A violent phase

Print edition : October 25, 2002

The worst round of such terrorist violence ever in the State has a demonstrable impact on voter turnout in the third phase of polling in Jammu and Kashmir on October 1.

THE children at Kocheypora had pulled down the first poster that appeared on the wall of the village mosque, and turned it into a kite. Two nights before the third phase of voting in the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly elections, the Hizbul Mujahideen helpfully put up another copy of the announcement. "Muslims Awake," it proclaimed. "Do not barter away your honour and the Kashmir cause by voting. Do not forget the sacrifices of your brothers and sons." In case the villagers were not persuaded, its authors ended with a clinching argument. "All those who vote will be shot," the last line on the poster read, "the choice is yours". This time the village elders made sure the children stayed well away from the poster: and that the adults did not make the mistake of coming out to vote.

A soldier stands guard as voters wait for their turn to cast their votes in Pulwama on October 1, during the third phase of Assembly elections in south Kashmir.-NISSAR AHMED

Punctuated by over two dozen terrorist attacks, which claimed the lives of 21 soldiers and civilians and resulted in injuries to 26 people, the October 1 phase of voting was, without dispute, the most violent so far in the State. Casualties could easily have been higher. Tipped off by villagers about the presence of a timer-linked explosive device planted at the polling station in Litter, Border Security Force personnel brought in sniffer dogs to search for the bomb. While the searches threw up nothing, the polling booth was shifted to an adjoining building. The bomb, buried deep to avoid detection, went off just when voters and polling staff would have been packed into the building where it exploded. Massive security deployment also helped avoid greater civilian casualties. Terrorists were, for example, able to massacre nine bus passengers in Kathua, but failed to hit polling stations and remote villages.

Terrorist violence had a demonstrable impact on voter turnout. Tral, which had seen the elimination of two potential National Conference (N.C.) candidates before the elections, is a case in point. Late-night fire directed at polling stations and grenade explosions outside these ensured single-digit turnout in the constituency. Several local government employees were suspended from service after they refused to serve in the terror-hit area. N.C. candidate Ghulam Ahmad Bhat, who had lost his father and two brothers in terrorist attacks, did not even campaign in the area. Congress(I) candidate Surinder Singh also chose not to cast his vote, citing security concerns. But adjoining Rajpora, which like Tral is part of the district of Pulwama, had seen no serious pre-election violence, and registered a high turnout. Anantnag saw a similar pattern. Noorabad, which had seen four near-successful attacks on N.C. candidate Sakina Itoo, saw poor turnout. Pahalgam, relatively violence-free, witnessed above-average participation.

Reportage in general of the third phase of elections, sadly, paid little attention to the specific impact of terrorist violence. Instead, state coercion directed at voters was again seen as the key to securing a good turnout. Paradoxically enough, the bulk of the complaints of coercion by the Army came in areas where there was extremely low participation in the polls. Even more odd, voters sometimes complained of coercion in front of the very soldiers supposedly terrorising them. Some advocates of the coercion thesis seemed to be oblivious to the logical absurdities their claims led to. One national newspaper, for example, reported that in Shopian, "hundreds of people took out a procession against alleged coercion by the security forces, who, they said, forced them out to cast the[ir] vote". The previous two sentences of the report noted that "boycott of polls was near total" in Shopian, with "most of the booths not crossing the single digit".

EVEN less attention has been paid to the political use of armed terror in southern Kashmir. At several places, local elements of the Hizbul Mujahideen appeared to have arrived at something of an electoral alliance with former Union Home Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed's People's Democratic Party (PDP). The leading organiser for the PDP candidate from Homshalibugh, Ghaffar Sofi, was Mansoor Malik. The father of the local Hizbul Mujahideen battalion commander Tauseef Malik, Mansoor Malik's cadre claimed to have the support of the organisation. Unlike other parties, the PDP was able to campaign through the area without dense security cover. "By implication," says the Communist Party of India (Marxist) candidate from Homshalibugh, Mohammad Amin Dar, "it was made clear that those who supported other parties were defying the Hizbul Mujahideen. And everyone, of course, knows what such defiance can entail."

In some areas, PDP activists made no effort to disguise the workings of their alliance with the Hizbul Mujahideen. The PDP polling agent in Kullar, Ghulam Mohiuddin Nengroo, spent much of the morning of October 1 persuading his fellow villagers to ignore an anti-election poster put up by the Hizbul Mujahideen. "This is not a genuine poster," he said, "it has been put up by the NationalConference to scare us away. The real Hizbul Mujahideen poster is the one put up in Aishmuqam, telling people not to vote for the National Conference or the Congress(I)." While people in the PDP-dominated village of Kullar came out to vote, pro-N.C. voters in adjoining Veersaran stayed away from the polling booths. The Hizbul Mujahideen poster put up on the village mosque here was taken seriously, as it was in many villages where the N.C. had a large following.

