As autumn set in, assembly elections were unexpectedly announced. There was no poll campaign but when Kashmir began voting last Monday, enthusiasm for polls took everyone by surprise. Thousands of people lined up outside the polling booths to vote.
These are the three stark images of Kashmir in 2008 and they track the change in Kashmirs political climate. There is an element of deception in each image. Each frame reveals only a selective truth.
For the past few years Kashmir had been witnessing a relative calm. There has been no suicide attack in Srinagar city since October 4, 2006. There was a major shift in the then Pakistan President Musharrafs Kashmir policy and for the first time, Pakistan had started discouraging militancy. The changed circumstances in a post-9/11 world were finally affecting the ground reality in Kashmir.
The attack on the twin towers in New York City in 2001 had completed blurred the line dividing armed political struggles and terrorism. Pakistan couldnt continue with its traditional foreign policy in the changed context. But Pakistans new Kashmir policy had serious implications on the very dynamics of separatist politics. For the first time since the emergence of militancy in 1990, the Pakistani establishment sidelined Hurriyat hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani and the moderate Mirwaiz Umar Farooq became a consensus Kashmiri separatist leader for India and Pakistan.
This coincided with a frontal attack on militant outfits, especially the Hizbul Mujahideen by J&K police, who were using their new-found phone interception technology to penetrate deep inside the militant ranks. At the beginning of 2008, militant groups were in total disarray.
The script of the new peace, however, seems to have been misread by New Delhi. The Centres dialogue process with Hurriyat moderates was abandoned and both government and the think tanks started talking about the irrelevance of the separatists in a relatively peaceful Kashmir.
When the mainstream political parties began their campaign for assembly polls, the overwhelming public participation in their rallies further strengthened the official complacency. As it turned out, the spring of peace in Kashmir was deceptive and it withered as soon the Amarnath land row surfaced. The government didnt know how to confront the new reality of unarmed protest; curfews and other restrictions were imposed to limit peoples movement. This was followed by a renewal of the call for dialogue with the Hurriyat by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, which was immediately rejected by the separatists who had flocked around Geelani. The sudden separatist groundswell came as a surprise to the Hurriyat as well.
The peaceful protests had begun a transition of Kashmirs separatist movement from violence to non-violence. But the separatists - divided by warring egos and ideological contradictionscould not channel the new energy generated by these protests into a vibrant and peaceful political movement.
The governments reaction too did not acknowledge Kashmirs transition from guns to slogans. After the initial security disasters in which dozens of protestors were killed in police firing, Governor NN Vohras administration decided to impose a strict curfew primarily to prevent civilian killings. Mainstream political activity was suspended and the entire focus of government was to bail itself out of the immediate crisis. In the absence of a serious political initiative, the government decided to go for polls.
Every mainstream political party in Kashmir opposed the timing of the polls, citing the ground situation and the weather as major hurdles. Though all the mainstream parties jumped into the fray, the initial campaigning for the polls was sparse. In fact, political parties were not confident of the peoples participation. The separatists had raised their boycott pitch with a lot of confidence, thinking that they would easily translate the recent anger that had spilled onto the streets into anti-poll sentiment.
Everyone was proved wrong as soon as the polling booths opened for voting last Monday morning. Men and women coming out of the polling booths insisted that these elections have nothing to do with the peoples demand for a dignified resolution of Kashmir dispute but were about bijli, paani, and sadak alone.
All the settled methods of predicting the political climate have failed in Kashmir. As Kashmirs longest ever election moves forward, it is not yet known how Kashmir will react to next spring. But this unpredictable moment has provided both the government and the separatist leadership an opportunity to start afresh.