As with most elections in Indian-held Kashmir, local pro-freedom groups called for a boycott. In the past, a significant number of Kashmiris have voted in elections, in what many Kashmiri analysts say is a vote for basic facilities and development and not necessarily their consent to Indian rule. But this election, on the heels of a particularly volatile 8-12 months in Kashmir - was different.
Held to fill a vacant seat left by a Kashmiri MP, Tariq Hameed Karra, who resigned last September in protest against the violent crackdown of anti-India protesters in the valley, the response to Sunday’s election is particularly telling.
In a bid to hold a “peaceful” poll, Indian security forces buffed up their contingent by more than 20 000 personnel. The internet was also cut to help prevent people organising. But none of these measures worked. Thousands marched to polling stations to express their disdain for what is seen as a farcical electoral process resulting in clashes with security forces. Overall, there was just a 6.5% voter turnout, the lowest ever recorded in Kashmir.
Yet, the story of Sunday’s election is part of a larger violence imposed upon the people.
Over the past three months a number of young boys and girls have been killed by “stray bullets” during protests or in what police officials describe as shots fired by rebel fighters during a gunfight with security forces. But residents are adamant that security forces deliberately fire live ammunition long after encounters or during protests in a calculated effort to intimidate and terrorise, or perhaps even to punish the locals for showing their unflinching support to the rebels.
For instance, in early March, an elderly woman named Taja Begum was working in her vegetable garden in the southern district of Shopian, when a “stray bullet” killed her. Begum was about 1km away from civilian-led protests. Later in March, a 6-year-old girl named Kaneeza was on her mom’s lap, sleeping, in her home in Kupwara, when a bullet ended her life.
The indiscriminate show of force, or disproportionate violence on civilians is a signature trait of security forces stationed in the valley. At least 60 000 people have been killed and some 5 000 others have “disappeared” since 1989.
In 2016, a wave of protests hit the valley after the killing of a popular rebel leader, Burhan Wani. Shops, businesses, and other services were shut down. The internet curtailed. Schools were open for no more than three months for an entire year. Over 10 000 people were injured, many shot with lead-based pellets throughout their body. The New York Times referred to it as an “epidemic of dead eyes”, as hundreds - mostly youth - were blinded in at least one eye. The Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation described India’s use of pellet guns as “careless and callous”.
Indian forces also barged into homes, breaking windows and harassing the inhabitants, including women, in their search for “trouble-makers”. As a people’s movement for self-determination, every man, woman and child has become a legitimate target for the establishment desperate for a return to the status quo.
Therein lies the grand misunderstanding or denial of the Kashmiri polity.
When the protests waned in late 2016, and conditions returned to “normalcy”, the Indian government hoped once more this meant Kashmiris could be convinced otherwise, that elections could be held, that the pain could be subverted.
But dissent in Kashmir is anything but over. The onset of winter merely changed the pace of protest, after months of curfew and economic suffocation. Kashmiris merely needed to be reminded of “Indian democracy” to take to the streets once more. It does not have to be this way. But the Indian government has exhibited tremendous intransigence in addressing the root cause of a crisis that will never go away - the right of a people to determine their own future.
Neither is there a real attempt to acknowledge its crimes in the region, nor to take the discussion forward in a meaningful manner. It’s immediate response to violence and mechanisms of terrorising a civilian population reflect its true attitudes towards the Kashmiris. It’s ever-ready pool of Gandhian compassion, sympathy and condemnation of mindless terrorist violence in the Western world is gratuitous parody.
After the anger of 2016, India showed a deep condescension to the Kashmiri people by pretending none of the violence had ever occurred.
It once more looked to “develop” through sport or government jobs, not unlike the Nats during apartheid. Rest assured that with every beating; every blinding; every death by “stray bullet”, India cements its reputation as a strident occupier.
* Azad Essa is a journalist at Al Jazeera. He is also co-founder of the Daily Vox
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.