24/04/2019 3:28 PM IST | Updated 24/04/2019 3:28 PM IST

Elections In Kashmir: Understanding Anantnag's 13.6% Voter Turnout

The final voter turnout in Kashmir is expected to be even lower because the rest of the three districts that will go to polls are the epicenter of the militancy made popular by militant commander Burhan Wani.

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ANANTNAG, Jammu And Kashmir — In Anantnag parliamentary constituency of southern Kashmir, the Lok Sabha polls are seen as a battle between the resurgent armed insurgency and mainstream politics trying hard to distance itself from New Delhi to stay relevant.

It was a foregone conclusion that separatist sentiment, traditionally expressed by the boycott of polls, would win hands down. Only the extent of the boycott remained to be seen.

At the end of the day, officials announced a 13.6% turnout in Anantnag district of the Lok Sabha constituency, where the separatist sentiment runs so high that the polling schedule for the four districts of the seat—Anantnag, Shopian, Kulgam and Pulwama—was broken into three phases, probably for the first time in the history of Lok Sabha elections. The situation didn’t even permit the government to hold a by-poll for the constituency since early 2016 when former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti vacated it to take over the reins of the state government. 

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The final turnout is expected to be lower because the rest of the three districts are currently the epicenter of the militancy made popular by militant commander Burhan Wani, whose killing in 2016 triggered months-long anti-India protests. Most militants and civilians killed in the past three years belong to the districts where polling will be held on 29 April and 6 May.

None other than Mehbooba Mufti, who made southern Kashmir a laboratory for a palatable form of mainstream politics in the late nineties and never lost an election since 1996, knew this was coming. Her election speeches betrayed the fears that not many people would come out to vote. After casting her vote at a polling station in her hometown Bijbehara, she put on a confident face before the cameras.

“We are confident of victory. My father has left a legacy in the form of workers and I trust them. They are my hope,” she told the media. A politician already smells trouble if she banks on her party workers alone, not the general electorate, for an electoral victory.

In the 2014 Lok Sabha poll, Mehbooba had polled 200,429 votes, and even her closest rival, NC’s Mehboob Beg, got 135,012 votes.

This time, in the six polling booths of centre number 35, a short distance away from Mehbooba’s ancestral home in Bijbehara, a mere 139 votes, out of the 4,400 registered, were polled. Forty of the 65 polling booths that drew no voters belonged to her home turf.

Every polling station looked like a mini garrison, guarded inside and outside by about 100 to 400 paramilitary soldiers. With the arrest of dozens of Jamaat-e-Islami members, separatist leaders and potential pro-boycott protesters besides curbs on the media, the government had wiped out the chances of an active campaign for boycott, which could have made even the 13% voting a tall order.

Outside Khanabal polling station, a photojournalist complained he couldn’t find anything worthwhile to shoot because there were no voter queues. A journalist jokingly advised him to photograph a small gathering of pro-boycott onlookers outside the polling stations instead.

“You should go to villages if you want to see the polling trends today. This place anyway boycotts elections because we know they are a farce,” said a lawyer, requesting anonymity. He was apparently referring to the trend of overwhelming boycott in urban areas and low to moderate voting in villages. Several people who gathered around him said only a UN-backed referendum would be a genuine election. A policeman shooed them away.

In the majority of the villages that did vote, only the party cadres came in ones and twos to polling stations early in the morning to avoid eye contact with those boycotting the polls. Nearly all the women who voted at the Bijbehara centre were wearing burka as a shield against the shame associated with voting.

The bottled up anger against the elections, which was being held under the watch of 30,000 additional paramilitary soldiers besides thousands of policemen and soldiers already deployed in the area, erupted in the evening when two vehicles carrying election staff and police guard were attacked with stones in Zalangam village, the ancestral village of separatist leader Yasin Malik. A policeman succumbed at hospital and 14 paramilitary soldiers were injured. The polling day coincided with a general strike called against the Malik’s alleged mistreatment in the custody of the National Investigation Agency. At a few places, anti-election protesters clashed with the police.

Often, voters justify going against the majority sentiment by giving stock reasons handed to them by their party leaders to blunt the guilt associated with voting. BJP’s open declaration to abrogate Article 370 and 35A, the legislations which provide special constitutional status to Jammu and Kashmir, was the reigning one this time.

“It is there. We don’t vote. They are all charlatans. How can you vote when people around you have been killed?”

At a polling station in Dooru, about a dozen Congress and PDP workers had tea together. They ensured their colleagues bring in vehicles, the voters who might be reluctant to walk to the station in such a prohibitive atmosphere.

“Our shops were ransacked by BJP workers in Bihar. You might have seen the video that went viral on social media. The shops of Kashmiris selling handicrafts. I want my vote to go to Rahul Gandhi so that BJP doesn’t come to power again. Only a secular government in New Delhi can ensure protection for Article 370 and 35A. I have no other motive,” said a man who identified himself as a businessman.

A PDP worker told him that only a Kashmiri leader could speak for Kashmiris. Local Congress leaders were subservient to their national leadership.

“And who brought BJP into Kashmir? We know how your leader begged for votes in the name of stopping BJP and then entered into an alliance with it,” the Congress supporter said.

“We did stop them. We didn’t let them fiddle with the special status. They betrayed us,” the PDP worker said.

As the argument heated up, a Congress worker said that during 2016, the PDP-led coalition government got him arrested on charges of instigating the street protests.

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“I have held the Congress flag at a time when every mainstream politician ran away from Kashmir. And PDP government filed an FIR against me,” he said, only to be countered with the same allegation by the PDP worker.

Another PDP supporter said that “all mainstream politicians are crooks”, and hurled choicest abuses at them.

“Believe me I have come here only because of my good relations with Andrabi sahab. You can trust him. He is a god-fearing man. (State Congress chief) Ghulam Ahmad Mir was an accused in sex scandal,” the man said. Farooq Andrabi was the former local MLA and Mehbooba Mufti’s close relative.

“I have bought my son along. He is unemployed,” the man added.

The son, in his early twenties, asked the journalists to leave.

“If you stay long enough, the argument will turn into a fight. Please leave,” he told us. His father again cursed the mainstream politicians and “we Kashmiris who can’t resist the temptation to vote”.

In Verinag, a tourist destination, dozens of paramilitary soldiers deployed on the streets had put down an anti-election protest that had morphed into a stone-throwing clash. A police official walked up to a few people sitting on the stairs of a half-open tea shop. They told him that tension had been brewing since the CRPF soldiers arrived two days before the polling. After being pelted with stones on Monday evening, the soldiers had vented their ire on a few shopkeepers, damaging their goods. A man named Thokur had been beaten, they told the official.

Once the police left, an elderly man, pointed toward the polling station and stones, evidence of the clash, strewn on the road.

“It is there. We don’t vote. They are all charlatans. How can you vote when people around you have been killed?”