these regions have been competing for central developmental funds and prized positions in administration.

“The government of India never tried to evolve a mechanism to hold all the regions together in order to give them a feeling of belongingness. It never had a focused policy regarding Kashmir and was keen on installing puppet regimes in the state which would serve its own interests,” observes Gul Mohammad Wani who teaches political science at Kashmir University.

“Jammu region is demanding a greater share in power which, according to them, has always remained centred in Kashmir. On the contrary, people in the Kashmir region are demanding complete freedom from India,” Wani said.

Observers say that if the elections are not held by November, they will have to be postponed till April given the harsh winter in Kashmir and Ladakh. Out of a total of 87 assembly constituencies, a majority of them, 50, fall in Kashmir.

Most political parties prefer to delay polls till next year. The exception remains the pro-Hindu BJP which may benefit from the communal divisions, especially in Jammu.

“We suggest that congenial conditions be created for holding elections before announcing election dates,” says Omar Abdullah, president of the pro-India National Conference party. His viewpoint is shared by Mehbooba Mufti, leader of the PDP which also favours Kashmir remaining a part of India.

At least 42 people died during the agitations against the land transfer with the movement quickly morphing into revival of calls for freedom from Indian rule — not heard for the last five years.

Suspicions between the two regions worsened after traders in the Kashmir region announced snapping of relations with their Jammu counterparts in reaction to what they called “economic blockade” of their region by the people of Jammu during the agitation.

Kashmir receives essential supplies and exports its produce to markets in India solely through the 300 km-long Jammu-Srinagar highway.

“How can we think of maintaining trade ties with the traders from Jammu when they were party to the recent economic blockade of Kashmir by the people of Jammu,” says president of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries (KCCI) Mubeen Shah. “The wounds, inflicted by the economic blockade of Kashmir, will take a lot of time to heal up’’

According to economists, boycotting trade with Jammu would mean immense loss to traders on both sides.

“Kashmir’s total trade is estimated at Rs 520 billion (11.3 billion US dollars) per annum out of which the yearly trade exchange between the Kashmir and Jammu regions is Rs 270 billion (six billion dollars),” says Prof. Nissar Ali who teaches economics at Kashmir University.

Traders in Kashmir have now intensified their demand for reopening the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road, which connects Indian Kashmir with the Pakistan administered part.

Before Pakistan and India grabbed control of parts of Jammu and Kashmir in 1947, the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road served as the main link between Kashmir and the markets of Rawalpindi in Pakistan and beyond.

On Aug. 11, thousands of Kashmiri traders and common people took out a symbolic march towards Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan administered Kashmir, to assert this demand. At least five people were killed and many others injured when police, stopped the march by opening fire some 20 km ahead of the Line of Control, the de-facto border between the Indian and Pakistani parts of Kashmir.

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