A New Dispute in Kashmir - Washington Post
- A New Dispute in Kashmir
Many Leery of India's Plan for 'Free and Fair'
By John Lancaster
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 28, 2002; Page A18
SRINAGAR, India -- A senior Indian official here
delivered what he thought was a reassuring message on
Kashmir's future: Come state elections this fall,
promised the chief election commissioner, J.M.
Lyngdoh, Indian soldiers will no longer force people
to go to polling places at gunpoint.
Such is the nature of democratic reform in Kashmir,
where the Indian government has long been accused of
rigging elections to thwart Kashmiri leaders who favor
independence -- or unification with Pakistan -- for
the disputed Himalayan region.
As international pressure rises for a resolution of
the Kashmiri issue, which recently sparked fears of a
nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan, Indian
officials have vowed to hold "free and fair" elections
for an 87-seat legislative assembly that is seen by
many Kashmiris as illegitimate and corrupt.
Indian officials say the contest will lay the
groundwork for negotiations with separatist leaders
and Pakistan, which has never recognized India's
absorption of the mostly Muslim state. They also say
it will help end the civil conflict that has killed
tens of thousands of people since 1989.
The only problem is that few people here seem to
believe in elections, at least as defined by India.
"Elections don't matter a lot," said Riyaz Baig, 34,
from behind the counter of his small fabric shop, now
starved for foreign tourists who once paid him
hundreds of dollars for a scarf made of fine pashmina
wool. "We have to see to the root cause."
In Baig's view, and in the view of many other
Kashmiris, India's emphasis on holding elections is
little more than a ploy. India, they say, is trying to
distract attention from the need to begin serious
discussions with Pakistan aimed at settling the status
of Kashmir once and for all.
Many are loath to participate in a process that in
their view helps legitimize Indian rule in Kashmir.
They also recall their bitter experience in the most
recent legislative elections, in 1996, when Indian
soldiers sometimes inspected the forefingers of voting
age men and women, especially in rural areas, to
ensure they had been marked with indelible ink,
indicating they had voted.
Such inspections were known as "fingernail parades."
Those who had failed to vote were ordered to do so,
according to reports by human rights monitors and
Another obstacle is fear. Armed groups have called for
a boycott of the elections, and one of them is thought
to have engineered last month's assassination of Abdul
Ghani Lone, 70, a prominent moderate in the All
Parties Hurriyet Conference, the main Kashmiri
separatist political organization.
A day before he was gunned down at a political rally,
Lone had said that participating in elections was not
"blasphemous," although he stopped short of saying he
would run for office.
To help pave the way for elections, India has jailed
several prominent critics of the idea, including Syed
Ali Shah Geelani, 73, the leader of a hard-line
Hurriyet wing, who is accused of accepting money from
banned militant groups. Indian officials had hoped to
persuade some moderate Hurriyet figures, including
Lone, to field proxy candidates, but that possibility
is fading in the aftermath of Lone's killing.
"Here you see a confrontation between guns and
politics," said Bashir Manzar, editor of Kashmir
Images, one of five English-language newspapers in
Srinagar. "At this moment there is no space for
politics. That is because people are under pressure.
They can't give voice to their feelings because they
fear both sides."
Manzar, whose editorials regularly castigate militants
as well as security forces for their violent ways,
knows whereof he speaks. Late last month, armed men
entered the newspaper's cramped downtown offices and
shot a young reporter in what is presumed to have been
a politically motivated attack. The reporter, Zafar
Iqbal, is out of danger but still cannot speak because
the bullet damaged his vocal cords, Manzar said.
Indian-sponsored elections have their supporters in
Jammu and Kashmir, the Indian state that includes a
significant Hindu minority population. The legislative
assembly is dominated by a Muslim party, the National
Conference, which favors autonomy for Kashmir but
stops short of calling for separation from India.
National Conference Party leaders and some other
politicians say they are encouraged by initial signs
that the Pakistani president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf,
is living up to his pledge to cut off the flow of
Islamic militants into Kashmir. They suggest that a
drop in violence could create political breathing
Nazir Ahmad, the party's general secretary, called on
separatist leaders to put their names forward for the
legislative assembly. "They're welcome," he said. "We
tell them, 'You prove your representative character.'
If people vote for them, let them come in the
That is the argument of Indian officials in New Delhi,
who describe the elections as a critical first step
toward dialogue -- a term they prefer to negotiations
-- with Pakistan and the Kashmiri separatist leaders.
"We can't talk to the Hurriyet because they haven't
proved their representative character," said an
official in India's Interior Ministry. "Now, whoever
comes out of the election process, we will talk with
them. That is why we had asked Hurriyet to participate
in the elections."
Mehbooba Mufti, 42, the daughter of a former Indian
cabinet minister and a prominent Kashmiri Muslim
politician, is among those who are considering the
Indian government's offer. She is openly sympathetic
to "the boys," as the militants are called here, but
thinks "a good election can be a starting point."
Still, Mufti has not announced her candidacy for the
assembly. Given the history of electoral politics in
Kashmir, she said, she doubts that India and the
National Conference are serious about their commitment
to a clean contest.
"Elections have really added to the miseries of the
people," she said. "Let's see if it's free and fair."
Special correspondent Rama Lakshmi contributed to this
© 2002 The Washington Post Company
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