Soon after his swearing-in ceremony on 1 March, when Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed credited Pakistan, the Hurriyat and militants for being instrumental in ensuring a free and fair election, it served as a measure of the yawning gulf that the PDP and the BJP may have bridged to become alliance partners. But was Sayeed reflecting a reality that had some basis in truth? If sources in the Hurriyat are to be believed, this was indeed the case. But the reason for enabling a “conducive atmosphere” for the polls was ironically the “fear of the BJP”, the coalition partner.
“Yes, there was a concern that was shared even by Pakistan that an election boycott could help the BJP gain a foothold in the Valley,” says a leader of the moderate Hurriyat faction, on the condition of anonymity. “There was a view that even if the voting percentage rises by a few points, there is no harm in this, provided it helps keep the BJP out. So, while we did call for the election boycott, we didn’t work to enforce it. In fact, in some parts of the Valley, we connived at the participation.”
In the past, poll boycotts have often been blamed for distorting the electoral outcome by ensuring the victories of unpopular parties or leaders. And with the BJP fancying a chance for itself in some of the Valley’s major constituencies such as Habba Kadal, Sopore, Tral etc, there was an element of panic. Further forcing the hand was the BJP’s explicit agenda of undoing the remaining constitutional safeguards of the state, leading a section of the separatists, egged on by Pakistan, to conclude that boycotting the polls was not in the interest of Kashmir.
However, the only Hurriyat faction that didn’t fall in line was the hardline group led by Syed Ali Shah Geelani — albeit, some of its leaders do acknowledge the gravity of the evolving political challenges and the need for a more effective response. But the government ensured that all its leaders were behind bars during the poll campaign.
The new strategy to encourage participation in the election evolved at a meeting between the separatists and the Pakistan High Commissioner in August. The separatists were told to “go easy on the boycott”.
Ironically, it was also the meeting that became a reason for New Delhi to call off the then scheduled foreign secretary level dialogue with Islamabad.
“There was a fear that a boycott in the Valley could end up being an advantage for the BJP,” says a separatist leader. “It was thought even if the voter participation increases by some percent, it should be no problem.”
The separatist connivance was thus a factor in the record participation in the polls, which were also by and large marked by the absence of the otherwise customary violence in the poll-bound areas.
Though there was a high-profile attack in Uri on 5 December, which resulted in the deaths of 11 securitymen and six militants, the town has never been a boycott constituency even during the peak of militancy in the 1990s. Moreover, the trigger for the attack is traced to the then fierce skirmishes across the Line of Control (LoC) than the poll process.
A sarpanch, Ghulam Muhammad Bhat, was abducted and killed in Sopore on 20 December, but it was after the polling day in the Valley’s militant stronghold.
Besides, the polls were largely free of stone-pelting by the small networked groups of youth across the Valley, a fact that had brought the voter percentage in the region down to 31 percent during the 2014 General Election.
However, the security establishment debunks the theory that Pakistan or Hurriyat “cooperation” was responsible for the successful conduct of the Assembly election.
A J&K Police document reveals the elaborate security arrangement put in place to thwart the separatists’ plan to disrupt the poll process. The effort was primarily geared at combating the stone-pelting, which led to around 5,000 youth being put behind bars. The preparation had begun soon after the General Election, which enabled the security agencies to map “vulnerable polling locations”.
The police embarked on “identifying, profiling and taking legal action against all the offenders involved in stone-pelting”. It also included that in the run-up to the polls “all those separatist elements deputed to various mosques on Fridays by Hurriyat G and other separatist outfits are to be identified and arrested forthwith”.
In addition, it was also decided that the first- and second-rung as well as district- and tehsil-level separatist leadership be rounded up. “We ensured that the overground workers of all the militant outfits, silent or active, be kept under surveillance or in lock-up,” says a senior police officer on the condition of anonymity.
The exercise also involved the “identification of ground-level mainstream political workers who can be targeted by terrorists” and devising an elaborate plan for their security. There was a broad district security plan for them and another one at the police station level. Army units were also drafted into the plan “to make them feel involved in ensuring the security of political workers”.
The security plan ensured not only the arrest of thousands of youths but also that of leading separatists, including second-rung and ground-level activists who were deemed to be “potential trouble-makers”.
However, Sayeed’s motivations for praising Pakistan, the Hurriyat and militants for the successful polls may have sprung more from politics than the facts of the situation.
“It was geared to his constituency in the Valley where the PDP’s alliance with the BJP has not gone down well,” says political analyst Prof Gull Wani. “It was an attempt to demonstrate the PDP’s ideological bonafides. It was also about Mufti’s articulation of his desire for a larger reconciliation in the region, which seeks to egg India and Pakistan on the road to resolve Kashmir.”