Anantnag Polls, Phase 3, Leg 1: The complete story

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by Shams Irfan

ANANTNAG: Fifteen minutes after former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti cast her vote at Bijbehara, supporters of her Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and National Conference (NC) clashed inside the same polling booth. They fought over the identity of a lady who attempted to cast her vote without having a proper identification card.

Voters stand in a queue to cast their vote at a polling station in south Kashmir’s Anantnag district on Tuesday, April 23, 2019.

The said booth, located inside PHE division office, where Mehbooba cast her vote had polled just 31 votes, including hers, out of 345 till 3 pm, an hour before the day’s polling was to end in district Anantnag, in the first of the three-part elections for the South Kashmir Lok Sabha constituency.

It took lots of efforts by police and CRPF personnel deployed at the booth to control the clashing sides and bring some order. Being recorded by dozens of fence sitter on their smartphones, workers from the two sides consumed the entire local slang and the best of the local willow. The region is famous for the cricket bat manufacture and South Asia’s best willow grows here.

Interestingly, till mid-2018, majority of these enthusiastic NC workers were with PDP, and have been at the forefront in 2014 assembly elections canvassing for Muftis.

Battle Over Opportunities

“We have switched over to NC as PDP ignored us completely after it came to power,” said NC’s polling agent Bilal Ahmad, a resident of Baba Mohallah in Bijbehara. “Around 75 people were given jobs by Mehbooba in this town during her tenure. And you will be shocked to know that all of them are from the same cast. Even a 48-year-old relative of hers was employed.”

Another NC polling agent who refused to share his full name said, “none among us was given a job as promised during 2014 poll campaigning. They only employed their relatives.”

A few weeks before the first of three phases of Anantnag Lok Sabah constituency polls began; over a hundred key PDP workers joined NC. “We were intimidated, threatened and our names were read out in local mosques during 2016 uprising but we still stayed loyal to PDP. But see how they treated us in the end,” alleged Khan, who was among the disgruntled PDP workers to join NC recently.

Out of total 3703 registered vote at this booth, just 128 were polled till 3:30 pm. The situation was not much different in other PDP dominated areas of Bijbehara, once the stronghold of Muftis.

That explains why Bejebhara ended up the least polled assembly segment on Tuesday. Chief Electoral Officer Shalinder Kumar said only 2.04 per cent of voters participated.

At Baba Mohallah polling station, located not far from Mufti’s ancestral house, Shaheena Bhat, 38, a Congress corporator from Rajbagh in Srinagar, is scanning voters, especially women in veils to check no bogus voting is done. She is accompanied by two more women from Srinagar, who sat outside the polling booth, their eyes fixed at the worn-out gate. “We are here as polling agents for Congress,” said Bhat. “As this is Mehbooba’s hometown, we have been sent here by (Ghulam Ahmad) Mir personally to oversee the voting process.”

But since morning Bhat is sitting mostly idle as just 36 people have shown up to cast their votes out of 2832 registered voters. “I thought this area will have huge turnout as Mufti’s live next door,” said Bhat disappointingly.

With entire market shut in the town and people sitting at the shop fronts, indifferent towards the election, the low poll percentage in Bijbehara is seen as the first sign of PDP’s unmaking in the south. By the end of the day, Bijbehara registered a disappointing two per cent voter turnout.

The same disappointment was visible in PDP’s senior leader and former lawmaker from Bijbehara, Abdul Rehman Veeri’s voice when he asked a polling agent, “How many votes?”

“Just 39 out of 1116,” replied the party’s polling agent in the same tone. This included Veeri’s vote.

The Bejbehara Periphery

In the entire periphery of Bejbehera situation suggested a complete indifference towards the exercise. There were many votes polled when Kashmir Life visited the stations at Nanil, Kanelwan, Aang, Matipora, Thajwara and the other neighbouring hamlets. In Kanelwan where there are 3600 votes, only one vote was polled by around 3:30 pm. Infact, the polling staff had bolted the station from inside and anybody who had to get it had to knock at the door. In Matipora, there was one vote each polled at two stations. In most of these stations, there were not polling agents of the parties present.

In Government Degree College, Bejbehara there were four votes till noon later appreciated by a few more in the afternoon. Bored, the polling staff and the security grid decided to play a friendly cricket match!

The State of Anantnag

In Anantnag town, which wore a deserted look barring the presence of CRPF, army and police personnel at all key points, the voting pattern was almost the same as in Bijbehara.

“We expected overall 30 per cent polling in Anantnag town but this is disappointing,” said Hilal Ahmad Shah, General Secretary Congress, who is busy visiting polling stations to check the voting progress. “But I am happy at least Congress is getting a good response so far compared to NC and PDP.”

