Around midday on Thursday, Mubarak Gul walked sulkily out of a polling booth in Srinagar’s Nawab Bazar. The booth was housed in a local community hall built from funds granted by the National Conference (NC) leader, who was an MLA until six months ago, but that memory didn’t seem to be improving his mood.
Until noon, just around 50 votes had been registered in the 11 polling stations meant for the 6,760 registered voters of Nawab Bazar, a cluster of densely populated mohallas in old Srinagar. In Gul’s own booth, only eight of 750 registered voters had managed to exercise their franchise by that time, and that too by evading the small groups of local residents gathered on the way, giving derisive looks to anyone heading towards the booth.
The poor turnout wasn’t surprising, given the strong separatist sentiment in the region—this time, however, there are two differences that make the electoral contest even more unpredictable: one, the usual boycott campaign was muted like never before, as most separatists are either in jail, under house arrest or on the run. Two, Gul is worried by the emergence of Sajjad Gani Lone’s People’s Conference and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as serious threats.
Every vote counts in an election where the turnout is low—in 2017, NC leader and former chief minister Farooq Abdullah won a bypoll for the Srinagar Lok Sabha seat with a margin of less than 11,000 votes. Only 7% turnout was recorded at the time, and seven anti-election protesters were shot dead by police.
Abdullah is again the NC candidate from the seat this time, against PDP’s Aga Syed Mohsin, Irfan Ansari of People’s Conference and BJP’s Sheikh Khalid Jehangir.
“I don’t understand what Srinagar will gain from boycotting elections. I am ashamed because I saw someone who was voting for BJP,” said Yunus, Gul’s son, surrounded by four policemen who were guarding the father and son.
Of the eight votes, three were by young defectors from the National Conference who, people in the mohalla say, were promised (and maybe delivered) some goodies by the BJP. Two were a 74-year-old local baker and his son, fiercely loyal to the NC.
The old man was the only voter in the area who proudly showed me the indelible ink mark.
“I have always voted. Everybody knows that I vote,” he said.
Rafiq, a shopkeeper in his mid-fifties, vigorously nods in agreement.
“Yes, you have, but this is the only time when you are displaying your inked finger. In the past, you would go into a polling station stealthily. I think this time, you don’t feel the pressure from the other side,” Rafiq told the NC supporter, in an apparent reference to separatists.
Nawab Bazar is part of Srinagar district, one of the three districts constituting the Srinagar Lok Sabha seat. The turnout for this seat hardly ever touches double digits, mainly because voters in areas such as Nawab Bazaar resoundingly boycott polls. Even by 3pm, officials said the poll percentage was 5%.
The area’s recent history is blood-soaked, like other areas of the Valley. In the first 7-8 years of the insurgency, government forces had killed more than 22 militants and civilians, two of them children, here.
Anti-India street protests are common here. Several local residents, who have been earlier booked for protests, are asked to appear at police stations on crucial days such as the eve of elections, India’s Republic Day and Independence Day celebrations and general anti-India strikes. Even before the insurgency started, it had been a pro-Pakistan bastion.
Elections are such a taboo in most of old Srinagar that only NC and People’s Democratic Party had polling agents in most of the polling stations of Nawab Bazar. Only one station had an agent from Lone’s People’s Conference, BJP’s ally. These agents are meant to ensure that no ineligible voter casts his vote. But such is the shame associated with elections that none of the polling stations had an agent who lived in the same area.
Dozens of police and paramilitary soldiers in riot gear have been deployed both outside and inside every polling station. At the Government Women’s College in Nawa Kadal, which had a few polling stations for Nawab Bazar voters, a CRPF soldier asked whether I was a voter. Only after I revealed my identity did he open the gate.
I asked him why the door was closed.
“Small kids come and throw stones. That is why we keep it closed,” he said.
Anyway, there seemed to be no point in keeping it open. No voter had turned up at one of the three stations inside the college, an elderly man voted in the second and four had cast votes early in the morning in Jama Latta station.
In Nawab Bazar, the sound of firecrackers had greeted the arrival last night of the polling staff, some of whom had mistaken it for a grenade attack. A few officials complained that they had not had a cup of tea since last night. It appeared the legendary hospitality of the people in Srinagar was not extended to the polling staff. One reason could be that serving tea to officials part of an exercise separatists have condemned as “strengthening the occupation” could invite the community’s censure.
“A cup of tea would have done no harm,” said an official at Syed Hamid Pora, unaware of the fact that outside, a group was already discussing the six people who had voted at this station.
“Nothing surprising. They are like that only,” a man said of the three members of a family who had voted.
“Do they have no shame? Do they not see the children who have been killed and blinded?” asked another.