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Women get short shrift in J&K polls

Rasheeda Bhagat

IN a State where one in three people suffer from neurological disorders and one in five women is a victim of domestic violence; a State that has been rocked by the worst form of violence, it is not surprising to find that women have been given the short shrift as far as the elections to the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly are concerned.

Not that the State has any great track record in giving women representation in the legislature, at least in the last 13 years that it has been rocked by militancy and aspirations for azadi. For example, the 87-member J&K Assembly, which was recently dissolved to facilitate the election process, had just one elected woman MLA. She belonged to the National Conference and was the mandatory `showpiece', as far as gender representation in any Cabinet goes.

Ms Sakina Itoo was made the Minister of State for Tourism in Dr Farooq Abdullah's cabinet. It is well known that she wielded little political or administrative clout and had hardly any say in formulating policies. Apart from her, there were two other members in the Assembly, nominated by the NC.

The elections will be held in four phases beginning from September 16. The nomination papers have not been filed for all the constituencies. But this time around, too, the J&K Assembly is not likely to see many women, and the number of female MLAs will continue to be in single digit.

The BJP is not likely to field any women candidates this time, against the 1996 elections when it had fielded two, including its State women's wing chief, Ms Suresh Jamwal. Both the women lost and, this time, the "winnability" factor will come in handy to deny tickets to the two.

The ruling National Conference is not likely to field too many women candidates, despite the fact that the party is now being led by a much younger person, Mr Omar Abdullah, who is full of plans to usher in changes and provide an effective government.

He has himself broken the barriers of religion and married a Punjabi Hindu woman, who today runs a travel business from Delhi. If his party wins the election, he will move over from national to State politics, and "she moves in here with me. She can run her travel business from Srinagar. I'm sure there will be opportunities here too", he says, making it evident that the equality norm works well within his family.

But not on the political front, one can safely conclude, because the party is not likely to give tickets to more than three women. In fact the vice-provincial president of the NC Women's wing, Ms Tada Parveen, an aspirant for the party ticket, has been denied one in a region where the women voters outnumber men, with militancy having claimed the lives of more men than women.

The Congress(I) will field only two women candidates, both belonging to the Scheduled caste, and will contest from constituencies reserved for SC candidates.

One can argue that these are parties where women leaders hardly have a presence, leave alone a voice, in the State today. But the People's Democratic Party (PDP) which, for all practical purposes, will be led in these polls by its Vice-President, Ms Mehbooba Mufti, is also likely to field only three women candidates, including herself. With the president and founder of the party, her father and former Union Home Minister, Mr Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, not contesting the J&K election, Ms Mufti is the party's chief ministerial candidate and is in the thick of campaigning in the State at the moment.

Talking to Business Line about her difficulty in finding and fielding women candidates, Ms Mufti said: "I would love to have as many women candidates as possible, because I do believe that thanks to their gender, women politicians are better equipped to empathise with the people of J&K, who have undergone a lot of suffering and have had to give a lot of sacrifices. But in a situation where it is difficult to find even good men to come forward and contest — they demand security which we can hardly promise — it is a little too much to expect women to rise above their role in such a traumatised society and come forward to participate in the political process."

By and large, this is the explanation almost all parties have to offer: the dearth of women politicians who have risen from the grassroots and come forth to participate in the political process.

But even though a predominantly Muslim State, particularly in the Valley, it would be foolish to presume that, pushed behind the veil and traumatised by violence, the State, particularly the Kashmir Valley, lacks educated, intelligent and fiery women who can contest elections successfully.

One visit to the Kashmir University in Srinagar, and an interaction with the students, makes it amply evident that the women are equally, if not more, articulate and even pushy compared to the male students.

Gulnaaz, a post-graduate student, was spitting fire on at the Ikhwanis (renegade militants who are under the Indian army's control) when she said: "They harass innocent people, loot homes, take away young men for questioning and release them only on being paid bribes, and assault women". Her colleague, Sabiya, did not want her name to be changed, or her picture not taken, when she said boldly: "The security forces harass us all the time, and though the military men are better than the Ikhwanis, they do nothing to stop them. Maybe later on, they split the loot 50-50!" Certainly these women can make effective leaders of tomorrow; they have both the education and the courage to speak their mind.

At the extreme end of the separatist lobby is the firebrand chief of the separatist group Dukhtar-e-Millat, Asiya Andrabi, now underground, as she would be a prized catch under POTA. But this State has not always lagged behind in giving fair representation to women in politics. Paving the way for women to join politics was the woman from the first family of Kashmir; Sheikh Abdullah's wife and Dr Farooq Abdullah's mother — Begum Akbar Jehan, popularly known in Kashmir as Madre-e-Mehraban (a benevolent mother). A social activist, she had represented Srinagar and Anantnag constituencies in the Lok Sabha.

Along with her, there were other Kashmiri women who had fought in the National Militia. From the Kashmiri Pundit community, there were quite a few who spearheaded the teacher's movement in the Valley. But times have changed. Of course, a Mehbooba Mufti could still make it to a top position in her father's party; in fact she was the Congress Legislature Party leader in the J&K Assembly till 1999, when her father left the Congress to form the PDP, and she had to give up her seat in the Assembly.

She contested against Omar Abdullah in the 1999 Parliamentary elections and lost. This time around, too, she was expected to contest against Mr Omar Abdullah from the Ganderbal constituency but obviously changed her mind at the last moment and is now planning to contest from Anantnag district. Hers will be the strongest opposition that the NC will receive from a regional party. In her election campaigns, she is lambasting the NC's administrative and other failures, being smart enough not to hit out at the Hurriyat.

If at all the anti-incumbency factor does get at the NC and there is a hung Assembly, she does stand a very good chance of becoming the next Chief Minister of J&K. If she does end up on the hot seat she would very much like to keep the door open for talks with the Hurriyat, which she describes "as a voice of the alienated sections of the Kashmir people".

But if Ms Mufti does make it, it will be thanks to dynasty politics than any real opportunity being available for a woman to rise to a top position in the rough and tumble of politics. Even the present Minister of State for Tourism in Kashmir, Ms Itoo, who was in her mid-20s, was pressurised to contest the 1996 elections because the militants had killed her father, a former Speaker in the J&K Assembly.

But Ms Shabnam Lone, the daughter of the slain Hurriyat leader and chief of the People's Conference, Abdul Gani Lone, was not so lucky. Though more politically astute than her brother Mr Sajjad Lone, who was running a business when his father was killed, she was at first expected to take over the party's reins. But later, she had to gracefully make way for her brother, who is now the Chairman of the party.

(Response can be sent to rasheeda@thehindu.co.in)

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