Kashmir elections: Locals can't forget struggle with India, but want a better life

The Hindu nationalist government in New Delhi has brought the first prosecutions of Indian Army misbehavior in Kashmir ahead of local elections that will be finalized Dec. 23. 

Mukesh Gupta/REUTERS
Voters line up to cast their votes as an Indian security officer stands guard outside a polling station during the last phase of the Jammu and Kashmir state assembly elections on the outskirts of Jammu, December 20, 2014. The results of the five-phased polls in Jammu and Kashmir will be announced on December 23.

Kashmiris have lived in tension with Indian soldiers for decades. The Kashmir Valley is called Indian-controlled Kashmir by the overwhelmingly Muslim majority here and most chafe at the detentions and killings of civilians that have rarely been investigated or prosecuted since they began in the 1980s. 

So it came as something of a surprise to the public when Narendra Modi's government last month quickly ordered an inquiry into the deaths of two young men after 128 Army rounds were shot into their car outside Srinigar weeks before. An Army court then found nine Indian soldiers responsible.

For the first time, India appears to be addressing its human rights record in Kashmir. November also brought the first-ever guilty verdicts for Indian soldiers. Five soldiers were found guilty of killing three men in northern Kashmir in 2010, murders that caused mass public protests in Kashmir at the time that led to the deaths of 120 more people at the hands of Indian soldiers.

The new Indian Army attitude also coincides with the first effort by the Hindu nationalist BJP party to actually vie for and win elections in Jammu and Kashmir – the vote has taken place over several weeks and ends Dec. 23 -- and so Kashmiris are viewing the sudden new attitude for swift justice by New Delhi in the valley mainly in a political framework.  

The Kashmir Valley is 97 percent Muslim - making it an unlikely spot for BJP success. At an election rally Dec. 8 in Srinigar by Prime Minister Narendra Modi – itself a rare event – Mr. Modi pointed out that the Army verdict was the first time in 30 years the India had admitted to such a mistake. “This is a wonder of the Modi government,” he told well-searched members of an audience in a downtown cricket stadium. “This is the proof of my good intentions before you.”

One key question in the run up to the Dec. 23 election outcome announcement is whether Kashmiris will begin to abandon years of struggle and sacrifice for their cause in order to achieve better conditions within India.

Surrounded by snow-capped mountains, the valley of Kashmir continues to be a disputed region between the nuclear-armed powers of India and Pakistan. The two nations have fought three wars over Kashmir, and since the late 1980s the valley has been the scene of an ongoing insurgency that became somewhat of a side-show in the western media after 9/11 and the war in nearby Afghanistan.

Along with a toll of 70,000 killed over the years, another 8,000 Kashmiris have been “disappeared” according to the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons here, a mostly female group led by a housewife, Parveena Ahangar, whose 17-year old son was picked up by Indian forces in 1991 and hasn't been heard from since.

Many families in the valley like Ms. Ahangar’s are not forgetting years of torture, rape and bullying, but at the same time voters here hope that elections will help to bring an outcome that will restore Kashmir’s poor economic situation and lack of development. 

Ordinary voters ahead of elections often tell reporters they will vote for the political candidates and platforms that have the best programs for local issues like improved electricity, water, and opportunity – while not forgetting the past.

One prominent activist, Khurran Parvez of the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, says the two recent decisions by the Army courts are pre-election tactics by Modi. The Coalition recently named more than 500 Indian soldiers it accuses of unexamined human rights violations in a report titled “Alleged Perpetrators.”

“It is too early to say those soldiers [put under the law] will be punished for their crimes,” Mr. Parvez points out, noting also that the nine soldiers accused of gross violations can still be pardoned by the Indian Army commander stationed in the valley. “If India prosecutes its forces, I don’t think soldiers will think of killing anyone again,” he says, but adds that such prosecutions are also likely to dampen Army morale and recruiting. Over the years, Indian security forces in the valley are estimated to have shifted between 250,000 up to 500,000. 

The voter turnout in Jammu and Kashmir so far has been 65 percent, a nearly five percent increase from the last poll. But some Kashmiris will continue to boycott the vote in protest. The pro-freedom leadership in Kashmir, as the long standing local and unofficial opposition is known, has urged people to boycott the election, despite the arrest of hundreds of their advocates and workers. The opposition doesn't participate in government activity. 

On Dec. 2 at the village of Kunan-Poshpora, a cluster of houses on a paved road, the local school became a polling station. Outside is a group of women party to what is a yet unresolved mass rape case dating to the 1990s where Indian forces are accused. A number of rape survivors wave black flags at voters and one, Saja Begum, who retains a visible scar from the event, says some local women won’t vote. “Our village has not boycotted [the election] but 40 of us will not vote.” 

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