Most terrorist attacks on candidates and political workers, too, focussed on non-PDP formations. Apart from Itoo, attempts were made to assassinate the sitting Pulwama MLA and State Minister Bashir Ahmed Nengroo, the N.C. candidate from Kokernag, Syed Abdul Rashid, his counterpart in Bijbehara, Abdul Ghani Shah Veeri, Abdul Mir from Shangus and Abdul Wahid Shan, from Gool-Arnas in Udhampur. The Nationalist Congress Party candidate from Devsar, Khalida Mushtaq, continues to battle for her life in a Srinagar hospital after a September 28 attack that claimed the life of her father, two party workers and a security officer. N.C. and Congress(I) rallies were also targeted in grenade attacks. Of 35 political workers killed in campaigning during September, only four were from the PDP. Forty political workers have been killed since elections were notified on August 22, taking the figure for this year to a record level of almost 100.

Voting at Chadoora in Kashmir during the second phase of elections.-RAJEEV BHATT

It is possible that the sharp escalation in terrorist violence preceding October 1 had not a little to do with the unexpectedly high turnout in the previous phase of elections, in the districts of Srinagar and Budgam. While Srinagar district as a whole recorded a low turnout, the N.C.-dominated rural segments of Ganderbal and Kangan bucked the trend. Similarly, the Shia belt of Budgam defied terrorist threats and came out to vote. High voter turnout in this area is believed to be the consequence of the alliance between the N.C. and Shia leader Aga Rohullah, the son of assassinated religious figure Aga Syed Mehdi. While Shia voters in central Kashmir have long backed the Congress(I), many seem to see the new configuration as an opportunity to secure long-denied state patronage. Since formations like the Hizbul Mujahideen share an interest in marginalising the N.C., their actions in south Kashmir may have been intended to ensure the experience of the second phase of polling was not repeated.

TERRORIST attacks on the political process, however, are also driven by larger structural concerns about democracy. Abdul Ahad Dar was marched out of his house in Wakai, near Kulgam, by two Urdu-speaking Lashkar-e-Toiba terrorists on September 21. The young CPI(M) activist was tortured, then tied to his party colleague Zahoor Ahmad Bhat, and shot dead at point-blank range. "My brother's crime," says his younger sister Mehmooda Dar, clutching his election identity card, "was to have tried to do something for our village. He lobbied our MLA, Mohammad Yusuf Tarigami, to provide funds for latrines in the village. Almost a hundred latrines were built, and we were going to build baths for the poor as well. The people who want to rule our villages through fear didn't like that. I begged the terrorists who came here to spare his life, and said all he wanted to do was to help the poor. When I cast my vote, I will vote for him as well."

Such stories abound in areas where politicians have attempted to use the political system to secure gains for rural communities. On the day elections were notified, the sarpanch of Kocheypora, Ali Mohammad Dar, was shot dead in the courtyard of his village home. Like the CPI(M) activists in Wakai, the long-standing N.C. activist had started using village development funds to bring tangible benefits to his community. Six months ago, Dar had obtained funds from Devsar MLA Peerzada Ghulam Mohammad Shah to build a road connecting Kocheypora to the Jammu-Srinagar national highway. In Pehloo, scene of two murderous assaults on candidates, N.C. workers like its block president Mohammad Munawar Dar were forced out of their homes by the Hizbul Mujahideen, and only allowed back after they publicly disassociated themselves from the party. "I don't know why anyone would kill a man for building a road," says Ali Mohammad Dar's son-in-law Abdul Hamid Dar.

The reason is not in fact all that hard to see. The coming of a political system has started to erode the long-standing control terrorists have had over civil society. And, whatever the outcome of this hard-fought election will be, the competition for political space seems likely to intensify. Already, the compulsions of fighting an election have led to the forging of unlikely alliances. If the PDP has on the one hand sought the informal, local-level backing of individual Hizbul Mujahideen groups, elsewhere it has been forced into very different alliances. Speaking in Anantnag, Sayeed backed the candidacy of one-time terrorist turned pro-India militia leader, Liaqat Ali Khan. Groups like Khan's Awami League have long been attacked by the PDP as being agents of state terror, but having to defeat their common opponent, the N.C., forced a remarkable volte-face. If, as most observers believe, the next government will be founded on a coalition, the process of political alliance-building will accelerate.

All of this is certain to have profound political consequences for Jammu and Kashmir. If, in 1996, voters brought in the N.C. to signal their rejection of terrorist violence, this time around the democratic process is being used to express anger with poor governance. The fact that the numbers of candidates has increased in most seats, despite serious and credible terrorist threats, shows that the democratic space available in Jammu and Kashmir is widening.

A few weeks before the last phase of elections, Mustafa Malik decided to contest as an independent from Reishipora. He has the backing of former Union Minister Ram Vilas Paswan, who even visited south Kashmir to campaign for the fledgling State unit of his party. Few people in the area have heard of Paswan, and Malik frankly admits that his chances of not losing his deposit are, at best, slim. "But that is not the issue," he says. "This is just one election. Who knows what might happen tomorrow?" Only a few years ago, few people in rural Jammu and Kashmir went to bed particularly certain that they would, in fact, wake to see the next day. Now, at least the possibility that a meaningful future might exist is being discussed.

With a fourth and final round of polling in six constituencies in Doda district on October 8, the stage will be set for the counting of votes on October 12.

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