Are local body elections in Jammu and Kashmir a farce?

Are local body elections in Jammu and Kashmir a farce?

Vivan Eyben,
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Local body elections are underway in Jammu and Kashmir. Despite calls for a boycott from all quarters, it appears that the Election Commission has felt that there is a conducive atmosphere for holding elections in the state. However, reports state that the names of candidates have been withheld until polling. There has been complete secrecy regarding who is contesting, which points towards a climate of fear.

The security situation in Kashmir has steadily declined since the killing of Burhan Wani in 2016. However, with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) pulling out of the coalition government in the state and its inevitable collapse, the situation has gone from bad to worse. Adding to this heady mix is the issue of Article 35A which confers certain protections regarding land to permanent residents in the state.

In August, the Supreme Court of India heard a petition challenging the validity of this provision. The Union Government appealed for the hearings to be deferred as the local body elections were yet to be conducted. Hence, on August 31, the Supreme Court deferred hearing the matter till the second week of January in 2019.

On September 5, Omar Abdullah of  the National Conference said that his party would boycott the elections unless the Union Government cleared its stance on some issues. The BJP has periodically called for repealing Article 370 which is another special Constitutional provision for Jammu and Kashmir.

Not to be outdone, the BJP’s former coalition partner, the People’s Democratic Party also announced that they would boycott the local body elections unless the BJP cleared its stand. The result is that the two major political parties in the state declared that they would be boycotting the election. However, before the mainstream political groups had voiced dissent, on August 28, the Hizbul Mujahideen had also issued a call to boycott the election.

Despite the calls for boycott and the unease surrounding the fate of Article 35A, the state election commission decided that the situation was conducive for holding elections. The general provisions of election laws make it mandatory for the Election Commission  concerned to publish the names of all the valid candidates. However, due to security reasons, this time the names have been withheld. Strangely enough, Parliamentary by-elections have not been held in south Kashmir’s Anantnag for two years now. Yet, for some reason, the situation seems conducive for holding local body polls. Thus, the question that arises is whether the newly elected local representatives’ security can be ensured after the results are announced?

Newsclick spoke to former Chief Election Commissioner SY Quraishi on this situation. Quraishi expressed his surprise at the decision of the State Election Commission and called “an extraordinary order in desperate circumstances obviously to protect the life of the candidates.” He agreed that the decision would affect the transparency of the election, but declined to comment further as he was not fully aware of all the aspects involved.

A similar situation arose in Nagaland regarding the Assembly elections between late 2017 and early 2018. Several political parties in Nagaland had declared that there must be a ‘solution before election’. This was in reference to the peace talks that have been perennially unfolding since the 2015 Framework Agreement between the Union Government and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak Muivah) (NSCN(IM)).

However, unlike Jammu and Kashmir, the principal political armed group – NSCN(IM) – has a ceasefire agreement with the Union Government and is in talks. Hence, if the group were to issue any calls for boycott, it would violate the terms of the agreement. Add to this that the group is headed by an ageing leadership which, in all likelihood, is seeking a retirement package. Further, it was not long before political survival dictated that the BJP should not be allowed to walk away from the polls unopposed. Hence, the Union Government was probably able to convince the Election Commission that there would be a slim chance of violence if the elections were held. The agreement between the political parties quickly collapsed and all parties filed their nomination papers.

One can see quite clearly that the situation in Jammu and Kashmir is not the same as Nagaland. There has been no dialogue. The principal armed political group has threatened those who file their nomination papers. Despite boycott calls from the two biggest political parties, nominations have allegedly come from their ranks as ‘independent’ candidates. There have been shoot-outs and killings. Also, there is utmost secrecy regarding who has filed their nomination papers. Hence, a free and transparent situation has not emerged in the state. Can one call this election fair?

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