Vote in the time of terror

Print edition : October 11, 2002

In the September 16 first-round polling in the four-stage Assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir, patterns of voter turnout point to the varied political agendas at play and the level of terrorist threat in existence.

Respected President, Sumo Service, Bandipora: As-salaam alaikum. You are hereby informed through this pamphlet that you have provided vehicles to the contestants for holding rallies during the so-called elections... You are well aware of the sacrifices of the people and are bargaining with the blood of martyrs. You are therefore warned to desist from such activities. Obey, [baaz aa jao] or we will blow up both the vehicles and the traitors in them.

Bandipora district commander Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen, ``K.K.'', August 28, 2002.

"HUM KYA CHAHTE?" Usman Majid demands of the crowd before him, ``what do we want?" In his days as an Al-Jehad terrorist, the answer used to be azaadi, independence. ``Motor car,'' a group of party faithful, smartly turned out in dazzling yellow track-suits, now shout back, referring to Majid's election symbol.

Majid is standing against his one-time Al-Jehad comrade Javed Shah, now the National Conference (N.C.) candidate for the Bandipora Assembly seat. Crowds for both candidates were thin during the closing phases of their campaign. In the fortnight before voting, N.C. block vice-president Ghulam Hassan Bhat was killed by terrorists, his head and chest sawn off as a warning to others. Another party worker, Bashir Ahmad Khan, was also shot.

Nonetheless, some people did come out to see what was on offer. ``Majid is educated,'' said Ajas resident Afzal Wani, home on vacation from his college in Jammu, ``and understands our problems. We need change here. Besides, there's been no power for three days, so I can't watch television.'' Somewhere in this dense web of signs lie the many lessons of the first phase of polling in the ongoing Jammu and Kashmir Assembly elections. With media attention obsessively focussed on voter turnout, terrorist intimidation and alleged army counter-coercion, September 16 has been reduced to a cricket match, with India batting, Pakistan bowling and the people of the State hanging around in the outfield waiting for the ball to come their way.

Voters wait for their turn to vote in Natnossa in Handwara constituency in Jammu and Kashmir in the first phase of polling on September 16.-RAJEEV BHATT

In fact, a plethora of complex political processes played themselves out during the course of the day. Purely local issues, such as administration, corruption and development, jostled for political space with meta-questions about the State's political future. In the years to come, the ongoing Assembly elections may well be remembered as the point where genuine competitive politics began to re-emerge in Jammu and Kashmir.

Patterns of voter turnout point to the varied agendas that operated on September 16. In areas where N.C. candidates were confronted by credible opposition figures, turnout was considerably higher than in 1996. Turnout in Kupwara rose from just 24 per cent to over 53 per cent as a consequence of the sharp contest between the sitting N.C. MLA and Ghulam Qadir Mir, backed by the People's Conference (P.C.). The neighbouring constituency of Handwara saw a high turnout, for it is a struggle between N.C. heavyweight Choudhari Mohammad Ramzan and the P.C.-backed Ghulam Mohiuddin Sofi. However, the presence of a strong Opposition candidate did not in itself ensure high turnout. Despite an N.C.-P.C. showdown, in Karnah the turnout was lower than in 1996. Alternately, high turnout was seen in traditional N.C. pocketboroughs such as Gurez and Uri, which are witnessing one-horse races.

Part of the reason for the high turnout, where it occurred, may be that this has been a more inclusive election than the one in 1996. The participation of candidates backed by the secessionist P.C. has been widely commented on, but little attention has been paid to the fact that the election drew in people from diverse ideological backgrounds. Fifteen of the 105 candidates in north Kashmir were, for example, one-time terrorists, individuals with terrorist links or members of the Kashmir Retrieval Movement, a breakaway group of Jamaat-e-Islami figures led by Khaliq Haneef. Several constituencies also saw the emergence of rebel N.C. candidates. Significantly, Sajjad Lone and Bilal Lone, sons of the assassinated P.C. leader, stayed in New Delhi through the campaign, defying orders from the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) to campaign against their quasi-official candidates. The fact that they were able to defy the APHC illustrates the intensity of grassroots pressure to restore peace, and could have profound consequences for the secessionist coalition should at least some of the P.C. candidates win.

