“In the last five years, no bomb blast took place in any other part of the country. We managed to contain terrorism to just two-and-a-half districts in Jammu and Kashmir,” he said to a crowd in Gujarat’s Amreli.
The ‘half’ district of Kulgam, which went to polls on Monday, is a reminder to New Delhi, if one is needed, that a narrow geographical reading of the Kashmir conflict can only lead to erroneous assumptions and misguided chest-thumping.
Take Bugam village, one of the largest in Kulgam district. Since 2008, even before southern Kashmir witnessed the resurgence of militancy with the rise and death of Burhan Wani, this prosperous village of about 2,200 families has refused to vote.
In 2008, the government’s decision to transfer forest land to the Amarnath shrine set off massive protests in which at least 15 people were killed. The land row, which soon escalated into a blockade where Muslim traders were prevented from selling their goods, set off religious riots. This set the ground once again for frequent uprisings and disturbances in the Valley.
In 2015, people in several villages began arguing over which place would get to bury Lashkar-e-Toiba commander Abu Qasim. It was Bugam which won that fight. The militant’s body is buried not far from the bright pink-coloured higher secondary school where five polling stations have been set up together to minimise the possibility of clashes.
“Thanks,” said a polling official at the school when this writer asked him how many of the 3,400 registered voters had turned up.
By 1 pm, the election staff was completing the paperwork usually done at the end of polling, sure that no voter would appear even by then.
Normally, every polling station is guarded by scores of police and paramilitary personnel. At the school in Bugam, there were just about two dozen, and that too only inside the premises, none on the streets.
Was this to reduce chances of a clash between security personnel and locals? Not quite.
“We engage them for a while when they leave,” said a group of young men standing outside the school.
One of them recalled that in 2014, they hired a bulldozer to dig out a stretch of road on which a local lawmaker had walked a few steps after getting down from his car, forcing him to retreat. They then paved the road with concrete.
“Elections have done nothing for us. They clash with the sentiment of freedom,” said this person.
Five residents of the village are currently in jail on insurgency-related charges. Like every other place in the Valley, Bugam has been home to many militants and civilians who have been killed in the past 30 years.
An election meeting by Ram Madhav, BJP’s Kashmir in-charge, scheduled to be held in Kulgam on Saturday, had to be changed to the neighbouring Anantnag district.
Like in the Bugam school, polling stations elsewhere in Kulgam were also grouped together to avoid clashes. There were 12 in the higher secondary school at Qaimoh, another insurgency hotbed, almost like the authorities just wanted to get done with a formality.
A brief history of several killings
But this anti-election sentiment can’t be explained just by the popular militant resurgence of the past five years. Take Bachroo village, a few kilometres away from Bugam, where a passenger bus, parked right outside the polling station, had its windshield smashed by rocks thrown by a small group of anti-election protesters early in the morning. None of the 1,500 voters here had turned up by noon.
In 1972 and 1987, the Kulgam Assembly seat was won by Abdul Razak Bachroo, first as Jamaat-e-Islami candidate and then as a member of the Muslim United Front, which transformed into the separatist Hurriyat Conference after the insurgency erupted. In 1996, government-sponsored Ikhwan militiamen murdered Razak, a popular politician who would distribute his legislator’s salary among the poor. A few days earlier, he had reportedly turned down an army officer’s request to contest the Assembly polls that were being held for the first time since the insurgency began. His murder was, according to locals, a warning of what such defiance might lead to. In the 1996 Assembly elections, thousands of people were forced to vote at gunpoint by the Army.
In the 1996 election, the Kulgam seat, hitherto held by the National Conference and Jamaat-e-Islami, which are poles apart ideologically, was surprisingly won by the Communist Party of India’s Muhammad Yusuf Tarigami, whose vote tally in the previous elections would never cross a few hundred.
Tarigami’s sudden and seemingly permanent electoral rise in the unlikeliest place could be explained by Jamaat’s boycott of elections and NC’s waning popularity. But only the recurrent boycott, cemented by Bachroo’s murder in the mid-nineties, appears to be a constant in Kulgam’s electoral equations.
Razak’s is not the only killing that influences voting in Kulgam. In 2006, NC legislator Ghulam Nabi Dar was killed in a grenade attack by suspected militants. In the pre-insurgency era, Dar had won the Kulgam Assembly seat twice and commanded respect like Razak had. On Monday, his son and NC spokesman Imran Nabi Dar (who lost to Tarigami in 2014), had to frantically call his party workers from his home in Chawalgam (in Kulgam district), asking them to ensure that committed cadre vote for the party candidate. His was only a handful of the villages that at least recorded a low turnout, courtesy the late Dar. Otherwise, the turnout in all four Assembly segments of Kulgam district was dismal.
In Noorabad, traditionally an NC stronghold, the polling percentage plummeted from 75% in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls to 20% this time. Until 2016, when Kashmir erupted over the killing of Burhan Wani, the Damhal Hanjipora area in this constituency had not seen any separatist protests. No one had picked up arms, and a turnout above 60% was pretty much guaranteed. Then, in July 2016, when a protest was raging in the area, Yasmeena Wani, a young woman went out to fetch her younger, school-going brother who had joined the protesters. While they were walking home, security forces charged at the protesters, forcing the siblings to run into a lane. Yasmeena was shot in the head.
The reaction to her killing was unprecedented in the Valley. The protesters first bulldozed one of the buildings of the police station complex, then set on fire several buildings and more than a dozen cars on the premises. The fleeing policemen had to leave their rifles behind.
Elections in Kulgam, like elsewhere in Kashmir, are as much a function of the past and emerging legacies, as they are a marker of wildly fluctuating electoral moods in the troubled place. Many other factors—crushing separatist dissent before polls, for example—are now linked with every election. But in no case are elections an endorsement of the Indian state’s claims on Kashmir. If PM Modi needs further evidence, watch out for the results in the two “full” districts he was talking about, Pulwama and Shopian, where polling will be held on 6 May.