What do the Kashmir election results say about nationalism and separatism?

The Prime Minister said he “saw people's faith in democracy” in the voter queues in Kashmir last month, and the Defence Minister claimed that Pakistan was “unnerved by the 72 per cent voter turnout” in the state.

There was unusually high voter turn out in the recently concluded Kashmir state elections, as compared to previous elections. In the past, separatists would boycott elections, because they didn’t want Kashmir to be part of India. Thus, people in the media and the government have said that the high voter turn out in 2014 is a sign that the people of Kashmir now want to be part of mainstream India, and that the separatist agenda is much weaker than before.

But high voter turn out should not be understood as Kashmiris’ decision to become an integral part of India.

Media analysts are plagued by far-fetched theories, all of which obediently signal the end of decades-old conflict. This white noise concerns itself selectively with Delhi’s vision for ‘the crown jewel of India’ and has very little do with the realities of Kashmir. What comes out of it, louder than anything, is the fact that Kashmir is a contentious outpost in the collective conscience of the country. Attempts to understand electoral patterns are drowned in desperate assumptions of assimilation and severance.

The mighty voter turnout of 69 percent (up from 45 percent in 2002 and 60 percent in 2008), resulted in a fractured mandate. This forced the political parties, which have been at loggerheads with each other for so long, to form a coalition. The possible picture of administrative instability is particularly troubling at a time when the damage caused by floods hasn’t let life come back to its natural rhythm.

Video Volunteers has long recognized that there is a problem with the media coverage of Kashmir, and in response, we decided to bring our model of community video to Kashmir in September 2013, when we trained 11 Right to Information (RTI) activists as video reporters. The timing was fortuitous, because on the day the training ended, the floods began, and our network was there to document it. Since then, they have produced 35 videos and innumerable photo reports. These reports provide ample evidence that the main issue in this election was people’s development needs. When a village’s residents haven’t had electricity for eight months, it can only be a case of amnesia to see their votes implying anything else than the need for a better power grid. When people have to walk miles to fetch water, could they be voting for anything else than a hand pump?

In a recent blog on Huffington Post, Sajad Rasool, a Community Correspondent for Video Volunteers has said the elections should have been postponed until relief work was more complete. “Thousands of people who lost their homes during floods are still living in makeshift tents,” he writes. When the priority should have been rehabilitation after floods, a month has been consumed by electoral procedures. It’s a revolt against sensibilities to not see the need of basic facilities by people, being channelled in voting machines. What this denial suggests is that the state of Jammu and Kashmir is more of an idea than a reality in Indian politics.

We asked our Community Correspondents to video-document these elections. The people interviewed clearly say that ‘yes, we are voting in this election. But don’t assume this means we want to be an integral part of India'. There are also interviews in that series telling us why some people abstained from voting. Says Sajad, “the mainstream media has not carried one single interview of this nature. I wish the media would cover the motivations of voters in their true complexity.”

To be sure, the record turnout in the latest assembly elections, highest since 1989, does indicate that boycotting elections isn’t as appealing to Kashmiris as it was years ago, and the BJP did avoid nationalistic rhetoric. Let us hope this means the BJP itself is ready to avoid nationalism.

The people of Kashmir embraced democracy. They should be rewarded with better roads, water supply, electrical grids, jobs, and safety and security — with justice and development.

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