Despite Kashmiri separatists' calls for a boycott of the Indian run state elections in Jammu and Kashmir this month, preliminary data from the first stage of the seven stage election process shows Kashmiris in many districts have come out to vote in high numbers. The Election Commission said 64 % voter turnout was recorded in ten assembly constituencies Monday: Bandipora 57%, Sonawari 46%, Gurez 74%, Leh 60%, Zanskar 60%, Nobra 66%, Kargil 60%, Poonch Haveli 73%, Mendhar 73% and Surankot 68%. District-wise, Bandipora witnessed 53% and Poonch 71 % turned out1.
Such data seems to conflict with the images of popular protests this past summer where tens of thousands of demonstrators protested against Indian rule and the systematic human rights abuses endured by the Kashmiri population. India has already begun to claim the data as evidence of its high democratic values and its dedication to protecting those values in the disputed territory of Kashmir.
As the world watches the first stage of elections in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir, international opinion seems to suggest that Kashmiris may desire Indian rule. Yet, this is a dangerous conclusion to make. The international community must not mistake Kashmiri participation in the current elections as legitimacy for Indian rule and Kashmiri acceptance of Indian policies in Kashmir. Rather, Kashmiris are voting for stable governance to handle day to day maintenance and needs of the valley, which remain unkempt. Roads need maintenance; trash needs to be picked up; businesses need to be reopened and assisted; and schools need funding.
Indeed some Kashmiris desire Indian rule, and there are the majority that don't, as evidenced by popular discontent expressed last August. Yet the following factors are true in any context: free and fair elections are difficult to achieve in a valley occupied by more than 500,000 Indian military and paramilitary forces, which are also reported to be posted at the gates of polling stations and inside the polling stations. Free and fair elections are difficult to achieve when undeclared curfews are enacted by state security forces. Free and fair elections cannot be held while the authorities have imposed section 144, preventing the assembly of four or more people.
In the weeks leading up to the present stage of elections, over a 100 Kashmiri political leaders, such as Yasin Malik and most recently Zaffar Akbar Bhaat, have been arrested and taken into custody to undisclosed locations so as to hinder mobilization for pro-freedom rallies. Youth protesters demonstrating for election boycotts have been beaten, and on Monday, human rights activists were arrested and beaten by security forces for trying to monitor the polling in Bandipora. If indeed India claims the elections to be free and democratic, then surely journalists and civil society leaders should be free to monitor the elections, especially given the fact that soldiers are free to walk in and out of the polling stations.
Interpreting the Kashmiri voter turnout as legitimizing Kashmiri aspirations for Indian rule actually marginalizes the atrocities past and ongoing which have claimed over 70,000 lives since 1989. Instead, Kashmiris are voting for the valley to keep its head above water. Kashmir desires, above all else, justice and accountability, and peace. The graves of the scores of unarmed protesters killed in August remain fresh in the mind of Kashmiris who hope to one day participate in a vote free from the surrounding guns of hundreds of thousands of soldiers. I will never forget what a Kashmiri woman I interviewed in 2003 told me when asked about whether Kashmiris wanted independence, Indian Rule, or Pakistani rule. She said none of the above. I asked again, "What do Kashmiris want?" She responded, "to survive."