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In Kashmir, fear gives way to election fervour 

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In Kashmir, fear gives way to election fervour 

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People stand in queue to cast their votes at a polling station in Pattan in Baramulla district.

People stand in queue to cast their votes at a polling station in Pattan in Baramulla district.
| Photo Credit: The Hindu

In the last 34 years, parliamentary elections in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) have been a battleground for mainstream political parties and separatists espousing ideologies ranging from Kashmir’s independence to accession to Pakistan. This year, for the first time in my journalistic career, I covered an electoral battle limited to the mainstream parties, with some championing the cause of semi-autonomous status for J&K and others for a complete integration with the Union of India. This is an unprecedented leap in the electoral dynamics of the region after the erstwhile State of J&K was stripped of special status and reduced to two Union Territories in 2019.


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In 1999, I was a cub reporter with a local daily in Srinagar. Kashmir was in the throes of violence. Omnipresent militants kept security forces on their toes. As reporters, we had to prepare for days to cover the general election. We had to get special passes and plan to report from spots that ensured the least possibility of militant violence or street protests. The fear of being hit by stones on the street or even grenades near polling booths kept us on edge, especially on polling day.

The stage was set for elections in September-October. Most of the militant outfits and separatist groups had called for a poll boycott in all the three parliamentary seats of Kashmir Valley — Anantnag, Baramulla, and Srinagar. They described their decision as “a democratic way to reject India’s rule in Kashmir and a means to seek international attention” to the Kashmir issue. The run-up to the polls were marred by attacks on security forces and workers of parties. ‘Fidayeen’ or suicide attacks by militants began in Kashmir. I could gauge the fear from the fact that very few rallies were held, and only under multi-tier security arrangements. Many areas such as Srinagar’s old city and Baramulla’s Old Town were no-go zones for mainstream leaders for electioneering. Angry local youth would throw stones at these leaders if they attempted to hold rallies in these areas.

On polling day, bullet-proof vehicles or long columns of security forces could be seen on every lane. There were hardly any voters. In fact, no voter liked to be identified. Protesters checked locals for indelible ink and punished them on finding it. Many voters’ houses were stoned at night. Reporters could only speak to voters whose faces were covered. Locals referred to the voters as “ghadar (traitors)”. Srinagar recorded a voter turnout of 11.8% and Baramulla, 27.8% that year.

Cut to 25 years later. The scene has completely changed. The two regions recorded a turnout of 38% and 59%, respectively. The National Conference vice president, who is a candidate from the Baramulla seat, made his maiden poll speech in his 25-year-long political career in Srinagar’s old city. The poll venue was less than 1 km away from the plaque bearing the names of more than 30 civilians who died in firing by security forces on May 21, 1990, when they were carrying the body of assassinated separatist leader Mirwaiz Molvi Farooq for burial. The Peoples Democratic Party president, who is a candidate from the Anantnag seat, addressed a rally in Srinagar’s old city, a stone’s throw from the house of Mohammad Abdullah Bangroo, one of the founding members of the Hizbul Mujahideen. Rallies during the late evening and door-to-door campaigns were held for the first time in the most volatile pockets of south Kashmir. Parties hired lyricists and singers to increase their poll pitch.

On polling day, stone-pelters, militants’ families, and hardline cadres of the Jamaat-e-Islami, which was banned in 2019, stood in queue along with others who had boycotted elections in the past, at polling booths in Srinagar and Baramulla. Pockets of Pulwama and Sopore, which once recorded the highest number of militant recruits, led the change. In Sopore, the voter turnout was 44% compared to the less than 4% in the past. Outside polling booths, people debated Article 370, jobs, mining rights and harsh police verifications. I saw voters with varied ideologies for the first time. Indeed, this was the first election where ideology, and not sadak, bilji, pani (road, electricity, water), dominated the campaign.

peerzada.ashiq@thehindu.co.in

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