Lowest Polling Ever: The Complete Story

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by Shams Irfan

SHOPIAN: It took a while to locate government school building in Keegam, Shopian, where seven polling stations were clubbed to facilitate voters from nearby Nazneenpora, Tukroo and Shabirabad and Adoora-Rampathri villages to exercise their right of franchise. The front door was locked from inside and open only on request. There was no police, CRPF or army vehicles stationed outside, as was the norm across polling stations in south Kashmir’s Shopian and Pulwama district.

Inside, polling staff and the security men sat under tree shades avoiding the afternoon sun. A small brook flowed right in the middle of the school ground, breaking the silence engulfing the village.

Out of 3803 voters, not a single one has walked through that gate since morning. “It is a zero in every booth,” said a CRPF guard after frisking first visitors since morning.

Not only were the voters missing, but no political party had also sent its polling agent to the area either. Just a few hundred meters down the road, people were busy tending to their orchards. Those who weren’t, sat on the shop fronts watching police and army vehicles shuttle between Pulwama and Shopian towns.

A little down the road, under the shade of Chinars, a small under construction school building housed six polling booths for Arihal, Nikas and Arbal villages of Rajpora constituency. To guard school lacking a boundary wall, two CRPF trucks were parked in the middle of the road. Both staff and security members sat under tree shades, waiting for polling to be over. Out of 4695 votes, just four people have cast their vote till 3 PM. Those who did had to walk for over two kilometres from their village to reach the polling booth.

Clubbing Costs

“It seems that the clubbing of booths was done to facilitate boycott,” said Nazir, the lone polling agent who represented PDP. “It is insane. Who will risk and walk to the main road to cast his vote?”

Same concern kept Nisar, a PDP worker since 2014, hooked to his mobile phone since morning as he assures voters unsuccessfully to show at Pulwama’s Central High School, located in a high-security zone. “Even PDP’s hardcore worker didn’t come to vote because of the threat,” he said with disappointment.

A crowded polling station in south Kashmir on May 6, 2019, when the region polled only less than three per cent polling.

Nisar blames Syed Ali Geelani’s boycott call, and recent encounter in Shopian, in which three Hizb-ul-Mujahideen militants were killed, including Lateef Tiger and Tariq Molvi, for the low turnout. “Who will come out to vote in such a situation,” he asks trying to sound calm.

Since morning, around a dozen boys were sitting outside the polling station, waiting for the right moment to come inside and vote, said Nisar. “But walking inside a polling booth is like walking on a razor’s edge,” said Nisar.

Out of 1364 votes, only six people have cast their ballot till 3 PM. “These people have literally put their lives in danger by voting. It is not easy to walk inside a polling booth in Pulwama,” said Nisar as he looks disappointingly towards the gate.

A scene from inside the premises of the polling station at Imam Sahab (Shopian). The area witnessed a fierce encounter in which three militants were killed. KL Image: Shams Irfan

The same look was fixed on former MLA Wachi, Ajaz Mir’s face as he toured Zainapora village looking for potential voters in his official car accompanied by a driver and two guards. “It is safe to travel low profile,” he said while asking people on the road if they had voted or not. “They have finished us. They have finished me completely. This encounter cost us dearly,” Mir tells addressing no one in particular.

Not far away, three passenger vehicles, hired specially to ferry voters from far-off areas struggled to climb a narrow road. They finally stop outside Government Higher Secondary School, Zainapora. Since morning they have done around six dashes ferrying voters in ones and twos. Inside, three elderly PDP workers discuss Mehbooba’s chance of winning while puffing cigarettes. “It looks like a well thought out plan against Mehbooba. Else why there is boycott in PDP belts only,” one of them argues.

Out of 1862 votes at two booths of Zainapora, 90 had cast their ballot till 11 AM. “Whatever votes will be cast will be before lunch, no one will come out afterwards,” said another worker.

