Debating India


Gunpoint Democracy

Praveen SWAMI

Tuesday 13 April 2004, by SWAMI*Praveen

The sad truth is that the survival of democracy in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) depends on guns: the guns of those who want it, and the guns of those who don’t. As things stand, the nays are being heard a lot louder.

The sad truth is that the survival of democracy in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) depends on guns: the guns of those who want it, and the guns of those who don’t. As things stand, the nays are being heard a lot louder.

On April 8, terrorists targeted an election rally led by top People’s Democratic Party (PDP) leader Mehbooba Mufti, the daughter of Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. The attack, the first ever executed by terrorists in the frontier town of Uri, claimed eleven lives. Fifty-three people were injured, including J&K Ministers Muzaffar Beigh and Ghulam Hassan Mir.

A welter of less high-profile attacks has taken place in recent weeks. Last month, Mukhtar Ahmad Bhat, became the first politician killed in the course of the 2004 election campaign. His killing marked the beginning of a wave of terrorist attacks on mainstream politicians and their families. Two days before Bhat’s killing, terrorists executed a grenade attack on the home of the daughter of Kulgam Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) and Communist Party of India leader Mohammad Yusuf Tarigami. A PDP activist, Ghulam Hassan, and a former state legislator, also named Ghulam Hassan, were targeted on the same day.

Soon after, terrorists ambushed former J&K Minister and National Conference leader Abdul Rahim Rather and executed Ghulam Mohiuddin Dar, a Shopian contractor affiliated with the National Conference, and opened fire on a convoy escorting PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti. Just a day after the latest attack on Mehbooba Mufti at Uri, a low-level party member, Assadullah Bhat, was shot dead in the village of Bund Numbal, near Mattan. No organisation claimed responsibility for most of these killings, but the Save Kashmir Movement, a loose label used by elements of al-Umar, the Hizb-ul-Mujaheddin (HM) and the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), did claim it had executed the Uri attack.

For politicians in J&K, this is the stuff of business as usual - something factored into everyday political life. The 2002 Assembly elections, hailed across India as free and fair, cost the lives of 41 political workers in the month of September alone. In all, 99 political workers died in 2002. 1999, the year of the last Lok Sabha elections, saw the deaths of 49 political workers; 1998, the year of the previous Lok Sabha elections, saw 41 killed; 1996, the year of the last Assembly elections, saw 69 such deaths. The numbers indicate just how violent the 2002 elections were, notwithstanding widespread claims about their fairness.

On ground, many political workers have responded by cutting local-level deals with terrorists - a time-hallowed, if dishonourable, practice. Posters were put up in several parts of southern Kashmir in 2002 asking voters to oppose the National Conference (NC); the NC, before this, had often aided terrorist groups at the local level. This time around, although top PDP and NC leaders are known to have met the acting Hizb-ul-Mujaheddin chief and central division commander, Abdul Ahad Pir, most deals seem to be cut at a local level, perhaps without the involvement of the candidate himself.

After a recent assassination attempt on former J&K Minister Abdul Rahim Rather, for example, Indian signals intelligence intercepted communications between a HuM operative code-named ’Ghaznavi’, and a field operative code-named ’Muslim.’ ’Ghaznavi’ complained bitterly that the attack was executed without his authorisation, and asserted that ’Muslim’ had "created a big problem." "Why did you target him when we ourselves wanted him to contest the election?" ’Ghaznavi’ asked, according to transcripts of the conversation.

It is unlikely that Rather, a well-respected politician, either asked for such support or knew of his nomination as the HM candidate. More probably, as the case of the recently killed south Kashmir HM ’commander’ Arif Khan illustrates, such political deals are part of a freewheeling quid-pro-quo. Terrorists use election time favours to pressure party workers for the grant of lucrative Government contracts to their immediate family and close relatives. Several of Khan’s relatives - and a number of family members of active HM cadre - have won railway construction contracts in southern Kashmir.

Political deal-making and terrorist killings are only the most dramatic manifestations of a sustained ongoing campaign of coercion directed at voters. The first posters directed at the election process were put out last month by the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) in the small southern Kashmir village of Mitari, near Shopian. An untidy hand-written scrawl on crumpled paper pasted on to the walls of the village mosque, the posters do not look particularly threatening, but most people know well enough to take the note seriously.

The JeM leaflet left in Mitari, similar to those now fairly common in rural Kashmir, laid out a seven-point election-time code of conduct for local residents. Among other things, PDP workers were asked "not to participate in the elections, or else face the consequences - which they understand." Truck and bus operators were ordered to respect calls for strikes. Local residents who had applied for recruitment in the Indian Army were advised to abandon their new jobs "and thus save their lives." Finally, villagers were told to switch off their lights at night, and remove fences from around their orchards, "which create problems for the Mujaheddin."

Election Commission officials have been promising that anti-election voters in J&K will not be compelled to exercise their franchise, but no one seems to have a blueprint for ensuring that those who do wish to do so can live to see the outcome. During the 2002 Assembly elections, 250 companies of the police and paramilitaries had been pressed into service to hold the ground. Unless the Central Reserve Police Force comes good on a still-unrealised promise to meet that 250-company target, J&K authorities will have to make do with just 6,000 additional men.

Terrorist groups have made no secret they are sensing opportunity. On March 30, for example, the LeT called on voters to support the election boycott campaign led by Islamist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, saying he was "the only true leader of the Kashmiri people." The same day, an al-Umar commander code-named Khalid Javed warned people not to participate in the election process. "We have given sacrifices of one lakh people for the movement and we will take it to its logical end," he noted, adding that al-Umar would escalate attacks in coming days.

Wireless control stations operating from other terrorist groups’ headquarters in Pakistan have been sending out much the same message to their cadre for weeks. On February 29, for example, a HM control station told a field unit that "the enemy is preparing for the elections, and you have to do something." Other transmissions have spoken of the need to pressure political workers, and to target campaign processions and political rallies.

It doesn’t take a great deal of perspicacity to understand just how profoundly violence is shaping the course of the campaign. Take, for example, Mehbooba Mufti’s comments to the media after the Uri attack. The politician blamed almost everyone for the outrage - her coalition ally, the Congress; the Bharatiya Janata Party of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee; and the J&K Police, whose personnel were seen rescuing her on national television - except the terrorists who carried it out. At the wider plain of public discourse, the PDP and the main opposition formation, the NC, agree on nothing - except that dialogue with terrorists is vital, and that not one word need be said about continued violence.

Meanwhile, Indian Forces are doing what they can - six top JeM commanders have died over the last few days, including their overall chief for military operations, Qari Mohammad Asif, the latest in a series of high-value hits against major terrorist groups - but this military campaign isn’t a substitute for a clear political voice against terror. Unless politicians find the courage to stand up for the process which vests them with power, terror will be the real winner of the coming Lok Sabha elections, irrespective of who gets elected to Parliament.


Praveen Swami is New Delhi Chief of Bureau, Frontline magazine, and also writes for its sister publication, The Hindu.? Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal

in Outlook India, Monday, April 12, 2004.

SPIP | template | | Site Map | Follow-up of the site's activity RSS 2.0