Friday, 30 May 2008

Kashmiri struggle and elections

Kashmiri struggle and elections
Shabir Choudhry

Both elections have their own importance, and both will take place on the due dates; and to achieve the desired results, one election is masterminded by General Musharaf and the other by New Delhi Government. To succeed in his ‘mission’ General Musharaf has made so many changes that the Constitution of 1973 has also changed beyond recognition.

Also General Sahib is occupied with two other fronts namely Afghanistan and Kashmir, and faces fierce opposition because of his U-Turns on these two important matters. But despite opposition on all fronts he is pushing ahead according to his plans, and where he suspects he might lose or even have problems, he changes rules to ensure a win.

But net result of his strategies is more and more opposition from various quarters, alienation and threat to his life; and this threat is taken so seriously that General Sahib is avoiding public appearances. At one time, when he became Chief Executive, he used to go to his office without apparent security, and used to stop at traffic lights and wave at other road users. Now he has got himself into a situation where he can only wave at people from a secure place, and most probably in a front of TV camera.

General Sahib has made enough changes to ensure a win, but what will be its cost to Pakistan and to himself, it is difficult to predict at this stage; but from what he is doing one can safely say that he will not win minds and hearts of the people. He is more interested in holding an ‘election’ and ensuring a ‘win’, satisfaction of political parties and participation of popular leaders is not his concern.

General Sahib would be aware of the fact that India held elections in Kashmir in1987. Those responsible for holding elections ensured a defeat for Muslim United Front. It was widely believed that in fair and free elections the Front would win, and if that had happened it was probable that India could have avoided the present trouble in Kashmir. But policy makers of the time were more interested in winning the elections, and winning of minds and hearts of the people was not their agenda. Unfortunately that has been the policy of India thus far in Kashmir, and apart from India we Kashmiris are also paying very heavy price for this.

As declared aim is to achieve desired results, and to keep certain people out of contest, General Sahib’s win will be a short - lived. In other words he would appear to be a winner, like he was a winner in the referendum, but in actual fact it would be a beginning of an end. And the way this end will come about could have very serious consequences for future of not only Pakistan but also for the entire region.

Similarly elections in Kashmir will also have far reaching consequences. Perhaps it is too late for the General Musharaf Sahib to make any changes to his declared policy and strategy regarding elections; but I believe it is not too late for the Government of India to make necessary changes to get maximum participation, and possibly pave way for resolution of the Kashmir dispute.

Despite pressure from various quarters, the APHC and the Kashmiri leadership is not keen in taking part in elections as planned by the authorities. They believe ‘their participation is betrayal to the blood’ of those who have lost their lives in the cause of freedom. Also they fear that the Indian Government would exploit the situation and tell the world that situation in Kashmir is returning to some kind of ‘normalcy’. Their argument is that their demand was for referendum that the people of Kashmir could determine their future, and not another election.

The Kashmiri leaders have no faith in the political process which the government of India want to pursue. Despite Indian government’s assurances that the elections would be ‘fair and free’, the APHC leadership believes that the election results could be manipulated to reward pro Indian candidates. In any case their contention is that the elections whether fair and free or not, could not substitute a referendum which was promised to the people of Kashmir.

The government of India and their allies argue that APHC leaders, apart from a few, have no credibility in the masses; and main reason for their boycott is fear of losing their seats, even their deposits. The APHC leadership, no doubt, have following, but it is difficult to say how strong is that following.

‘Only way to ascertain the strength of this following is to take part in these elections’, I was told by a British diplomat I met recently. I explained to him that APHC leaders have mass following, and reason for their boycott is because of fear of rigging, and subsequent exploitation by the government of India. His view was that this time government of India would hold ‘fair and free elections’, and those who claim to be leaders of the Kashmiri people have an opportunity to prove their credibility.

‘These leaders have time and again proved their credibility and following’, I said, ‘Whenever they give call for a strike or a boycott people show their support by closing their businesses and completely shutting down the whole system’. He smiled and politely said, ‘Yes, but one could also argue that this is done because of fear of gun culture and possible reprisal from militants’.

He continued and gave example of Sein Fein leaders who always participated in the elections to prove their credibility, and after winning their seats they refused to take their seats in the Parliament. He said the APHC could also do the same, if they win, it would enhance their standing and the Indian Government would have no choice but to hold talks with them.

I explained to him that elections in Kashmir are completely different to what we have in the West, and that history of elections in Kashmir shows systematic rigging. He said, but this time we have ‘firm assurance from the authorities that the elections would be fair and free’; and this is the opportunity to find out who are the real leaders of the Kashmiri people that the government of India could hold talks to resolve the conflict.

There are many in the West who support this point of view. In number of meetings which I had with different European diplomats and political leaders, I found that they support the ‘political process’ in Kashmir; and I failed to persuade them that this process, as has been planned, would not lead to any meaningful dialogue let alone resolution of Kashmir. Elections in Kashmir are only a few weeks away and yet majority of people do not have ID cards which have been made compulsory in order to vote. This situation will also go in favour of pro government candidates as their ‘favourites’ have already been issued with relevant ID cards.

We who are settled in the West had a responsibility to persuade officials of various countries, and counter effectively the Indian point of view, but it looks that the Indian version of events is getting more support; and that I thought was not only my failure but failure of all those who claim to work for Kashmir on the international level. It is also failure of Pakistani Missions abroad, and various Kashmir committees and other officials who frequently travel abroad in name of Kashmir.

In Kashmir many are saying that elections should be postponed that some kind of framework is worked out that APHC and other leaders could get on the board. I have also said in one of my article that a ‘mechanism and package’ must be worked out to ensure maximum participation; and that elections should be to elect peoples representatives who can negotiate with both India and Pakistan. Furthermore I said that a similar elections should be arranged on the other side of the LOC that the Kashmiri people here could also elect their leaders who would negotiate with the authorities.

It appears that the government of India is determined to go ahead with the proposed elections whether popular leaders participate in them or not. In my view this approach is flawed and could prove disappointing and disastrous. The government should create appropriate conditions and work out a mechanism and a package that leaders feel safe and trust the system.

The government of India and their allies have won elections in the past, and all the signs are that they will ‘win’ again, but officials involved in devising the Kashmir policy need to think and think hard: do they want to win another election or they want to win minds and hearts of the people. If the aim is to win elections then their strategy is perfect, but if they want to win minds and hearts of the people and resolve the issue then they have to change their policy.

Writer is a Kashmiri leader based in London and author of many books and booklets on Kashmir.

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