Jammu & Kashmir

Deserted booths

Print edition : May 24, 2019

A policeman aims at protesters during the fourth phase of the general election in Khudwani village in Kulgam District in Kashmir on April 29. Photo: Nissar Ahmad

Mohammad Yousuf outside his home in Monghama village, Pulwama. His son, Owais Najar, aged 18, was among seven civilians killed in gunfire by the security forces on December 2018. Photo: Anando Bhakto

A staggering 85 per cent of the electorate has kept away from voting in the first two phases of the Lok Sabha election in Anantnag, and this must be seen as a rejection of the Centre’s policies on Kashmir.

“My vote would be an affront to my son.” Mohammad Yousuf’s anguished outburst is an apt summing up of why south Kashmir is not voting. The frail man, presumably in his sixties, points to the crumbled tin enclosure surrounding his house. The piercings on it are a testimony to targeted shelling. An eerie calm renders the pretty, verdant Monghama village, nestled in a faraway corner in Pulwama, uninviting. Yousuf recounts the tragic events of December 15, 2018, the day his son breathed his last. “Owais was woken by the commotion outside; an intense gunfight was going on, barely a kilometre away, in an orchard in Sirnoo village,” Yousuf begins, his ailing wife beside him. “He took what he thought was a safe position on the veranda and peeped at the forces, as they withdrew after eliminating the mujahideens.... They fired indiscriminately.” Owais Najar, 18, was among seven civilians killed on that day.

In the first two phases of the Lok Sabha election in Anantnag, which voted in three phases on April 23, April 29 and May 6, a staggering 85 per cent of the electorate kept away from the hustings. Those who did come out to vote were either political workers or people who had benefited from a particular leader or her/his party. Since every good turnout in Kashmir, even when it is essentially for bijli (electricity), sadak (roads) and pani (water), is marketed as Kashmiris’ “identification with the mainstream”, not just by New Delhi but also by an overwhelming section of the media that seconds it on all issues vis-a-vis Kashmir, one has to see this rejection of the electoral exercise in south Kashmir as a rejection of the Centre’s policies on Kashmir, be it its reliance on an exclusively militaristic approach for containing insurgency or its uncloaked attempt to incite fear and insecurity in the people of Kashmir by threatening to take away their constitutional guarantees as spelt out under Article 370 and Article 35A.

A cross section of the people in Anantnag, Kulgam, Shopian and Pulwama told Frontline that by keeping away from the elections, they had communicated their sense of loathing for Narendra Modi’s “muscular and hawkish” approach to Kashmir, which, they had no doubt, was invented to expedite the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) majoritarian politics. They said that their boycott was stimulated by their urge to protest against the return of cordon and search operations; the recent cases of custodial killings that revived their worst memories of the 1990s, when militancy was at its peak and soldiers could do as they wished with impunity; the “mass blinding project” (a sobriquet used in the valley to describe the use of pellet guns to quell civilian protest) that targeted all without consideration of age or gender; and above all, the “Indian people’s absolute lack of empathy”, manifest in targeted attacks carried out against the Kashmiri youths and traders in the aftermath of the February 14 terror strike in Pulwama.

The mainstream political players in Jammu and Kashmir are aware of the despair and disquiet in south Kashmir, and hence they accorded primacy to emotive issues in their campaign. The National Conference (N.C.) said that it would restore the posts of the prime minister and the Sadr-e-riyasat that had existed in Jammu and Kashmir before the 1960s.

The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) pledged to revoke the ban on the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF). The leaders of the two parties, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti, carried out demonstrations at the Udhampur-Baramulla highway, describing the ban on it as the Modi government’s attempt to dynamite the foundations of democracy and strip civil liberties. The gimmicks failed.

Workers of the Congress, the N.C. and the PDP admitted that the bloodletting in the villages was fresh in people’s mind and their tried-and-tested inducements to make them vote had had no effect. “Shaheed zinda hota hai marne ke baad [the martyrs live long after they have died],” said a PDP worker at the party’s district headquarters in Pulwama, close to the District Collector’s office. “In the past two and a half years, every village in south Kashmir has lost two to five local boys who became militants. Their graveyards have become the venue of anti-India protests; participating in elections would be trivialising their [the local boys’] ‘martyrdom’.” Over two dozen PDP workers are killing time there over cups of tea and tomul czhot, the traditional Kashmiri bread. It is evident that they do not have much to do. A prominent Young Turk of the party joins them. He explains their inaction: “There is a threat. You cannot just go out and canvass; it is difficult to guess when the situation will turn violent. Our workers assemble here every morning and coordinate over the phone with village elders. If they give the green signal, we rush to their hamlet and meet the people they have gathered. Usually the meetings are informal, at the veranda of someone’s house.”

Alienation at an all-time high

The scene was not much different at Khanabal, at the heavily guarded residence of a senior Congress leader. A car arrived with six women clad in burqas. They had been summoned from Shopian. A woman Congress leader from Jammu quickly exchanged pleasantries with them and got down to the job of training them. Handing over a list of families in Shopian that had benefited from the Congress’ local satraps, she asked them to meet these families and persuade them to vote. “Tell them that the Congress will always be by their side. But they must save Kashmir and India from the BJP; their vote matters.” The women nodded.

