Perched on a slope high up in the mountains of Bandipore, Malangam not long ago was a red circle on every counter-insurgency map. For years, this village was a militant hub, an easy address for young men who wanted to join militant ranks. By the time the Army moved in, villagers say at least 120 of them, mostly young men, were dead — killed in violent conflict.
Today, for one day, morning to sunset, that seemed like history.
Villagers poured out of homes on a chilly morning, jostled to stand in two separate lines — one for men, a second for women — that meandered across the compound of the government school. By the end of the day, the entire village had voted — for the first time. For the first time, too, you didn’t hear voices calling for a boycott of the polls — a constant refrain in the Valley as a rebuttal to New Delhi.
So high was the enthusiasm to vote that villagers were complaining against the “slow and relaxed” polling officers in the two booths in the school building. Those who had voted huddled in small groups, sitting around and discussing the polls, delaying their return home.
In polling booths 114 and 115, there are 1641 votes in all. By 2 pm, 891 had already voted, the rest were either in line or sitting around waiting for their turn.
In a place where you cannot take anything — far less, politics — for granted, few have been able to figure out what lies beneath this remarkable surge other than the unmistakable sense of the need to stand up and be counted.
All parties, meanwhile, from a defensive National Conference and its traditional rival PDP to the Congress and a resurgent BJP — each one has its fingers crossed hoping the surge tests positive.
This village was a microcosm of what was visible in the first phase of the Assembly polls, which at 71.28%, showed an unprecedented voter turnout across the 15 Assembly constituencies in the state — a jump of at least 10% over last time’s figures.
The reasons for the turnout depend on who you are talking to.
So there are villagers who said they had come out to vote because there is a pressing need to halt the BJP’s onward march otherwise the law will change and outsiders can come and buy their homes and fields – a misplaced fear many parties have stoked to secure support and push up voter turnout.
— Ruwa Shah (@ruwashah15) November 25, 2014
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As for the BJP candidate in Bandipore, Abdul Rehman Tikri, he was a militant of a pro-Pakistan group before he surrendered and joined mainstream politics.
Some villagers talked about fatigue and despair because their “sacrifices” haven’t yielded any political dividend, they questioned the “sincerity” of separatist leaders who make token visits following each tragedy never to return. They spoke about local issues – for example, a cluster of households was angry that a drinking-water pond sanctioned by the government was shifted to a neighbouring village because of the local legislator.
The young men of the village, in fact, fielded their own candidate, who is fighting as an independent. A 28-year-old unemployed man, Mohammad Iqbal Zargar, he says his aim is to secure enough clout by contesting so that he can ensure that young men aren’t hauled up by police each time they encounter a problem anywhere in Bandipore.
Abdul Rashid Sheikh, 55, a farmer, says his interest in politics isn’t that old. He joined Awami Itihad Party – a political group led by a maverick former civil engineer who won his maiden assembly election in 2008 from his native Langate constituency. Sheikh’s two brothers, Mushtaq Ahmad, 30, and Javaid Ahmad, 18, became militants and were killed by troops within months in 1992.
For years, he said, the family lived a miserable life subject to routine searches and assault by security personnel. But today, he flaunted his ink-stained finger to show he has already cast his ballot, he wasn’t there to inherit the blood-debt of his family or that of Kashmir. “We have to stop the RSS and BJP,’’ he said. “Otherwise, we won’t have even this little freedom left with us”.
His neighbours, many of whom weren’t even his party’s supporters, nodded in agreement. What will BJP do here if it wins the election? “They will allow outsiders to take over our land,’’ said Nazir Ahmad Bhat. “That’s what everyone is saying”.
Sheikh said that the stigma to participate in elections isn’t there any more. “There was hardly any participation in the election in this village in 1996. The few who voted were forced to do so by the Army,’’ he recalled. “There was around 10 per cent voting in 2002 and those who voted were re-activated workers of (mainstream) parties from before the movement (1990) and surrendered militants. The voter turnout was a bit higher at around 25 per cent in 2008. That time the (mainstream) parties had said that these Assembly polls are only for a solution to day-to-day problems, not the Kashmir issue”. This time, he said, it is different.
Mohammad Ahsan Bhat, a deputy sarpanch of the village and a PDP activist, disagrees. “This enthusiasm is because people want change. They are angry with the way the Omar Abdullah government ran this state for the last six years,’’ he said. “It is wrong to think that these elections have anything to do with the Kashmir issue. Everybody knows what people want and once Mufti Saheb becomes CM, he will help India and Pakistan start talking about Kashmir again”. He said that local issues are of primary importance. “We want a good and efficient government. How is that a hurdle in the (separatist) struggle?” he asked.
That’s a question that you hear many times. Abdul Rashid Sofi, 42, had become a militant in 1990. “I was 18 when I joined Hizb. I was arrested in 1991 and was in jail for two years,’’ he said. “Those leaders who told us then that Kashmir’s solution can’t be found through ballot but bullet had not thought it through at all. I was young and angry and became a militant. We didn’t get anything out of that,’’ he said. “I am now married and have children. As I grew older, I realised that the anger and passion of youth wasn’t enough”. Sofi is today in the Congress and he believes that people are out to vote “to halt BJP’s march on Kashmir”.
Abdul Khaliq, 50, a carpenter, chipped in: “I voted for the first time in my life because we need to break the monopoly of a few influential people over all the government’s schemes,’’ he said. “Don’t think that the other pain (of Kashmir) has gone. That is alive”. This two-track argument — we need a good government but the Kashmir issue is very much alive — is used by almost all villagers who came out in droves to vote for mainstream parties while expressing their suppor to the separatist movement.
A carpet weaver, Mumtaz Ahmad Sheikh, 30, said that he is among those who have fielded their own friend so that he could raise their issues. His two militant cousins Abdul Majeed Sheikh and Javaid Ahmad Sheikh were killed by troops. “We collected money, hired a loudspeaker and mounted it on an auto-rickshaw for campaigning,’’ he said. “We were always for a boycott but whenever anyone of us is picked up by police, nobody says a word. We wanted someone from among us who could help. This is why we are participating in this election”.
The two women who spoke talked about fear and security crackdowns. “We want to make our government… that’s why we are out to vote,” said Hameeda Begum, 49. “It will end our problems”. Shagufta said that the situation has changed. “There is no fear now,’’ she said.
There was one man who said he would never vote. Irshad Ahmad Shah, a fruit grower, said his militant brother Fayaz, his sister Rafeeqa and brother-in-law Ghulam Rasool Shah have been killed. “My sister is survived by five children. Our home is already burnt. Let them burn it again and again but I won’t vote,’’ he said. “But let those, who want to vote, vote. I don’t blame them”.
Shah’s story is one that repeats across the state but today it was a mere footnote.