October 14, 2002



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The Election Special/Basharat Peer
JK Election

Election 2002

The euphoria is over, the celebrations have stopped, and an air of expectation hangs over Jammu & Kashmir.

The question on everyone's mind is: Who will be the next chief minister? Will it be People's Democratic Party chief Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, considered the frontrunner? Or will it be Ghulam Nabi Azad, state Congress chief, who is being hailed for his party's amazing performance?

Talks are on between the two parties and a decision is expected anytime soon. Yet, selecting the next chief minister appears to be the easy part. The bigger questions remain: Will the new leadership deliver? Will the promises of the PDP and the Congress be fulfilled? Will violence come to an end? Or are the people fated to suffer another indifferent government?

What is clear is that Kashmiris are no longer willing to let their rulers take them for granted. It was this feeling that led to the rout of the oldest and hitherto strongest political party, the National Conference. It was the common man's anger that destroyed the National Conference, not the strength of the PDP or the Congress.

"I was an NC supporter in my youth, but things have changed," said Abdul Majid, a fruit vendor in the Zadibal locality of Srinagar. "The NC took the people for granted and power went to their heads. They simply believed that the Kashmiris did not have a choice and the NC would always rule."

But the people have proved that Kashmir is nobody's fiefdom, he added. "Let us see now what the new government does."

The celebrations had not yet stopped at the Mufti's house when voters turned up to remind him of his promises. Mushtaq Ahmad, 28, an unemployed youth from Pahalgam, south Kashmir, travelled some 100km to see the PDP chieftain.

He was there to congratulate PDP vice-president Mehbooba Mufti, who won from Pahalgam, after people like Mushtaq voted for her. Sitting along with other youngsters from his hometown, he said, "We voted for her and now the PDP is about be a partner in the government. I am here to remind her of her promise to get us jobs." A science graduate, he has been jobless for four years.

For others, a new government means getting relief from the state police's counter-insurgent Special Task Force, which has been charged with human rights violations.

The PDP has promised time and again that it would disband the infamous counter-insurgency wing of the state police. It has also spoken of withdrawing the controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act, which gives the security forces much leeway to arrest suspected terrorists and their supporters.

"They promised to remove POTA and control the excesses by security and police forces," said Mohammed Iqbal, a youth from Kishtwar town in Doda district. "They talked about investigating various cases of disappearances and custodial killings too. We are looking forward to it."

Such sentiments pose a huge challenge to the new rulers for these are difficult promises to keep in Jammu & Kashmir, where both the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and the Disturbed Areas Act are in place. While POTA might be scrapped, given that even the Congress is against it, a change in government might not affect the way many security forces carry out their work.

"The security scenario is handled by the unified command, where the chief minister just makes an appearance. How the security agencies work is not and will not be decided by state politicians. Not much will change," warned Professor Showket Hussain, who teaches law at the University of Kashmir, Srinagar.

The state police has already expressed reservations against any move to disband the Special Operations Group and the STF. Some officers privately say that even disbanding the STF and the SOG would not change much at the ground level. "The idea behind creating these two special units was to make the police operational in fighting militancy," one senior officer said. "That purpose has been achieved to some extent. Now, even if the new government disbands these wings, we can have the same people in our regular police stations, but allow them to do the same work."

Despite the change in government, many remain cynical. "What will the Mufti or Azad do? Both have to work under the central government like Farooq did. They might have different approaches, but not much will change," said Shabir Ahmad, a taxi driver. "Kashmiris are like rats in a laboratory. First they tried the Farooq injection and it failed. Now they are trying the Mufti injection. That will fail too."

The new legislators, however, are confident that the Union government will listen to the state government. Qazi Afzal, who defeated National Conference president Omar Abdullah, clamed, "We have reason to believe that the central government too wants to help us on certain issues. So things might happen."

Some observers agree that the Centre might grant concessions to the new government to give the people a feeling of change. "It might take up some cosmetic measures like releasing some political prisoners," averred Prof Hussain. But he warned that unless serious steps were taken to initiate a process to resolve the Kashmir issue, the volatile situation was unlikely to change.

The militant groups, not surprisingly, are ridiculing the electoral process and, according to police sources, reminding their cadres of "their task". The largest militant group in the valley, the Hizbul Mujahideen, has, in a statement that was made available to the media, said, "After using Farooq as a tissue paper, the central government has shifted to another tissue paper. The change of government should not distract the mujahideen, who have a task cut out for them." The statement also pooh-poohed the claims of change made by the politicians.

The lurking fear in the Kashmir valley is that things might turn worse if the new government disappoints the people. That danger lurked in the words of some of the youths present at the Mufti's house. They said they had voted for the PDP and wanted jobs and a scenario where they could walk without fear of being arrested or harassed. Failed aspirations, as many politicians know, can be dangerous.

"If they too do not do anything for us, then the only choice may be the gun," said Mushtaq Ahmad grimly.

Image: Rahil Shaikh

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