AT 10 AM, Choudhary Mohammad Yaseen Poswal emerges from the security blanket over the EDI building in Pampore on the outskirts of Srinagar. A candidate in the first ever District Development Council elections in Jammu and Kashmir, Poswal is the only civilian in the mini-convoy of two vehicles with armed policemen.
With two days to go for the first phase, and criticism from the mainstream PAGD alliance of being kept away from the electorate, the candidates are flanked by security personnel and chaperoned to their constituencies.
This is the first step in the Central government’s bid to restart the political process in the newly created Union Territory with elections to 280 constituencies — 140 each in Kashmir and Jammu — starting November 28. But on the ground, there are no posters, no party flags, and very little talk about the polls.
The only sign of an election are security vehicles passing by. Moving swiftly, they take 44-year-old Poswal, an independent candidate, to Aripal tehsil in the Tral area of Pulwama, about 70 km south. Off the main road, is an open field of boulders, after which the mobile network disappears. Another kilometre-and-a-half uphill, is Bangidar village in Satoora, ready for a meeting under a black tarpaulin sheet tied to a tree.
With his 19-year-old son Younis running the campaign, this is Poswal’s first visit to the constituency since he filed his nomination on November 18. And with snow falling, the residents — all from the Gujjar community that Poswal represents — jostle under the tarpaulin sheet and take turns to raise issues. “Even after years of electing leaders, we are waiting for basic facilities like road and electricity. We have seen a difficult life, should our children face the same future?” asks a voter.
For an Assembly or Parliament election, the Gujjar community vote is relatively small. However, the DDC elections provide the opportunity to elect more representatives.
Poswal’s promise is the implementation of the Forest Rights Act, 2006 that aims to empower nomadic communities, such as the Gujjars and Bakerwals, by granting rights to habitat and livelihood. But his voters’ expectations are far lower — within sight is a log of wood that serves as a bridge between two sides of the village.
For most residents, getting a permanent bridge is a more realistic and urgent need. On the periphery of the group, Hafeeza stands next to her two young children. “I live in fear that one of these days one of the children might slip and fall on the river bed. Even if there is no water in it, they will not survive,” she says. Standing nearby, Abdul Gani says, “The stream is dry for two months a year and we have lost two people in it, including my sister.”
A bridge also means hope. “If there is a bridge, then a road might follow, a school, a hospital and perhaps a better life,” says Gani. Right now, the closest school and hospital are about 2 km downhill. “When a woman is about to deliver, or an elder needs urgent attention, they have to be carried to the hospital,” says Fareeda, another resident.
Most of the men work as labourers. And in a crowd of phirans and caps, Poswal stands out in his brown suit and chequered scarf.
As he starts speaking, the policemen spread out around the group, their guns pointing straight. “Recently in Pahalgam, homes of the forest dwellers like you and me were destroyed. After that, the administration issued an order to implement the Forest Rights Act. I am hopeful that by March 2021, this will be implemented throughout J&K,” says Poswal.
The lives of the community, he says, are closely tied to the forests they inhabit and they should not be forcefully removed from their “rightful place”. “Many of them still use firewood in their kitchens, so they need to go to the forests and collect firewood. They have livestock that needs pastures. It is inhuman to remove them from this setting,” he says.
At Bandigar, a single electricity line runs through the village of about 200 households, most of which do not own a gas cylinder. For its residents, the biggest reason to vote is that the candidate is one of them.
At the market in Aripal, meanwhile, another candidate is shaking hands and passing around his number. PAGD’s Manzoor Ahmad Ganaie also brings up the “unique identity” of J&K. After four years in the BJP, he says he was disenchanted and joined the PDP in 2019. “I want to be the voice of the youth…Questions of restoration of J&K as it was pre-August last year are up to our leaders,” he says.
As soon as the candidates leave the area, a group of young men gathers in front of the local bank. Many of them are not aware of the polling date. “Candidates are coming these days but I don’t even know when the election is scheduled. Even earlier, MLAs would come before the election and then never look back,” says Ehsan Ahmed.
With political backing, Ganaie is based at a hotel in Srinagar. But as Poswal’s campaign winds up, after covering seven meetings in different areas, he is taken back to the EDI complex. It’s 5 pm, and the gates close behind him.
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