India elections: Why are Kashmiris not voting?

The fourth phase of Indian elections has seen a low turnout in parts of Kashmir after separatist groups called for a boycott. Experts say the voting trend shows people's disillusionment with the political process.

Security was beefed up in India-administered Kashmir on Monday, as voters headed to the polls to elect members of Parliament. Reportedly, almost no votes were cast at Kulgam-Anantnag constituency. In a previous round of Kashmir polls a fortnight ago, a similar trend was observed.

Separatist groups in Kashmir have boycotted the general elections, as they accuse the central Indian government in New Delhi of using military force against Kashmiris.

Since 1989, Muslim insurgents have been fighting Indian forces in the India-administered part of Kashmir (and Jammu)— a region of 12 million people, about 70% of whom are Muslim.

India and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars since independence in 1947 over Kashmir, which they both claim in full but rule in part.

Read more: Nuclear fears abound after India-Pakistan military escalation 

Growing disillusionment

Asma Firdous, a Srinagar resident, chose to boycott the election. "We don't consider ourselves as Indians, nor do Indians consider us as one of their own. Then why should we vote?" the 26-year-old postgraduate student told DW.

Political experts say that an increasing number of Kashmiris feel disillusioned with the political process, more so since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014.

Amid a violent separatist insurgency and accusations that Pakistan is backing jihadis, Narendra Modi, BJP leader and prime minister of India, has resorted to the use of force to stabilize the region. Modi also wants to scrap Article 370 and Article 35 A of the constitution, which reserve a special status for the state of Kashmir and guarantee permanent residency to state residents. Many Kashmiris allege that the BJP is trying to change Kashmir's demography in favor of the Hindus.

Read more: Kashmir violence: Has Modi's policy failed?

Sheikh Showkat Hussain, a Srinagar-based political scientist, believes the low voter turnout in the Kashmir polls is a strong message to New Delhi and Prime Minister Modi.

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"It shows that alienation is growing in Kashmir; to an extent that people have become indifferent to the electoral process," Hussain told DW.

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Political turmoil

After the 2014 elections, the BJP formed a coalition government in the state with the People's Democratic Party (PDP). But the security situation deteriorated in the state soon thereafter. The military launched a crackdown on the rebels, as clashes in major Kashmir cities killed hundreds of people.

Read more: Kashmir: Several dead in clashes between Indian army and militants

In July 2016, Indian troops killed Burhan Wani, a 22-year-old Hizbul Mujahideen commander, which further deteriorated the situation.

Last year, the BJP quit the ruling coalition in Jammu and Kashmir State, citing a worsening security situation in the disputed Himalayan region. The BJP claimed that the state government had failed to curb radicalization or guarantee civilian rights in the volatile territory. Subsequently, India's federal government in New Delhi took direct control of the state.

After resigning from her post as chief minister of the state, Mehbooba Mufti, also the PDP president, has become openly critical of Modi and the BJP, accusing New Delhi of interfering in Kashmir's affairs.

Read more: Arundhati Roy: 'India is colonizing itself'

The administrative fiasco has also affected the PDP, which has failed to convince people to vote in the ongoing elections. Mufti admitted that her party's "credibility has been tainted."

"People are angry and disillusioned. They feel democracy is only limited to elections, as there is no democracy after the elections," Mufti told DW.

Mufti says she would take measures to restore people's confidence in the political system.

India-Pakistan rivalry: Kashmiris pay a high price

An unprecedented danger?

On February 27, Pakistan's military said that it had shot down two Indian fighter jets over disputed Kashmir. A Pakistani military spokesman said the jets were shot down after they'd entered Pakistani airspace. It is the first time in history that two nuclear-armed powers have conducted air strikes against each other.

India-Pakistan rivalry: Kashmiris pay a high price

India drops bombs inside Pakistan

The Pakistani military has released this image to show that Indian warplanes struck inside Pakistani territory for the first time since the countries went to war in 1971. India said the air strike was in response to a recent suicide attack on Indian troops based in Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan said there were no casualties and that its airforce repelled India's aircraft.

India-Pakistan rivalry: Kashmiris pay a high price

No military solution

Some Indian civil society members believe New Delhi cannot exonerate itself from responsibility by accusing Islamabad of creating unrest in the Kashmir valley. A number of rights organizations demand that Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government reduce the number of troops in Kashmir and let the people decide their fate.

