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Tread cautiously over the new middle ground in Jammu and Kashmir

Tread cautiously over the new middle ground in Jammu and Kashmir
Aerial view of Rajouri town | Image is representational
Tread cautiously over the new middle ground in Jammu and Kashmir

JAMMU: About ten weeks before she showed up with Amit Shah, in February 2015, for the waiting television cameras to formally announce one of history’s most inconvenient political alliances, Mehbooba Mufti was known for hopping village after village in Kashmir making the following claim: “Kashmiri will rather die than vote for the BJP”.

Her claim was informed by her own interactions with the Kashmiri electorate which mostly veered around fear of BJP coming to power in Jammu and Kashmir while riding on its ‘mission 44+’ statement of ambition and then marching on to annihilate the Kashmiri identity. Solution: Vote entirely one-sided for the PDP, the only party with the potential to stop BJP’s “political assault”. Result: the PDP tally jumped from 21 to 28 seats and the NC dropped from 28 to 15 seats.

Something similar, at a much large scale, was happening in the Tawi basin catchment of the Jammu region. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had less than a year ago sent out the Kashmiriyat, Jamhooriyat message across the tunnel, was now in personal charge of the campaign to stop the alleged Kashmiri political elite from returning to power. “You have to promise me that with the power of your vote, you will call an end to the “baap-bete (Farooq Abdullah and Omar, National Conference) ki sarkar” and “baap-beti (Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and Mehbooba, PDP) ki sarkar”, the Prime Minister said at each of the five rallies he addressed in the region. Result: BJP won 25 of the 37 seats in the Jammu region. The voting pattern was not just one-sided but aggressively over-sided to the extent that at almost all places the BJP rivals lost their security deposits. Never seen such an election ever before in the history of Jammu and Kashmir.

Everyone who won on PDP ticket was a Muslim. With one strange exception, everyone who won on BJP ticket was a Hindu. Elsewhere, everyone who won on Congress ticket was a Muslim and barring two, everyone who won on the NC ticket was a Muslim too.

The religious polarisation under the garb of the region, launched by Indira Gandhi and Farooq Abdullah in 1983 was now complete in 2014. Religion clearly defined political behaviour. But one small region lived up to its decades-old political tradition to defeat all sorts of divisive forces, uphold diversity and secularism.

That is Rajouri and Poonch, the region now being put to use to bring down the alleged Kashmiri elite from high horses of political superiority and to answer all the poll boycotts of last three decades. The Delimitation Commission is a quasi-judicial authority that should not be seen to be doing cartography to mirror the ideological vision of any political party but the result of current exercise is clearly geared to bring already talked about results.

The clubbing of Rajouri and Poonch with South Kashmir to create first-ever trans-Pirpanjal political entity could be a game-changer if people are allowed to engage in political interactions without externally tailored influences. The external influences, whether of the ultranationalist hues or the separatist could spell disaster for the region which has been most peaceful against multiple odds –a long-running Line of Control with the Pakistani side, diverse population, traditional political exclusion, and hilly terrain.

Let’s go back to understanding how Rajouri-Poonch behaved when Kashmir and Jammu were locked in by PDP and BJP in their do-or-die battle. Of the seven seats in the twin districts, where Muslims are in a clear majority, three went to the Peoples Democratic Party, two to Bhartiya Janta Party, one each to National Conference and the Congress -two regional parties, two national parties pocketing their own fair share of support. Among the BJP winners, one was Hindu and the other Muslim. Such a diverse voter response has never been seen anywhere else in Jammu and Kashmir.

2014 was not any exception. In 2008, the twin districts gave three seats to NC, two each to Congress and PDP. BJP was then not a player then. In 2002 and 1996, the National Conference pocketed a majority of five both times but rivals stood a fair chance. In 1987, when the two districts had a total of only six seats, the NC got two seats, Congress three and one went to an Independent. In 1983, the NC and Congress shared three seats each, and in 1977, the Congress won three seats, the NC two and one went to an Independent.

Electoral history of forty years, since 1977 when Jammu and Kashmir began to see independent elections, bears testimony to a competitive political environment in Rajouri and Poonch. The twin districts have always refused to get carried away by the waves of polarization practiced in their neighborhood.

The two districts came under the renewed political spotlight after the PDP-BJP alliance in 2015 as this place became the only scene of interaction between the competitive political narratives. For the BJP to make a march into Kashmir and for the PDP and NC to stay afloat as state-wide political parties it became important to transcend the geographical barriers through Rajouri and Poonch.

As Delimitation Commission clubs Rajouri and Poonch with three districts of south Kashmir to create the first-ever trans-Pirpanjal political unit, the Anantnag-Rajouri Lok Sabha Constituency provides a new experiment which has to be treaded very carefully and cautiously.

While the single Lok Sabha seat spread across both sides of the Pirpanjal mountain region will provide opportunities of political and cultural interactions between Kashmir and Jammu but forcible pumping in of ideas and ideological could prove dangerous not just for this sub-region but the whole state.

The draft proposal of the Commission has evoked mixed reactions. Everyone outside the Rajouri-Poonch region is being seen as critical to the idea but the local residents appear ready to play a middle ground for political and cultural interactions between Jammu and the Kashmir Valley.

THE LOK SABHA SEAT: The Anantnag-Rajouri Lok Sabha seat is spread over the districts of Rajouri, Poonch, Anantnag, Kulgam and Shopian with total population component of 2620539, of which the Scheduled Tribes as 515180, making 19.06% of the total population. The Scheduled Castes make barely 1.45%.

The Anantnag-Rajouri Lok Sabha Constituency is comprised of the following Assembly segments: Zainpura, Damhal Hanji Pora, Kulgam, Devsar, Dooru, Larnoo, Anantnag West, Anantnag, Anantnag East, Pahalgam, Bijbehara, Nowshera, Rajouri, Darhal, Thanna Mandi, Surankote, Poonch and Mendhar.

Sunderbani-Kalakote, a newly created Assembly Constituency in Rajouri district, has been kept out of the Anantnag-Rajouri Lok Sabha seat and instead attached with Jammu Lok Sabha constituency.

The Anantnag-Rajouri Lok Sabha seat accounts for six of the nine Assembly segments reserved for the Scheduled Tribes.


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Tread cautiously over the new middle ground in Jammu and Kashmir

About the author

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Zafar Choudhary

A journalist since 1999, Zafar Choudhary is also a policy analyst and author. An alumni of the London School of Economics, his book ‘Kashmir Conflict and Muslims of Jammu’ addresses a critical gap in scholarship on Kashmir. Zafar is founder and editor of The Dispatch