It was an election carnival at Damhal Hanjipora, a cluster of villages in South Kashmir’s Kulgam, when the Valley went to polls in 2014 — men, women and children out on the roads holding flags of the National Conference (NC) and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). Outside the polling booths, people sat in groups, discussing who would win and by how much margin. Amid calls for boycott, Noorabad Assembly constituency, of which Damhal Hanjipora is a part, polled a whopping 78 per cent votes.
Four-and-a-half years later, the NC’s Sakina Itoo, one of the two prominent mainstream political leaders of Noorabad — apart from the PDP’s Abdul Majeed Padder — hasn’t been able to hold a road show in her constituency, with police cautioning parties against it in the Valley.
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Police estimate that over 100 local militants are operating in South Kashmir. The parliamentary constituency of Anantnag, falling in the region, will vote over three phases — in what is perhaps unprecedented for a seat anywhere in the country. A part of Kulgam district, Damhal Hanjipora will vote in the fourth phase, on April 29.
“Noorabad is the barometer for the political temperature in the Valley,” says Khurshid Alam, a local journalist from Kulgam. “If people of this constituency stay away, it is not good news for democracy.”
The announcement of the National Highway, that links the Valley to the rest of the country, being shut for two days in a week for the polls — barring a few exceptions — has further heightened the sense of alienation just days away from the first phase of voting on April 11, when Baramulla in Kashmir and Jammu-Poonch in Jammu vote. With the fear of boycott in the air, parties are eschewing elaborate mass contact programmes to not run up against anticipated public anger.
Apart from the unprecedented blocking of the highway, the Centre has deployed 400 companies of additional paramilitary forces for the smooth conduct of elections. While the candidates assigned security retain their cover, the others have been allotted two Personal Security Officers (PSOs) and an escort vehicle with four personnel each.
However, this coincides with withdrawal or downgrading of security cover of over 700 political leaders and activists, mostly belonging to the PDP and Congress. The parties have complained to the Election Commission saying the move was an attempt to “disable” them during campaigning.
J&K Chief Electoral Officer Shailendra Kumar said, “We have taken up the matter with the state government. I have informed the commission as well. We are expecting a review soon.”
Criticising the security withdrawal, Congress state senior vice-president Ghulam Nabi Monga said it had made movement “very difficult” for them.
The BJP, which got less than 2 per cent of the votes in 2014 in each of the three Lok Sabha seats in Kashmir, but which is positioning these elections as an ideological imperative, too admits it is up against odds. Says its Baramulla candidate Mohammad Maqbool War, “I am from Rohama Rafiabad and I wanted to organise a rally there. I was expecting 50,000 people… At the last hour, police revoked permission and asked us to hold a rally at another village, Shitloo. A boy from there who had become a militant had been killed. Only 106 people came to my rally.”
Adding that we are “mostly campaigning secretly”, War says the EC’s strict rules are also proving counter-productive. “If we have to install a mic on a vehicle, we have to seek permission. Then no vehicle owner is available as they would be stoned… If any party has to organise a rally in Baramulla, we have to bring people from as far as Kupwara (50 km away). My rallies cost Rs 3-4 lakh.”
Though Congress general secretary Ghulam Nabi Azad visited Kupwara for a rally, Monga says it’s not easy to get others. “Before any event, we have to ensure it is safe. The Governor’s administration has added to our problems. Every time there is movement of a security convoy, we are stopped.”
While the Congress and NC were trying for a tie-up, they could only reach an arragement as part of which NC president Farooq Abdullah is contesting from Srinagar while the two parties are in a “friendly fight” in Baramulla. Congress state president G A Mir is the party candidate from Anantnag.
Waheed Parra, the PDP’s Youth President who is believed to be one of the few political leaders active on the ground in South Kashmir, says it’s not just a factor of security alone. “It is also very insensitive to go (about elections) the way we used to. I am sure we can organise rallies even today… in South Kashmir, Pulwama too. But the point is should we do that or not. It seems very insensitive… There are funerals every day, there is a continuous state of mourning.”
NC additional spokesperson Iman Nabi agrees, adding that while the security situation makes things difficult, “There are areas where Cordon and Search Operations are on, arrests are being continuously made. It is insensitive to ask people for votes.”
To make up for the lack of a presence in the Valley, the BJP has taken to full-page newspaper ads. But, unlike in the rest of the country, its pitch here is not hot-button issues like Articles 35A and 370 but local issues, development, jobs. Nor is its colour of choice for party posters saffron (it is green). The BJP is also silent on its three-year-long coalition government with the PDP.
However, seeking to put the BJP in a spot, the other parties are questioning the Centre’s conflicting voices on the state’s special status and 35A and 370. In his speech, Azad attacked PM Narendra Modi and the Centre. Says Monga, “The BJP has been raising non-issues like 35A and 370. It has become our campaign issue.”
Calling these “existential” matters for the Valley, Parra says, “The narrative is about the ban on Jamaat-e-Islami, the arrests, killings. Then there are the constitutional issues.”
In North Kashmir, that includes Baramulla, parties have tried to get past the low visibility on the ground by organising smaller rallies and workers’ conventions.
In one such rally at Pattan, over a thousand people turned up to listen to NC vice-president and former chief minister Omar Abdullah on April 2. But while most of the people in the audience were party workers, very few agreed to be identified. Ghulam Mohidin Mir was one of them. “For generations, we have been NC supporters,” said Mir, 67, accompanied by his son. “This is the first political rally in our area in a long time.”
At the rally Omar promised to abrogate the Public Safety Act if the NC came to power.