Alienation is at an all-time high in the Kashmir Valley; political parties are banking on people whom they had obliged financially or otherwise to vote. The rest of the electorate, such as Mohammad Yousuf, is indifferent, no matter the exhortation that the BJP is pushing the country—and Kashmir—to the precipice of a democratic implosion and that they must vote to safeguard their interest. Nineteen-year-old Abira, who hails from Ganaie muhalla at Noorabad village in Kulgam, is an exception. She is a steadfast PDP loyalist. At the D.H. Pora Higher Secondary School, where she had come to vote, she said that her father had got a job in the education sector when Mehbooba Mufti was Chief Minister. “I’m voting for the PDP because Mehbooba Mufti sahiba cares for the people,” she said.

The PDP had doled out jobs to many individuals, mostly from families loyal to the Muftis, in the State’s horticulture and floriculture sector, education department and the Jammu and Kashmir Bank. Its leaders had hoped the beneficiaries would return the favour at election time. But that does not seem to be happening. In a major jolt to Mehbooba Mufti, in her family pocket borough Bijbehara, only 2.04 per cent people voted. Insiders say that her leadership is being challenged from within her clan. “Her cousin Sajad Mufti did not vote; he even got his men to stay away from the election. This was shocking to us,” said a PDP leader, requesting anonymity. In the first two phases of the election, held at Anantnag and Kulgam respectively, 13.61 and 10.32 per cent of the votes were cast.

Workers, across party lines, had a tough time bringing voters to the election booth. Some were apprehensive of taking even their families out to vote. At a polling station at Corporate Super Bazar, Kulgam, a polling agent of the N.C. said that he was still indecisive whether to ask his wife and children to come over. “No one in our neighbourhood is voting. If my family votes, people will look at us with contempt,” he explained. At a polling booth in Mirham, a PDP agent, Ghulam Mohammad Paddar, said that he had expected 50 of his relatives to turn up, but they had not kept their word.

Another reason for the poor turnout is that several polling booths have been clubbed together. For example, at Government Higher Secondary School in Qaimoh in the Homeshalibugh Assembly segment, as many as 12 polling booths had been merged. This included Redwini village, at least two kilometres away. Given the incidents of stone-pelting and the sight of patrolling vehicles, it was next to impossible for the villagers to venture out. This reporter had to abort his journey to Arwani and Khedwani villages when a group of around 20 men, supported by young children, resorted to stone-pelting.

However, intimidation alone cannot be cited as the reason for the dismal turnout. Those who mobilised people for boycott are in jail. They include the top leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami and the JKLF. Sources in the security apparatus confided on condition of anonymity that a large number of suspected miscreants, too, have been taken under preventive detention. “Last night, we picked up 15 boys from Murran, Pulwama; we had information that they were planning to create a disturbance,” a police official told Frontline on April 28. On May 1, over 40 people were arrested in fresh raids in Shopian and Pulwama.

More than the fear of physical harm, there is the fear of social ostracisation. “The mood is against participation [in the election],” said a group of men at Pantha Chowk, in Pampore. “When we sit together in the evening at nearby eateries and discuss politics, we talk of Sajad. The way to the polling booth is past his grave; who would tread that way?” The Lashkar-e-Taiba militant Sajad Ahmad Bhat, a resident of Pampore, was eliminated in January 2016.

The contest in Anantnag is primarily between Mehbooba Mufti and Ghulam Ahmad Mir of the Congress. Mir alleged that the PDP had engineered stone-pelting incidents to suppress Congress voters. “In Dooru, I was expecting a lead of 35,000, but as early as 9 a.m., the PDP organised stone pelting. The police, instead of tackling the mob by other means, resorted to firing immediately, and that dissuaded the rest of the voters from turning up. Still, we managed an enviable lead in the first phase,” Mir told Frontline.

However, Frontline’s assessment is that it is the former Chief Minister, Mehbooba Mufti, who polled the highest number of votes in the first phase. But her lead is as fragile as 1,000 to 2,000 votes. In the second phase in Kulgam district on April 29, the N.C.’s Hasnain Masoodi, a retired judge, seems to have gained, particularly in D.H Pora which witnessed brisk polling. D.H. Pora had returned a PDP candidate in the 2014 Assembly elections. The N.C. is also claiming a lead in Kulgam and Homeshalibugh. Despite rumours that Mehbooba Mufti is losing, she is expected to scrape through. But if the turnout in Pulwama and Shopian plummets to a new low, her fate will hang in the balance.

Call for dialogue

Irrespective of who wins, the fate of mainstream politics in Kashmir looks blurred. People have sent out a clear message that no muscular politics can coerce them into submission; it is going to widen the divide rather than fill existing voids. The present situation should goad New Delhi to look back into 2008 and 2014 and understand the utility of dialogue and reconciliatory processes. While in 2008, the allotment of land to the Amarnath Shrine Board (it was done against the spirit of Article 370) was cancelled, in 2014 Omar Abdullah accepted accountability for the killings that had taken place during his regime. This was preceded by the institution of an interlocutors’ committee that seemed to carry a political mandate. People responded positively to these overtures; voting was brisk and militancy receded. This time there has not been any measure to inspire hope in people, and the rejection of mainstream is a consequence of that.

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