Jammu & Kashmir

Polarised positions

Print edition : May 10, 2019

Waiting in queue to cast votes during the first phase of polling in Jammu on April 11. Photo: Channi Anand/AP

At a polling booth in Kupwara district of north Kashmir on April 11. Photo: S. Irfan/PTI

Despite tall claims of development, the BJP banks on the rhetoric of nationalism and the polarised atmosphere in the region to win votes.

FOUR of Jammu and Kashmir’s six Lok Sabha constituencies went to the polls in the first two phases. North Kashmir’s Baramulla and Jammu voted on April 11 and Srinagar and Udhampur on April 18. Despite the sense of alienation in the Kashmir Valley, an outcome of the Centre’s militaristic policies over the past two years, the turnout was reasonably fair in Baramulla, at 34.4 per cent. In Jammu, 72.16 per cent of the electorate queued up to vote braving a scorching sun. Polling in various Assembly segments within Jammu, which is inhabitated by people belonging to different ethnicities and faiths, was keen, reflecting the sense of competitive aspiration amongst them.

Srinagar constituency witnessed a dismal turnout of 14.1 per cent, with Budgam district recording a polling percentage of 21.5, Ganderbal 17.6 and Srinagar 7.7 per cent. Udhampur constituency recorded a polling percentage of 70.2. The district-wise voter turnout in Udhampur was Reasi 72.7 per cent, Kathua 74, Udhampur 74.8, Ramban 59.5, Doda 64.1 and Kishtwar 66.2.

According to the figures released by the office of the Chief Electoral Officer in the State, in Jammu district the turnout was 74.50 per cent, while in Muslim-dominated Rajouri and Poonch districts it stood at 65.73 and 70.42 per cent respectively. Voter turnout was the highest in Samba district, at 75.07 per cent. In 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept the Jammu Lok Sabha constituency at the height of the Narendra Modi wave. The BJP’s Jugal Kishor, who won by a staggering margin of over 350,000 votes then, is seeking re-election here. This time, though, Jammu remains polarised; Raman Bhalla of the Congress is expected to significantly reduce the BJP’s victory margin because of personal popularity and the BJP’s lacklustre performance, Kishor’s in particular.

The perception among even the most ardent BJP supporters is that Kishor would lose but for Modi, whose exhortation on nationalistic lines, often punctuated with uncloaked communal rhetoric, continues to sell in Jammu. On April 1, the mixed sentiment amongst the crowd at Bhalla’s rally at Resham Ghar in Jammu underscored that point. While there was an enthusiastic reception to his pledge to control price rise, create employment and ensure 33 per cent reservation for women in Parliament, many people in the neighbouring areas said they were comfortable with Modi as Prime Minister since he was a “strong leader” who could “act decisively against Pakistan”. That the air strike in Balakot was a fiasco does not dissuade most people from placing their trust in him.

Kishor cites his “good work” for the BJP’s continued dominance in Jammu. He told Frontline that under his aegis the four-laning of the Jammu-Akhnoor highway and its further widening up to Poonch had gained momentum, as many as 19,000 bunkers had been created for people affected by shelling from across the border, and civic facilities had improved. But off the record, functionaries in the State BJP confided that their election campaign banked on the nationalistic fervour and the polarised atmosphere in the region.

In the run-up to the 2014 election, the BJP had committed itself to deporting the Rohingya refugees who had settled in Jammu. Although that remains an unfulfilled task, the saffron party has invented ways to keep the pot boiling. A source in the State unit of the BJP explained how. “That [deporting Rohingyas] is a complex process and cannot be done in an arbitrary manner. But we got the police to carry out a headcount of the refugees. Lists of people who may be considered for deportation were prepared by different police stations. We then allowed this news to percolate down to the surrounding neighbourhoods. So, even though the Rohingyas were not deported as we had promised, a message was telegraphed that that work is in progress.”

The BJP top brass’ stand on Articles 35A and 370 of the Constitution also reveals that its election template has been drawn along an overtly polarising trajectory that attempts to pit the Hindus of Jammu against the “unpatriotic” Kashmiri Muslims who need to be tamed. In Udhampur, on April 8, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh made a public display of his party’s intent to revoke Article 370, which accords special status to the State. His statement was in sync with the party’s manifesto released on the same day in which the BJP has reiterated its commitment to abrogating Articles 370 and 35A. Shortly before the voting day, in an interview to a television news channel, Modi described such a provision as an “impediment to development”.

The atmosphere in Jammu became tense after the killing of a Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh functionary, Chanderkant Sharma, on April 9. Sharma was killed after a suspected militant opened fire on him and his personal security officer in Kishtwar. Although there was no report of any untoward incident after the killings, Kishtwar, remembered for the deadly riots in 2013, remained under curfew.

The BJP’s crackdown on pro-resistance groups and individuals in Kashmir continued. While a Delhi court sent Yasin Malik, the leader of the the now-banned Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front to the National Investigation Agency’s custody until April 22, the quizzing of Kashmir’s Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, also the chairman of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, became relentless.

In the Kashmir Valley, where the administration’s decision to ban civilian movement on the Srinagar-Jammu highway on Sundays and Wednesdays ignited street protests, people in Kupwara and Handwara set the momentum for election by registering a 49.7 per cent and 51.1 per cent turnout respectively. Bandipora and Baramulla districts, part of the Baramulla constituency, were not far behind at 32 and 31.6 per cent respectively.

The overall voting percentage was 34.4, which provided New Delhi some respite after the ignominy of a 7 per cent turnout when a parliamentary byelection was held in Srinagar in 2016. In last year’s panchayat and urban local bodies’ elections too, in which the National Conference (N.C.) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) refused to participate, the turnout was in single digits in most belts.

The contest in Baramulla is primarily between the N.C.’s Akbar Lone and the People’s Conference’s Raja Aijaz Ali. The PDP, which has fielded the trade union leader Abdul Qayoom Wani, has been on the back foot following large-scale defection of its former MLAs to the Sajjad Lone-led People’s Conference. Ali, a former police officer of the rank of Inspector General in the State, quit the PDP to join People’s Conference. Other defectors who shifted from the Mehbooba Mufti-led party to the People’s Conference include Raza Ansari from Pattan and Abbas Wani from Tanmarg.

The Valley too has had its share of emotive appeals. In contrast to the BJP’s “nationalist” overtures, both Mehbooba Mufti and Omar Abdullah have been vocal about restoring the State’s lost autonomy. Omar Abdullah went so far as to claim that if voted to power, his N.C. would attempt to restore the posts of Prime Minister and sadar-e-riyasat, as was the case before 1953, when Sheikh Abdullah, the then Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, was unceremoniously removed from office. In the decade that followed, Jammu and Kashmir saw a steep erosion of many of the special provisions it had been guaranteed after its accession to India in October 1947.

Mehbooba Mufti warned the Centre that the abrogation of Article 370 would end India’s claim to the former princely state. “If you free Jammu and Kashmir from Article 370, you will free the State from the country as well. I have said many times that Article 370 links Jammu and Kashmir with the country. When you break this bridge, India loses its legitimacy over the State. It becomes an occupational force,” she said recently.

Violence continued to mar the election season. On April 8, a grenade was hurled at a Central Reserve Police Force bunker at Nowgam, Srinagar. An Army man, Muhamamd Rafiq Yatoo, was shot dead by militants on April 6 when he returned to his native town, Sopore, on leave. On the same day, in Shopian, two militants were killed in an encounter at Parguchi village. On election day, Owais Ahmad, 13, was killed in pellet firing by the forces during a clash with civilian protesters at Langate in north Kashmir’s Kupwara district.