Why Kashmir has not seen an election boycott this time

After years of boycotts and suppression, Kashmiris’ enthusiastic participation in elections signals a desire to regain a political voice.

Published : May 10, 2024 20:06 IST - 6 MINS READ

Fatima, 86, votes in her home ahead of the fourth phase of India’s general election, in Srinagar.

Fatima, 86, votes in her home ahead of the fourth phase of India’s general election, in Srinagar. | Photo Credit: SHARAFAT ALI

After nearly three decades, the bustle of elections has returned to Kashmir, with rallies and campaigns drawing much enthusiasm among people eager to cast their vote. This indicates that compared to previous elections a large number of people are expected to participate in polls this time. The rallies continued despite the killing of three militants including Basit Dar, “commander” of The Resistance Front (TRF).

From May 13 to 25, nearly 86.9 lakh people, including 3.4 lakh first-time voters, are expected to vote in Jammu and Kashmir to elect three Parliament members for three seats—Srinagar, Baramulla, and Anantnag-Rajouri—in the first major elections in the Valley following the scrapping of Article 370, special status, and statehood in August 2019.

The people participating in the election rallies say that the polls could prove a platform for the disenchanted electorate to vent their feelings. “Such vibrant and intense campaigning has returned to Kashmir after 25 years. My aged parents who have never voted before are desperately waiting to press the ballot button. The vote seems to be the only option left for the people to express their response to the ruling government and its policies,” Mohammad Asif, a businessman in Hyderpora, Srinagar, told Frontline.

No more ‘no-go’

Colourful convoys of motorbikes and cars have been navigating villages and towns in the Valley, as people line up to catch a glimpse of the contestants even in the militancy-hit parts of Srinagar, previously known as no-go zones for mainstream leaders.

Also Read | Kashmir faces a severe power supply crisis, but in the election, the vote is likely to be on Article 370

Sopore constituency in Baramulla, which was once a bastion of separatists and insurgency movements, and which has a reputation for political indifference, has also seen a number of election rallies, including a tonga rally to raise awareness about the importance of voting. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, Sopore, the native town of the late Hurriyat chairman Syed Ali Shah Geelani, had the lowest voter turnout in Baramulla district at 4.35 per cent.

For Mohammad Ashraf Mir, a 33-year-old doctor in Sopore, staying away from elections has been the norm, but this time he has decided to vote. “I will be voting for the first time along with many others in my town. Most people who sided with the election boycott have decided to vote in favour of the jailed politician Engineer Rashid,” Mir told Frontline.

The 58-year-old Rashid is the founder of the Awami Ittehad Party (AIP) and has filed his nomination for the Baramulla seat from Tihar jail. Rashid has garnered good support, mainly in Sopore, following his arrest in 2019 by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in an alleged money laundering case related to terror funding in the Valley.

Rallies in separatist strongholds

Similarly, in south Kashmir’s Tral, also once a hotbed of militancy, the people are willing to vote in large numbers to restrict the entry of the BJP and its alleged proxies to Kashmir. “I am 40, but I have never voted in any Lok Sabha election. However, this time I will not waste my vote and give an advantage to the BJP because an election boycott will indirectly help the saffron party and its proxies,” said Riyaz Ahmad Baba, who runs a grocery store in Hamadania market in Tral, 47 km from Srinagar.

Almost all the regional political parties—the National Conference, Peoples Democratic Party, Altaf Bukhari’s Apni Party, and Sajad Lone’s Peoples Conference—have managed to organise poll rallies in Shopian, Kulgam, Pulwama, Baramulla, and Kupwara, previously separatist strongholds and red zone districts on the Valley’s militancy map.

Even former Chief Ministers Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti have organised election rallies in downtown Srinagar, previously known as a volatile area and a hotbed of deadly stone-pelting incidents.

Omar Abdullah during an election campaign in Srinagar.

Omar Abdullah during an election campaign in Srinagar. | Photo Credit: Imran Nissar/ANI

A senior BJP leader in Jammu and Kashmir, Hina Shafi Bhat, told Frontline that the degree of people’s participation in the election rallies in Kashmir is a healthy sign of democracy. “Despite the BJP not contesting Lok Sabha elections from Kashmir this time, the involvement of people in the rallies is a great sign for democracy.”

Asked why more people in Kashmir are participating in the elections this time, Siddiq Wahid, a distinguished professor at the Department of International Relations and Governance Studies at Shiv Nadar University, told Frontline: “People in Kashmir are realising that these elections will determine the future of Kashmir’s identity and political rights in a very radical way. Besides, people who have been without an elected government since 2018 want their voice to be heard as they regard these elections as a referendum on the reading down of Article 370.”

Also Read | Why deferment of Lok Sabha election in Anantnag-Rajouri has triggered controversy

After three decades, the Valley’s educational institutions, including Kashmir University, are abuzz with campaigns to draw first-time voters to polling booths.

The Union Home Ministry has stated that increased security measures, intelligence gathering, and targeted counterterrorism operations by Jammu and Kashmir police and security forces, have brought down terror incidents from 228 in 2018 to 44 in 2023. The Centre claimed that stone-pelting incidents were reduced to zero in 2023 compared to 1,767 in 2018.

The mainstream parties argue, however, that in the last five years, people have been subjected to intimidation and suppression. For instance, on May 8, Mehbooba Mufti said that since the abrogation of Article 370, the Centre has used aggressive tactics to achieve peace in Kashmir. “Centre is using jail, draconian laws like UAPA, and other fake narratives to achieve peace in Kashmir,” she said while addressing a public meeting in Budgam district of Srinagar parliamentary constituency.

Former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir Mehbooba Mufti (C) protest the abrogation of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370.

Former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir Mehbooba Mufti (C) protest the abrogation of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370. | Photo Credit: SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP

In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, around 80.9 per cent of voters boycotted the election in all three segments of Kashmir, with Srinagar recording less than 14 per cent polling, Anantnag 13.61 per cent, and Baramulla 38.9 per cent.

Baba, the shopkeeper from Tral believes people have been frightened and unable to speak. For example, he said, when someone is arrested no one utters a word due to the climate of fear. “Having an elected representative is thus a must.”

Also Read | ‘The election is an opportunity to end silence in Kashmir’: Waheed-ur-Rehman Parra

Most separatist leaders being in jail due to the Centre’s crackdown is another reason the call for election boycott is not being heard this time. Even Hurriyat chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq has abstained from calling for a boycott unlike in the past. “The government of India made drastic unilateral changes and complicated the dynamics of the Kashmir issue in 2019, further disempowering people. In the changed circumstances, issuing a boycott call does not seem to make sense or yield impact, as in the past,” said Farooq, who is also the chief cleric of Kashmir.

Despite the absence of boycott calls, some people, especially among youth, are still not interested in voting. Arshid Aziz, a 30-year-old research scholar in Shopian, refuses to cast a vote because he says there is no right candidate contesting. “We have been fooled time and again; all parties have failed to address our major issues.”

Irfan Amin Malik is a journalist based in Jammu and Kashmir. 

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