Kashmir's Elections Bring a Whiff of Hope

Will they begin a turning away from violence?

On a typical day in Handwara, gun-toting militants stroll the dusty streets of this border town on the Indian-controlled side of the disputed territory of Kashmir. But in recent weeks, the scene has been different. Crowds as large as 15,000 have been turning out to cheer at rallies for Ghulam Mohi-ud-din Sofi, a 55-year-old independent candidate for state legislature in elections in the Indian-held part of the territory, starting Sept. 16.

Sofi is a former member of the Hurriyat Conference--a coalition of 23 mostly militant Muslim political groups that have long advocated violence to push for Kashmir's independence. And Kashmir has certainly been violent: 13 years of clashes between Indian troops and militants have left 40,000 dead.

That's enough killing to give anyone pause--even Sofi, who still wants independence but is now calling for negotiations over Kashmir. He's running for the legislature even though two candidates have recently been assassinated by militants opposed to the poll. "I know what the people of Kashmir want," Sofi recently declared. "But wisdom demands we change our tactics so that we can achieve our goals without further bloodshed."

If Sofi and other independents win their races, it will mark the first time that reformed militant opponents of the ruling National Conference, a dynastic party run by the Abdullah family for 20 years with support from New Delhi, will be represented in the state legislature. Analysts predict the National Conference will barely secure a majority in the assembly, sharply diminishing the power of the party's new 32-year-old leader, Omar Abdullah, who recently took over from his father, Farooq.

It may not sound like much, but political observers say that such a development might just mark the beginning of a political opening in Kashmir. If New Delhi fulfills its pledge to ensure that the ballot will be free and fair--not rigged as many Kashmir state elections have been--a dialogue could start between the Indian government and the reformed militants about Kashmir's fate. Pakistani officials dismiss the elections as a farce, but India looks at them differently.

As a result of the elections, "there will be a much stronger opposition, the first real opposition Kashmir has had in 20 years," says Amitabh Mattoo, a Kashmiri and professor of international relations at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi who also sits on India's National Security Advisory Board. "It will give [the former militants] a greater identification with the [local] government, and hopefully lead to less militancy." After the Kashmir election and upcoming parliamentary elections in Pakistan in late October, the U.S. is also likely to put more pressure on both India and Pakistan to start negotiations on Kashmir, predicts Stephen P. Cohen, an expert on South Asia at the Brookings Institution.

Whatever the generals and politicians do, there's no doubt that the average person in this territory, with a population of 10.8 million, is ready for change. Violence and neglect have ruined the former Himalayan tourist paradise. Once-colorful houseboats docked on the famous Dal Lake have faded to brown. At the elegant Grand Palace Inter-Continental hotel in Srinagar, the capital city of Kashmir, a sign at the door warns guests that "weapons are not allowed beyond this point"--a menacing welcome for a structure that was once a Maharaja's palace.

Indian troops patrol the city's once-thriving shopping thoroughfare, Residency Road. It's practically deserted during the day, and dead after the city's 7 p.m. curfew starts. Gulam Rusull Khan helps run one of Kashmir's finest carpet makers--a 125-year-old company--but business couldn't be worse, he says. Even export sales are down 40% since the insurgency escalated in 1989. "Bloomingdale's used to be the company's best customer," says the 80-year-old Khan, "but they don't keep Kashmiri rugs anymore."

In another store, not far away, Mohamad Shafi Butt, 49, says he has boosted exports of gems and jewelry to Europe to make up for lost sales at home. But every day is a struggle. "Before, I just sat at my shop and people came to me. Now they go to Bangalore," another well-known site for the gem business, he complains. Strict Indian security in Srinagar means that his export shipments are inspected for 72 hours before being sent out--further slowing his business.

The demise of tourism means that joblessness is Kashmir's most serious problem, after violence. Unemployment is estimated at 50%, even though the Indian government pumps an estimated $1.5 billion in subsidies into the territory annually. The blight of joblessness is particularly depressing for the hundreds of thousands of educated Kashmiri youth. Although students at the Government College for Women in Srinagar keep studying despite frequent security checks, bomb attacks, and power outages, they sometimes wonder if it's worth it. "At the end, there are no jobs at all," laments Nusrat Andrabi, the school's principal. Samina Ashraf, 24, earned degrees in hotel management and economics but can't find a job in her field. Instead, she works as a bank secretary. She has one request for the politicians: "Give us a life to lead."

The new leader of the National Conference, Abdullah, promises just that. His father and grandfather both ran the Indian-administered part of Kashmir, and his father has become known for his government's cronyism. The young Abdullah says he will clean up corruption, shake up the bureaucracy, and introduce incentives to attract private business in information technology and other industries. That in itself would require a new deal with New Delhi. Srinagar's year-old Software Technology Park is empty, because security concerns led India to forbid locals from having Internet connections or cell phones. One thing Abdullah won't promise is a quick end to the shooting: "For the next few years, we will have to take violence as a constant. The state government can't promise a violence-free environment, but we can do other things," he says.

For now, India's Election Commissioner, James M. Lyngdoh, is trying to ensure that violence does not spoil the election. For security reasons, he has decided to stretch the ballot across four polling days, ending Oct. 10, and he's bringing in 44,000 troops. Moderate Kashmiris such as 36-year-old Sajad Lone, whose father considered running in the election before he was killed in May, are praying for change. "We need good local administration. We want development, not destruction," says Lone. The upcoming elections could mark the first step.

By Manjeet Kripalani in Srinagar

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