Lok Sabah Polls: The Kulgam Story

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by Shams Irfan

KULGAM: The tense calm outside Government Higher Secondary School Qaimoh, in Kulgam, would get broken by the slow-moving army and police vehicles every now and then. Around two dozen policemen sat on shop fronts opposite the school gate, which bore signs of a green flag, perhaps drawn and rubbed over with black overnight before the polling staff arrived.

The school housed 12 polling booths, clubbed together for voters of militancy hotbed villages of Hawoora, Redwani, Khudwai and Qaimoh. But in last three hours, just five votes were cast out of over 11000 votes. “The first voter came at 8:30 AM,” said Shabir, a National Conferences (NC) polling agent who refused to share his real name. “I am a local that is enough.”

Without voters around, both polling staff and a handful of political agents sat in a spacious lawn, shaded by Chinars. They gossiped and would look towards the gate for the voters to enter. Barely 300 meters away young boys raised slogans and pelted stones towards the school. Once in a while their voices and stones would reach school grounds, turning the atmosphere tense instantly. “I don’t think anyone else would come to cast vote now,” said Shabir. “Everyone is afraid for his safety.”

Two young men coming out of the polling station after exercising their right, wore helmets to stay anonymous outside. Kulgam polled for the Lok Sabha on April 29, 2019, in the second leg of the 30-phase polls for the South Kashmir constituency. KL Image: Shah Hilal

A few minutes into the conversation, the agent gets a call from one of the potential voters who waves from a house around. “He is our worker and wants to come out and vote but how can he cross the road,” he said looking tense. “I told him to wait for the situation to calm down, as we still have six hours left.”

Interestingly, these political agents, most of whom are locals from Qaimoh, had not aimed for high turnout while canvassing secretly among friends and sympathisers. “Frankly our estimate was at least fifty votes, per booth,” said the NC’s agent. “But I don’t think we can reach that number now.”

Ironically Shabir or any other polling agent from either party couldn’t convince even their close relatives to come out and vote! “It is their choice. We cannot force anyone to vote,” said a Congress polling agent who spoke to media after lots of convincing.

Outside both stones and slogans had stopped as the army carried a flag march of sorts. There were allegations of army ransacking a few houses in the area later in the day.

Unlike Qaimoh, that looked tense and deserted, Kulgam town was calm, but on the edge. In four polling booths located inside dilapidated Cooperative Super Bazaar building, people were coming to cast their votes in ones and twos. Till 10 AM, out of 3426 votes, only 63 had turned up so far.

Across the road, over two dozen people sat on shop fronts looking at the Bazaar building like a war relic. They would scan every person going inside with curiosity and excitement.

“A friend of mine who is a PDP agent got me inside. Now I don’t know how to go out without being seen as a voter,” said a young boy who tried to hide his face under a black cap.

“I have not voted,” he clarified flashing his fingers that carried no indelible ink. This young man who could have voted for the first time of his life symbolised the conflict between the demography and the democracy.

His polling agent friend Javaid Ahmad Naik, 30, a shopkeeper, is with PDP since last seven years. “It is really hard to convince people to come out and vote. They are both afraid and indifferent,” he said in a matter of fact tone.

But Javiad’s rival and NC’s agent Zahoor Ahmad Naik, 27, also a shopkeeper, is smiling as he is sure at least fifty people voted for his party. “I know all of them by face. They are affiliated with NC,” said Zahoor confidently.

A middle-aged woman in Kulgam flashing her indelible ink mark on her finger. She avoided revealing her identity because anonymity was key to the 10 per cent voters who polled on April 29, 2019, in the Lok Sabha. KL Image:

However, despite the confidence, Zahoor or any other agent couldn’t manage to get their families to vote. “Like everyone else they too are afraid,” said Zahoor.

The situation and scenes inside the polling booths were not much different in Mirhama, a small village located by roaring brook. Out of 3247 votes, only 11 were cast in three of the four booths set inside a school building.

Apart from the roar of the brook, it was completely silent both inside and outside the school. “We didn’t expect much votes but at least fifty people had promised to come till yesterday,” said Ghulam Mohammad Padder, 60, a PDP loyalist since party’s creation in 1999.

Padder’s phone rang continuously as he assured people, it is okay to come out and vote. Interestingly, Padder blames Tarigami, who is not contesting himself but supports NC, for the low turnout. “His cadre stayed away from polls rather than voting for NC. That created an atmosphere among people and nobody is coming out now,” said Padder with sadness. “Else this village is CPI (M) bastion and they vote.”

Communist leader Tarigami is representing the Kulgam constituency for the last four terms, uninterrupted. Now, he has a good following in the belt.

But not all polling booths in Kulgam were deserted.

At Government Model Higher Secondary School, Damhal Hanjipora in Noorabad, where four polling booths were installed for over 2810 voters, people were flashing their inked fingers with pride. Till noon 763 people had cast their votes. Home to NC’s Sakeena Itoo, women giggled their way out of the polling booth telling people alabani trov (voted for NC’s symbol ‘plough’).

Inside the school’s playground, a tent was pitched by a party worker, for voters to sit in the shade while they waited for their turn to cast their ballot. A young boy was offering tea in disposable plastic glasses to everyone. Two young girls sat around a woman in a yellow dress, who later identified herself as PDP’s key worker. They were keeping a close eye on much larger NC’s worker’s group sitting nearby. The sense of competition between the two rival camps was palpable.