A 30-year-old man draped in the red NC flag was among those reluctant to identify himself at the rally. “We have come here because of our own compulsions. I am unemployed and want a job. We have been promised a job. There are at least three more youths from my village here,” he said, adding, “Please don’t take my pictures. Do you want to get me killed?”
The NC’s Nabi says with even “putting our hoardings” difficult, the party is using “different ways”, claiming he couldn’t share the details because of the “security situation”.
On March 24, the PDP held a big youth convention in Srinagar in which around 3,000 youths from different parts of the Valley participated. But the venue was the high-security Fairview residence of party president Mehbooba Mufti in Srinagar.
Parties are also keeping away from areas where resentment is running the highest, like Sopore town and neighbouring villages in Baramulla constituency. No leader has tried to enter this stronghold of the Jamaat-e-Islami, that returned Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani to the Assembly before militancy broke in the Valley.
“We don’t want to spend our energies where we won’t get the desired returns,” says an NC leader from North Kashmir on
“abandoning” many areas such as Sopore, calling what they are doing “election management rather than campaigning”.
The only semblance of electioneering is in the frontier district of Kupwara, a traditional voting belt in North Kashmir. The home turf of Peoples Conference president Sajjad Lone, Kupwara is a base of both the NC and PDP too. Former legislator Engineer Rashid, who is contesting as an Independent candidate, also hails from the district, while the emergence of bureaucrat-turned-politician Shah Faesal, who hails from Sogam village of Kupwara, has further livened up the campaign, though his Jammu Kashmir Peoples’ Movement is not in the race.
Faesal, who has put his weight behind Rashid, has been holding small meetings with people across the state. “We are right now on a ‘listening project’,” he says. “We are listening to people and it is heartening that people from far-off places come to meet us.”
Says a close aide of PDP leader Fayaz Ahmad Mir, “Since all parties have their voter base in Kupwara, we are hopeful people will come out to vote here. In the last municipal and panchayat polls (in October and December 2018, respectively), there were huge turnouts when compared to other parts of the Valley.” The Kupwara municipal body recorded a voter turnout of 32 per cent.
What is not helping, parties say, is the security crackdown in the run-up to the polls, including now the National Highway curbs. For 17 years, the PDP says, it had focused on making political inroads into Awantipora. The first Islamic University of Science and Technology was set up there and it was also recently chosen for setting up an AIIMS branch. Just when they were hoping to “reap the rewards”, says the PDP, a principal died in police custody, triggering massive protests.
“This (the custodial death) has diluted our 10,000 votes,” says a PDP leader. “We were expecting a huge turnout, that is gone.”
A magisterial inquiry has been ordered into the killing, and officials say they would wait for the report.
Alleging a conspiracy to keep turnouts low, a leader from Shopian said, “It seems there are forces in the government, civil and police administration that want an election boycott. That is only going to help a particular political party and their partners here.”
The news coming from other parts of the country is not helping, says Parra, noting the BJP’s increasingly nationalist rhetoric. “Linking Kashmir with nationalism and expecting a turnout is wrong because the national mood is anti-Kashmir right now,” he says.
Party workers also say the situation may have been different had the EC announced Assembly elections with the parliamentary polls. Traditionally, voting for the state polls has always been higher in the Valley. For example, in 2014, while only 0.8 per cent voters had cast their vote from the Tral Assembly segment of Anantnag in the general elections, in the Assembly polls six months later, the voter turnout from there was 38 per cent. The four constituencies of Pulwama district had polled only 6.32 per cent votes in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls but close to 40 per cent in the Assembly elections.
Says Nabi: “Parliamentary elections are fought on a general agenda and people are just not interested here.”
Additionally, mainstream political parties in the Valley argue, they don’t want to “tire their cadres” before the Assembly polls that are expected anytime later this year. “You don’t want to put a lot of resources, energy, mobilisation into parliament elections. You can’t mobilise after two months again (for the Assembly polls),” says a PDP leader.
In the absence of a proper election campaign, parties have set up online teams. Calling social media a “new and vibrant” platform, Nabi says, “We have five to six members in every Assembly constituency and they are trying to reach out to people through Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We also have a central social media unit running from the party headquarters.”
The PDP recently launched an online campaign to register election volunteers. “We put out a questionnaire and asked youth to register. Within 10 hours, we received around 600 registrations,” claims Parra.
The PC too has a dedicated team of social media “warriors” to reach out through Twitter and other social media platforms.
The state Congress and BJP though don’t have much presence on social media. Congress leader Monga argues social media won’t have much of an impact in J&K. “You have to be on the ground, with the people.”
But all will depend on what happens in Baramulla, chosen to go first to elections for traditionally seeing higher turnouts. The memory of the bypolls for the Srinagar parliamentary seat, held on April 9, 2017, is only too fresh. The bypoll was marred by violence, resulting in only 7 per cent polling.
Fearing a worse scenario, the bypoll for the Anantnag seat had been put off. It will now vote, over three phases, after staying unrepresented for more than 30 months.
Whatever happens, in South Kashmir’s Shopian, a militant stronghold, many point out that voting or not is not an easy choice. Says a college lecturer, “I have always stayed away from elections, but this time, we are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. If we don’t vote, it will help the BJP. The predicament would be more in the Assembly elections.”
But Syed Mohammad Lateef represents the other side of the coin. A resident of Mantrigam in South Kashmir’s Pulwama, he says, “We have boycotted the elections in the past but nothing has changed because of that. Only an elected government can resolve all our issues. If we want to come out of this mess, we have to vote and send our representatives to the Assembly and Parliament. I will vote and I am telling everyone to vote. The attack on 35A and 370 makes it even more important for us to vote.”