The political class that has governed India since 1947 have long made a fetish of elections, elevating them from just one procedural element of democracy into its very core, its principal and often only yardstick. These are the largest, the most diverse and colourful elections in the world, goes the claim – this must be a successful democracy. Nowhere has the hollowness of this claim been more tested than in Kashmir. In the intense turbulence of the past twenty-five years, Kashmiris have seen every single substantive attribute of democracy come under severe assault. Freedom from violence, harassment and unlawful detention. Protection of the right to speech, assembly and travel. And more insidiously, the loss of control over public spaces, water, and land. The rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, the pre-eminence of civilian leadership – as each protection has dissolved, it’s then left to the mechanism of the election to fitfully paper over the cracks.
This essay reconstructs the atmosphere during the Lok Sabha elections of 2014, when Kashmiris went to the polls to vote in a fresh set of lawmakers to the Indian Parliament. Some Kashmiris voted of their free will, and some because they had been induced to, or quietly coerced. Many more kept away as part of a boycott, or perhaps out of fear. And several hundred, and these are mostly the young, frontally battled the massive military apparatus deployed to secure the election. Inevitably there were some killings. Many more were injured, and maimed. But all that will be brushed aside quickly. What will be picked up, burnished, and then widely circulated, will be the turnout of voters, that ultimate barometer of democratic participation.
The overwhelming centrality of elections means that in remote corners of Kashmir, for anyone over 18, the voter identity card issued by the Government has slowly become the only card acceptable to security forces. Register to become a voter, and that becomes your identity. Voter ‘turnout’ therefore did not reflect a cynical decision by people to plug into a system that may bring water to their taps, or a replacement for burnt out electrical transformers, or tarmac for badly rutted roads. Overwhelmingly dominated by soldiers, people in the border districts vote to keep at bay very fundamental questions about life and liberty.
Sanjay Kak is an independent documentary film-maker whose films Jashn-e-Azadi (How we celebrate freedom, 2007, about the idea of freedom in Kashmir), Words on Water / पानी पे लिखा (2002, about the struggle against the Narmada dams in central India; Best Long Film prize at the Internacional Festival of Environmental Film & Video, Brazil), and In the forest hangs a bridge(1999, about the making of a 1000 ft bridge of cane and bamboo in north east India; Golden Lotus Best Documentary Film National Film Awards; Asian Gaze Award, Pusan Short Film Festival, Korea) reflect his interests in ecology, alternatives and resistance politics.
His other film work includes One Weapon (1997, about democracy in the 50th year of Indian independence), and Harvest of Rain(1995). He has also made twinned films on the theme of migration, This Land, My Land, Eng-Land! (1993) looking at people of Indian origin in the fringes of the city of London, and A House and a Home (1993) in post-apartheid South Africa; and Cambodia: Angkor Remembered (1990), a reflection on the monument and its place in Khmer society.
In 2008 he participated in Manifesta7, the European Biennale of Art, in Bolzano, Italy, with the installation A Shrine to the Future: The memory of a hill, about the mining of bauxite in the Niyamgiri hills of Odisha. He writes occasional political commentary, and is the editor of Until My Freedom Has Come – The New Intifada in Kashmir, (Penguin India 2011, Haymarket books 2013).
Born in 1958, Sanjay read Economics and Sociology at Delhi University, and is a self-taught filmmaker. Based in New Delhi, he is actively involved in the documentary film movement, and in the Campaign against Censorship and the Cinema of Resistance project.
He has just finished making a feature length documentary film on the revolutionary movement in India Red Ant Dream / माटी के लाल. The film had been under production for more than three years.