“If there would have been complete boycott we would have still come out to vote,” said one of the young girls from behind her veil. “People should come out to save Article 370 and 35 A. And it can be saved by only if one votes for Mehbooba Ji.”

By 2 PM, the situation in Qaimoh and its adjoining areas has worsened as eight boys got injured in clashes with police, CRPF and army. Two of them with severe pellet injuries were later shifted to Srinagar for treatment.

Indifferent to the happenings in Kulgam, a small group of young Sikh boys from Palpora village sat outside Bumthan (B) polling booth, located inside Food Corporation of India’s in Mirbazar godown. With most of the polling agents for the first time in their lives, a turnover of 432 votes out of 2352 registered voters, in three booths, kept them busy.

Voters in a queue outside a polling station in south Kashmir’s Kulgam district on April 29, 2019. Pic: DIPRK

They all had their own reasons to do what they were doing. In Amandeep Singh’s case, it was on Sofi Youfus’ insistence that he agreed to become a polling agent for BJP a day before polling. “He (Yousuf) said I like your face,” said Amandeep Singh proudly. “My entire family votes for him so I said why not.”

Amandeep is not alone who has been christened into politics at the eleventh hour by Yousuf. His three friends, all in their mid-twenties, joined BJP a day before polls, like him.

But it was not only BJP that has enthusiastic polling agents, NC, Congress and PDP too had their fair share of excited agents from the Sikh community. “Time will prove that Mehbooba Ji was right all along about BJP,” said Jitendar Singh, a PDP worker for last two years.

CEO Speaks

Chief Electoral Officer Shalinder Kumar addressed a news conference in Srinagar. It was a brief interaction in which he offered the poll percentage. He revealed that Noorabad belt polled the highest with 20.5 per cent voters coming out but in 2014, its tally was 58.4 per cent. Devsar, another better-polled area had 16.6 per cent of its voters actually coming to the polling stations which was less than half of the last tally of 41 per cent. Humshalibugh that polled 23 per cent in 2014 had a dismal performance of 1.1 per cent in today’s poll. Same is the case of the central Kulgam segment that polled 15 per cent last time but today only 1.7 per cent voters agreed to be electors.

Later the government issued the following statement.

“Incident-free voting marked the second leg of three-phase polling for south Kashmir’s Anantnag Parliamentary constituency of Kulgam district with a total voter turnout of 10.32 per cent, Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) J&K, Shailendra Kumar informed on Monday.

Addressing a press conference at Banquet Hall in Srinagar, the CEO informed that the overall percentage recorded in the district during today’s polling was 10.3 per cent with the highest in Noorabad segment, recording at 20.58 per cent.

He said that for the smooth polling across the district, 433 polling stations were set up out of which 20 were model polling stations. Moreover, 4 all women polling stations were also set up across the district.

Divulging the details of the voter turnout in the district, the CEO informed that the total number of votes polled was 35524 with the highest turnout of 20.58 per cent recorded in Noorabad segment of the district. With the completion of today’s phase, the overall poll percentage of Anantnag constituency has touched 12.35 per cent.

He further elaborated 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 47.06 per cent with total votes polled at around 3364104 out of 7149047 total electorates.

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

A tent erected for Polling agents, voters and staff at a polling station in Noorabad on April 29, 2019, when the district polled for the Lok Sabha elections in the second leg of the 3-phase poll for South Kashmir constituency. KL Image: Shams Irfan

It may be recalled, over 3.45 lakh electors were scheduled to exercise their franchise in Kulgam district of south Kashmir region, in the second leg of three-phased schedule for Anantnag Parliamentary Constituency on April 29, including 28761 first-time voters and 2870 migrant voters.

Regarding the health of E-rolls, the CEO said that 43 polling stations were set up for webcasting.

Pertinently   the candidates in the fray are Hasnain Masoodi of Jammu Kashmir National Conference, Sofi Yousuf of Bhartiya Janta Party, Ghulam Ahmad Mir of Indian National Congress, Mehbooba Mufti of Jammu Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party, Nisar Ahmad Wani of Jammu & Kashmir National Panthers Party, Choudhary Zaffar Ali of Jammu Kashmir Peoples Conference, Sanjay Kumar Dhar of Manav Adhikar Party, Surinder Singh of Pragatisheel Samajwadi Party (Lohia) and Imtiyaz Ahmad Rather, Ridwana Sanam, Riyaz Ahmad Bhat, Zubair Masoodi, Shams Khwaja, Ali Mohammad Wani, Gh Mohammad Wani, Kyasir Ahmed Sheikh, Manzoor Ahmad Khan and Mirza Sajad Hussain Beigh, all independents.

The CEO informed that two general observers, one expenditure observer, one police observer, 68 micro observers besides 1732 polling staff ensured the smooth conduct of the voting in this phase.”

Post Script

Late evening reports from Kulgam said a sub-inspector identified as Suresh Kumar of SSB was injured in stone pelting at Watoo in Damhal Hanjipora. In Ashmuji, a young girl identified as Shahida daughter of Mohammad Altaf of Ashmuji was also injured. The reports were not immediately confirmed by the police.

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