An elderly person casting his vote using the electronic voting machine in Baramullah in north Kashmir during the first phase of polling.-

IN many areas, people were surprisingly candid about their motivation for voting. Trehgam was home to Mohammad Maqbool Butt, the hanged assassin of the Indian diplomat Ravindra Mahtre, who is now venerated by secessionist formations. ``We are voting to punish the corrupt Abdullah family,'' said local P.C. supporter Nazir Ahmad Malik, ``who murdered the finest son of Kashmir.'' Others who said they would support the P.C., however, gave more mundane responses. ``Nothing has been done for six years to address the severe drinking water problems that we face, or to improve the hospital and the schools,'' complained Mohammad Rafiq. ``And on top of it all, the MLA moved the poultry farm out of Trehgam to his own village.'' At least one young person, college student Mohammad Iqbal, told Frontline that he opposed the election process because he was committed to the struggle for independence. ``Illiterate people have been fooled by the politicians,'' Iqbal said, watching queues of voters before polling booths.

Most Trehgam residents, unlettered or otherwise, did not seem to share Iqbal's position. The town's polling booths were packed all day, a development that is being read as being part of an anti-N.C. upsurge. At Batergam, a short distance from Kupwara, village residents complained that the government had done little to improve the lives of ordinary people. ``I've spent six years knocking on our MLA's doors searching for a job,'' said one person. ``Each time I go to his home, I'm told he's either out, or resting. He's only awake for his relatives and cronies, who've cornered all the jobs.'' Support for the N.C., however, was not difficult to come by. Several voters at Kwari, in Handwara, said they would support the party because the government had built a bridge to the village, and recently installed a pump that would make it relatively easy to secure irrigation and drinking water. Others, however, said they would support Congress(I) activist Ali Mohammad Dar, on the grounds that the State needed a political change. Women voters, in particular, seemed focussed on the need to use political representation to secure tangible benefits such as access to water, health care and education.

Relatively low turnout in other Assembly segments is not only the consequence of the absence of a credible opposition, but a function of the level of terrorist threat. The sharp drop in turnout in Bandipora, home to an engaging political context, it seems plausible, had at least something to do with election-eve killings of political workers. Villages like Ajas were plastered with anti-election posters issued by terrorist organisations, and several areas saw fire-fights in the days before polling. Similar factors clearly affected turnout to the south in the Rajouri and Poonch areas. An engagement between troops and terrorists claimed the lives of five Lashkar-e-Toiba cadre near Surankote even as voting was under way. Terrorist groups cordoned off several remote villages of the region, while 107-millimetre rockets were fired at Thanamandi and Surankote. While such weapons are generally ineffective in inflicting casualties, they succeeded in their purpose keeping people indoors and out of the polling booths.

Poonch and Rajouri saw some of the worst pre-election violence, exceeding in scale even the carnage in north Kashmir. In the week before polling, the influential N.C. leader Qazi Mohammad Riaz was shot at his home near the Shahdara Sharif shrine near Thanamandi in Poonch. Another of his party was killed at Mendhar, in Rajouri. The worst attack came on September 11, when a rally being addressed by All India Congress Committee general secretary Ambika Soni and State Congress(I) president Ghulam Nabi Azad was attacked at Surankote city. Four terrorists in army uniforms opened fire from nearby maizefields, killing 10 security personnel and two civilians, one of them just 14 years old. Two terrorists were killed, and 22 were injured. Shortly afterwards, Azad blamed the N.C. for the assault, asking why the terrorists ``did not target the rally of the N.C. president, Omar Abdullah, which was held at the same venue yesterday.''

