Allegations of ‘voter suppression’, and attacks on political leaders and journalists by militants and security forces mark the seventh phase of DDC elections in Jammu and Kashmir

Published : December 17, 2020 14:01 IST

Voters waiting to cast their vote in the seventh phase of DDC elections, in Naidkhai Bandipora district North Kashmir on December 16. Photo: NISSAR AHMAD

The seventh phase of the ongoing District Development Council (DDC) elections in Jammu and Kashmir went off peacefully on December 16, with an overall turnout of 57.22 per cent (71.93 per cent in Jammu and 39.52 per cent in Kashmir). However, as the eight-phase election process, which commenced on November 28, draws to a close, mainstream Kashmiri leaders have increasingly become targets of militant attacks. The leaders see this development as a result of New Delhi’s “ill-intentioned” downgrading of their security cover since early 2019. Complaints about “voter suppression” and undue interventions by the security forces have also grown, raising a question mark over the sanctity of the electoral exercise.

Polling for 31 DDC seats—13 in Kashmir division and 18 in Jammu division—began at 7 a.m. on December 16. In Kashmir, Bandipora recorded the highest turnout at 70.47 per cent whereas the turnout in Pulwama and Shopian were as low as 11.06 per cent and 6.55 per cent. In Jammu, Poonch witnessed the highest turnout at 80.12 per cent.

In the seventh phase, 148 candidates in Kashmir and 150 candidates in Jammu were in the fray. The eighth and final phase will be held on December 19. The results will be declared on December 22.

The past week has seen attacks on the candidates of the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) and intervention by the armed forces’ allegedly to prevent voters in Kashmir from casting their votes. The National Conference (N.C.) and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) have alleged that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is using coercion to suppress voters as increased turnout could mean that Altaf Bukhari’s Apni Party candidates are less likely to win. There is widespread perception that the Apni Party, often referred to as the “King’s party” in Kashmir, is propped up by the BJP, which hoped that a boycott of the elections by the N.C. and the PDP would help its proxies win.

In the past week, N.C. and PDP leaders have gone public with accusations that the BJP was getting the Armed Forces to prevent people from voting. PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti tweeted on December 10: “Security forces have cordoned Matribugh in Shopian and are not allowing people to come out to vote under the pretext of inputs about the presence of militants. In a brazen display of power, armed forces are being used to rig this election and favour a particular party.”

The accusations match with the accounts of three field reporters who were thrashed in Anantnag on December 10 by the Jammu & Kashmir police for highlighting “disruptions” in the election process. The reporters, Fayaz Lolu (ETV Bharat), Mudasir Qadri (News 18 Urdu) and Junaid Rafiq (TV 9), were beaten while covering the DDC elections in the Srigufwara area of South Kashmir.

In a statement issued to the press, Fayaz Lolu said: “My colleagues and I were at a polling station in Lever, where some people alleged that no vote was allowed to be cast till 8.30 am despite the fact that polling should have begun at 7 am. We interviewed People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration candidate Nisar Ahmad there and also took some video of the polling station. In the meantime, senior superintendent of police (SSP) Sandeep Choudhary came to the spot. Without any reason, he slapped two of my colleagues. I tried to intervene and asked why he was beating my colleagues. The SSP rebuked me and said don’t speak in English here (yehan angrezi mat jhado). Then he beat me up as well.”

Condemning the incident, Omar Abdullah said: “There was a time when administrations in Jammu & Kashmir took pride and satisfaction in elections that had a respectable turnout. Now they take pride in enforcing a poll boycott and stopping people from casting their votes. Strange are the ways of this version of Naya Kashmir.”

There have been attacks on PAGD leaders too. On December 14, militants attacked Haji Parvez Ahmed, senior leader of the PDP. In the ensuing gunfire, Manzoor Ahmad, Ahmed’s Personal Security Officer (PSO), sustained bullet injuries and later died at a Srinagar hospital. Mehbooba Mufti alleged that the killing of the PSO was the result of the policy of curtailing security cover of mainstream leaders in Jammu & Kashmir. She tweeted: “Strongly condemn the attack on PDP’s Haji Parvez. J&K admin has left opposition leaders in a vulnerable position by downgrading their security. Lapses are likely to occur since protection given is inadequate. My heartfelt condolences to Manzoor Ahmed’s family.”