Shah claimed that out of 109 polling booths there was no polling agent of PDP on at least 90 booths, which talks a lot about party’s morale. “And in NC’s case they had no polling agent at 95 booths,” said Shah with a smile.

At Hanfia School in Lal Chowk, Anantnag, around half-a-dozen PDP polling agents, who sat with hope in their eyes outside eight voting booths, only 104 votes were polled out of 3654, till 2 pm. With nothing much to do these agents killed their time by fighting with photojournalist gone there to cover the elections. “We don’t want our pictures to be used,” shouted one of the elderly PDP agents at a cameraman accompanying journalists. “We don’t want anyone to know we are here,” said another worker.

But not all polling agents were sitting idle. A few had a relatively busy day too. At Khanabal’s 30-B polling booth, a lone BJP’s polling agent was dashing in and out of the school building, accompanying voters. Out of 754 registered voters, 93 have cast their votes till noon. “These people are from the nearby boat colony whose long pending relocation issue was resolved by a local BJP counsellor recently,” said Mohammad Yaseen Mandoo, 38, an NC agent. “That is why they have come out to vote.”

In the same building, other two booths of Seepin area, have polled just 26 votes out of 2433. “Let’s see if the voting picks up after lunch,” said Mandoo hopefully.

Voting In Periphery

However, modest polling was seen in peripheral areas of Anantnag, like Pahalgam, Shangus, Dooru, Kokernag etc.

“These areas have come out to vote in good numbers giving Congress an edge,” claimed Shah.

But with two more phases yet to be conducted in volatile south Kashmir’s Shopian, Kulgam and Pulwama, the battle is far from over for either of the parties.

There were long lines of votes waiting for their turn when Kashmir Life visited Larnu, Mati Gowran, Gund Draman, Bijhad, Bren Nad and other places – the belt that massively voted in the Kokernag-Dooru belt. Pahalgam also had lone lines till late in the afternoon.

However, what was interesting in the Tuesday pattern was that Peoples’ Conference candidate Choudhary Zafar took a maximum vote of the Gujjar belts and it was a net loss to PDP and the NC. This happened in Pahalgam, Dooru and Kokernag.

The other interesting thing was that in Shangus the contest was triangular – Congress and the local two players – Mansoor Hussain (PDP) and Pir Hussain (NC). The two are close relatives.

Reports said there were no EVM that was returned empty but there were many EVMs which carried a single vote.

Migrant Votes

Interestingly, the migrant voters participated in good numbers at the special polling stations that were set up in Jagti township in the periphery of Jammu, media reports said.  Officials said the participation at these stations could be more than seventy per cent.

Electoral authorise had set up five stations at Jagti and Nagrota for around 2000 migrant voters hailing from the Anantnag constituency.

CEO Speaks

The government issued a detailed statement after the CEO Shalinder Kumar addressed a news conference in Srinagar.

“Incident-free voting marked the first leg of three-phase polling for Anantnag Parliamentary constituency of J&K with a total voter turnout of 13.63 per cent.

Addressing media persons here this evening, Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) J&K, Shailendra Kumar said that the overall percentage recorded in the District during today’s polling was 13.63 with the highest in Pahalgam segment, 20.37 per cent.

He said that for the smooth polling, the ECI had set up 714 polling stations in the district. The ECI had also established 21 model polling stations, 12 all women model polling stations.

Divulging segment wise details of the district, the CEO informed that the percentage of the total votes polled in Anantnag segment was 3.47 per cent, Dooru, 17.28, Kokernag, 19.50, Shangus, 15.10, Bijbehara 2.04 and Pahalgam, 20.37 per cent.

The CEO informed that the total percentage of voting till date in various parliamentary constituencies in the state including Baramulla, Jammu, Srinagar, Udhampur and Anantnag was recorded at 48.87 per cent.

The CEO complimented voters, political parties, contesting candidates, media, polling staff and security forces for the smooth and peaceful conduct of polling in the state.”

Stone Pelting Incidents

There were a number of instances of stone pelting across the area. All these instances were locally managed. Reports suggested of using the tear smoke shells and even pellets in some areas.

However, while driving back the polling staff from one Kokernag station lost control over the staring and plunged into a gorge near Zalangam. One head constable Hilal Ahmad Khan was killed and many others including the polling staff and CRPF were injured. Khan belongs to Pulwama. They were evacuated to hospital and some of them are being referred to Srinagar.

“One of the injured died here and two of the injured were referred to Srinagar,” a senior official at the district hospital Anantnag said. “All others are here and responding to the treatment.”

(Auqib Hyder contributed to this copy from Bejbehara, Samreena Nazir from Anantnag, Shah Hilal from Kokernag and Tahir Bhat from Srinagar.)

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