India-Pakistan rivalry: Kashmiris pay a high price

No end to the violence

On February 14, at least 41 Indian paramilitary police were killed in a suicide bombing near the capital of India-administered Kashmir. The Pakistan-based Jihadi group, Jaish-e-Mohammad, claimed responsibility. The attack, the worst on Indian troops since the insurgency in Kashmir began in 1989, spiked tensions and triggered fears of an armed confrontation between the two nuclear-armed powers.

India-Pakistan rivalry: Kashmiris pay a high price

A bitter conflict

Since 1989, Muslim insurgents have been fighting Indian forces in the Indian-administered part of Kashmir - a region of 12 million people, about 70 percent of whom are Muslim. India and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars since independence in 1947 over Kashmir, which they both claim in full but rule in part.

India-Pakistan rivalry: Kashmiris pay a high price

India strikes down a militant rebellion

In October 2016, the Indian military has launched an offensive against armed rebels in Kashmir, surrounding at least 20 villages in Shopian district. New Delhi accused Islamabad of backing the militants, who cross over the Pakistani-Indian "Line of Control" and launch attacks on India's paramilitary forces.

India-Pakistan rivalry: Kashmiris pay a high price

Death of a Kashmiri separatist

The security situation in the Indian part of Kashmir deteriorated after the killing of Burhan Wani, a young separatist leader, in July 2016. Protests against Indian rule and clashes between separatists and soldiers have claimed hundreds of lives since then.

India-Pakistan rivalry: Kashmiris pay a high price

The Uri attack

In September 2016, Islamist militants killed at least 17 Indian soldiers and wounded 30 in India-administered Kashmir. The Indian army said the rebels had infiltrated the Indian part of Kashmir from Pakistan, with initial investigations suggesting that the militants belonged to Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad group, which has been active in Kashmir for over a decade.

India-Pakistan rivalry: Kashmiris pay a high price

Rights violations

Indian authorities banned a number of social media websites in Kashmir after video clips showing troops committing grave human rights violations went viral on the Internet. One such video that showed a Kashmiri protester tied to an Indian army jeep - apparently as a human shield - generated outrage on social media.

India-Pakistan rivalry: Kashmiris pay a high price

Demilitarization of Kashmir

Those in favor of an independent Kashmir want Pakistan and India to step aside and let the Kashmiri people decide their future. "It is time India and Pakistan announce the timetable for withdrawal of their forces from the portions they control and hold an internationally supervised referendum," Toqeer Gilani, the president of Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front in Pakistani Kashmir, told DW.

India-Pakistan rivalry: Kashmiris pay a high price

No chance for secession

But most Kashmir observers don't see it happening in the near future. They say that while the Indian strategy to deal strictly with militants and separatists in Kashmir has partly worked out, sooner or later New Delhi will have to find a political solution to the crisis. Secession, they say, does not stand a chance.

Growing Islamization

At the same time, a lack of faith in the political process is pushing more and more youth toward militancy. Many Kashmiri youth are now at the forefront of the separatist movement. Experts say that many of these teenagers, born after the start of the insurgency in 1989, don't feel any association with New Delhi. According to the latest census, nearly 60% of Kashmir's male residents are under the age of 30, and 70% are below the age of 35.

"The state simply does not have enough jobs to keep its youth occupied. Apart from unemployment, there is also a need to work out a political solution," R.K. Bhat, a political science lecturer from Srinagar, told DW.

Experts say the Islamic extremist groups are using this alienation and resentment to their advantage, as the decades-old anti-India movement is increasingly moving toward Islamization.

"The rise of Islamic radicalism in the region, fostered by the Afghan War in the 1980s, had a direct impact on the Kashmir conflict. The anti-India movement became more Islamized in the 1990s with the influx of militants trained in Pakistan," Agnieszka Kuszewska, a Krakow-based Kashmir expert, told DW.

Read more: From stones to guns — Kashmir's vicious cycle of violence

Kuszewska believes Indian authorities must take long-term steps aimed at de-escalating violence in Kashmir.

"The security forces should be held accountable for their human rights violations so that the Kashmiri people would regain trust in state institutions. The rise of religiously motivated nationalism is also a worrying phenomenon, especially in religiously and ethnically diverse parts of Kashmir. It is vital to address this trend," she underlined.

Experts say that the political situation in Kashmir is unlikely to improve after the elections. A likely coalition government there would not be able to address people's concerns, nor would it be able to rein in the violent insurgency. But any political government in Jammu and Kashmir would be better than New Delhi's direct rule of Jammu and Kashmir. The political process must continue, analysts say.

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