A youth casting his vote.-

GHULAM NABI AZAD presumably did not know about events unfolding to the north the same day, the sole excuse for his otherwise indefensible diatribe. While the Congress(I) leader's press conference was under way, State Law Minister Mushtaq Lone had been shot dead by a terrorist dressed in a burkha. The assassination is believed to have been carried out by the Lashkar-e-Toiba, operatives of which had also laid a succession of ambushes and a mine in case Lone escaped the assassin. Ironically enough, Lone was believed to have the tacit support of local Hizbul Mujahideen commander Asad Malik. Such support, not exceptional to Lone, was the outcome of an effort by some members of the Hizbul Mujahideen to keep lines of dialogue open with the political establishment. Lone had in the past taken a soft line on terror, ordering the release of jailed Hizbul Mujahideen commander ``Master'' Ahsan Dar while he was Minister of State for Home in 1999. Dar, who had been arrested from the home of Lone's brother and one-time terrorist Mohiuddin Lone in 1993, escaped to Pakistan and founded a new terrorist group, the Ansar-ul-Islam.

#Lone's killing forced the authorities to confront squarely the issue of voter intimidation, something many had been pretending did not exist. In the run-up to the elections, Chief Election Commissioner G.M. Lyngdoh, mindful of allegations of state-sponsored coercion during the elections six years ago, had said that he would countermand elections ``even 500 times'' if the Army played any role in the poll process. On the morning of September 12, Defence Minister George Fernandes called a core-group meeting at Srinagar's Raj Bhavan. Governor Girish Saxena, Lieutenant-Generals V.G. Patankar and T.P.S. Brar, Director-General of Police A.K. Suri and senior intelligence officials discussed the post-assasination scenario threadbare. It soon became evident that the fiat directing the Army to stay away from the poll process would have to be reviewed. The next day, State's Chief Election Officer Pramod Jain was, for the first time, invited to a meeting of the Unified Headquarters. After prolonged discussions, sources said, Jain agreed to allow the Army to secure campaign routes, protect candidates and be deployed in sensitive villages on polling day. Troops were ordered to inform village residents that they coulde vote without fear, but were under no circumstances to use threats or coercive means to ensure voter turnout.

Did this, as some observers have alleged, result in voters being marched at gunpoint to polling stations?

There is little doubt that on election eve and on the morning of September 16, some Army and Border Security Force units did use public address systems in mosques to ask communities to come out and cast their votes. In some areas of Sopore, local residents told reporters they had been beaten by Armymen. Even assuming all these complaints to be true, however, there is no evidence that such action played any significant role in shaping turnout. Sangrama and Sopore, from where the majority of the reported complaints emanated, had exceptionally low turnout. Unless one subscribes to the a priori assumption that voters here were less scared of supposed security force threats than elsewhere, coercion was clearly peripheral to the events of September 16. It is also plausible that sympathisers of terrorist groups may have offered some journalists accounts intended to discredit the elections.

Although there is little credible eyewitness evidence of beatings or large-scale coercion to vote, the issue seems set to re-emerge in the coming phases of elections. The N.C. almost lost the life of a second Minister when Sakina Itoo was ambushed at D.K. Marg, near Kulgam, on September 15.

Terrorist intimidation and violence directed at grassroots political workers is continuing, and over 32 persons have lost their lives since elections were notified on August 22. Sadly, no one seems to have addressed themselves to the issue of how to make it possible for those who do want to vote to be able to do so without risking their lives. At least some people within the N.C. seem to be entirely happy about the situation, believing that a low turnout will help them compensate for at least some of the reverses the party is expected to suffer in Rajouri, Poonch and north Kashmir. Since the N.C. has a committed village-level cadre, low turnout tends to damage the prospects of recently built oppositional groups.

Critics of the election process are right when they say it will not solve the Kashmir problem if, indeed, such an unproblematic thing actually exists. It might, however, help solve some problems: good enough reason for hundreds of thousands of ordinary people to find the extraordinary courage it takes to vote in a time of terror.

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