The Kashmir conflict has dragged on so long that it has consumed an entire generation and brought two nuclear powers – India and Pakistan – to the brink of war. Frustration and anger have become all too normal in a place that Mahatma Gandhi once called the hope of India.
Now after two decades of violence and more than 50,000 deaths, Kashmir is at a political and strategic crossroads. Amid an elusive peace and almost daily gun-battles, people are now flocking to the polls despite pressure by militants to boycott local elections whose results will be announced Tuesday.
A change of government is all but certain, and it will come amid changes of attitude in the Kashmir valley where many people are considering whether they have any real choice but to reconcile with India.
What remains unclear is who will form the new government and under what terms – and whether the ruling Hindu nationalist BJP party in New Delhi will make decisive inroads.
For Indians, the elections are playing as a great show of democracy. Prime Minister Modi’s Hindu BJP party is keen to seek gains in a place where it has never been a serious player. Mr. Modi, who swept to power in the general Indian elections in May, is running a lavish campaign and traveled to Srinigar to speak and hold out a promise of peace and jobs. He has for the first time questioned the behavior of the Indian Army – which many foreign journalists over the years have described as a virtual occupation, with more than 300,000 troops in a valley that is 97 percent Muslim.
“I have come to give you justice,” Modi told audiences during rallies.
Modi may know that the nationalist BJP is far from popular in Kashmir. But he is making a bold attempt to bring Kashmir closer to the Indian political mainstream by presenting the valley as key to his vision of a strong India.
Yet despite a huge campaign, Modi may come up short. He needs 44 seats to form a government in the 87 member Jammu and Kashmir Assembly. But he may only get half that. Meanwhile, the BJP efforts now appear to be quite polarizing in the political climate.
Role of elections in conflict
Kashmir – which Pakistan claims was stolen by India as the British departed – also remains at the heart of the dispute on the subcontinent. Pakistani officials say the current Kashmir elections are a farce and reiterate that Kashmiris should be able to choose between India and Pakistan.
That dynamic is another reason Kashmir remains at a crossroads. Kashmiris have no love left for Pakistan. But they don’t like India either. To most Kashmiris, India is still a foreign country. So strong was their nationalism at the time of India's independence in 1947 that a special amendment exists in the Indian Constitution to protect Kashmiri rights, including the right to have their own constitution and to fly a Kashmiri flag in place of an Indian one.
So the crossroads at the 2014 election is really whether Kashmiri parties expected to win will join with the pro-India ruling party under the incentive of money – or whether Kashmir will remain in the status quo.
Ironically, analysts point out, it was state elections in Kashmir in 1988 that originally sparked the long running conflict. Kashmiris felt the election was rigged by New Delhi and said India was crushing dissent. A bomb went off. Soon a full-blown armed rebellion broke out against India. A freedom and independence movement rose up that began to turn the valley into a place of insurrection.
Today, on the eve of election announcements, the security roadblocks that used to choke Srinagar roads have been cleared. But the presence of the Indian troops is still overwhelming. The region remains tense and highly militarized, even though there are not many more than 300 armed separatists active in Kashmir, which is the Indian government’s own estimate.
Yet India is reluctant to withdraw a controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which allows Indian forces to arrest anyone without a warrant and to enter and search houses and businesses at any time. For over two decades the law has given immunity to Indian soldiers who kill or beat up civilians. The local chief minister, Omar Abdullah, has appealed for the lifting of the Act. The Indian Army, however, is adamantly opposed to this.
The social effects of the long conflict have led to migration, broken families, unemployment, and many invisible scars. A new generation of Kashmiris has grown addicted to drugs, primarily because of the stress and strain of living in a conflict zone with few employment opportunities.
Senior police officials now openly tell reporters that they are worried about the revival of violent anti-Indian sentiment among youths.
Recent floods in Kashmir haven't helped the mood, either. The Indian government failed to reach out to Kashmiris as waters decimated crops and towns for weeks, including the summer capital Srinagar, where waters rose up to the second story of buildings in some places. Official relief efforts were in complete disarray.
Many Kashmiris say they will vote for local, deliverable issues like sanitation, health, water and power. One popular local party likely to win a fair share of votes is the People's Democratic Party, or PDP. The PDP may well be a player in forming a new government. Its leader, Mehbooba Mufti, has been campaigning on a platform of "change," whose reading is open to interpret in many directions -- including a pragmatic link-up with BJP.
"People are participating in this election to write a new script in the state's political history and the trend shows that they are enthusiastically voting for change,” Mufti Sayeed said at a Dec. 15 rally. “Politics based on regionalism, communalism, and division has to end. Our party will be a bridge to realize this objective. We need your support and vote to ensure that Jammu and Kashmir emerges as an island of peace and prosperity."
Officials promise to have election results and possibly the announcement of coalitions by the end of the day Dec. 23.