Since July 2016, Zainapora and its adjoining villages were often in the news as most of the young boys who picked up guns to join militancy belonged to this belt between Kulgam and Shopian. Given the threat polling staff was flown to Zainapora by helicopter, as bringing them by road was risky, according to poll managers.

LS Polls: PDP workers thrash Congress polling agent in Rajpora

Conduction polls just two days after an encounter took place in Adkhara area of Imam Sahib, in which three militants including Tariq Molvi, a resident of Chitragom was killed, was a major challenge. Though the embers of the house where the encounter took place have cooled, Imam Sahib was still feeling the heat. Barring the sound of kids playing cricket and a few others sitting on shop fronts, it was completely silent in an otherwise busy marketplace. But step inside Government Higher Secondary School, which is located near a garrison, and signs of life become visible and audible.

“We are 1500 men from CRPF alone. Then there is army, SOG, STF and police surrounding the building. It is completely safe,” assured an Assistant Sub Inspector of CRPF.

Like most of the polling stations in south Kashmir, no one was allowed to walk in without getting frisked first, not even voters who faced all odds to reach there. Despite the tension outside 41 voters, mostly male, had cast their ballot out of 2012 voters.

Barely a kilometre down the road, a small contingent of policemen, who were brought from Palhalan in north Kashmir, along with their signature vehicle that bore signs of areas long history of stone-pelting, sat quietly by a small brook. Their officer had taken refuge under a tree, with his eyes fixed at a small tent pitched near another stream. They were guarding two polling booths installed for residents of Malikgund, Killora in Shopian.

But out of 1382 votes, just one villager had come to cast his ballot, that too early in the morning.

With internet service shut across Shopian and Pulwama, it was a field day for rumour mongers. In most of the villages either people were busy in their apple orchards spraying pesticides, or they sat on shop fronts, looking at all outsiders with suspicion. At both places, they passed on information without any confirmation or basis. “It has been a week since we had high-speed Internet. It is very difficult to confirm anything,” said Abid, a resident of Nazneenpora.

But in main-town Shopian, a group of young boys had found a way around internet ban: by cracking internet installed to live-stream from model polling booths like Government Girls Higher Secondary School. They sat in a huddle with their eyes fixed at their mobile phones. “We don’t care about elections. We are here to use the Internet,” said one of the boys.

After a lot of knocking the big iron school gate was open by CRPF guards. Inside, a group of officers sat under a tent, erected specially to showcase model polling station. But despite the efforts, just four votes were polled out of 4443 votes registered across six booths, including the two model booths.

“At least we have opened our account in Shopian,” said one of the PDP’s polling agents who sat in a corner. “These people came early and cast their votes. Now no one will come I guess.”

The same feeling of having at least a few voters was visible in Shopian’s boy’s higher secondary wing, located almost a kilometre away near heavily guarded police line.

The CRPF man guarding the school gate shook hands with a group of small kids who roamed around. Every voter was frisked before entering the building. The school housed nine polling booths for areas located at least two kilometres away. Collectively these polling booths had over six thousand votes, but only 21 were cast till noon. “How anyone from Alyalpora can come to vote here as it is around two kilometres away?” asked a Congress’ polling agent. “Even it is not safe for people of Batpora.”

The instance of Stone Pelting

As he spoke a few stones landed inside the spacious school lawn, alerting everyone inside. “Don’t worry they are small kids pelting stones for fun. They just shook hands with me even,” assured the CRPF guard. “There is nothing to fear.”

But not all were as lucky. In Government Degree College, Pulwama, stones rained continuously from all directions as staff and a few political workers sat in fear looking for a safe exit.

This polling station had eleven booths representing areas like Karimabad, Gadoora, Sirnoo, Prichoo Wagam, Monghama; some of the most volatile parts of Pulwama.

“These booths are for presence sake else who will come from Karimabad to cast his vote here,” asked a PDP’s polling agent dejectedly.

Out of 2223 votes, none was polled in Karimabad.

Same was the case with Sirnoo (total 1376 votes) and Wagam (941 votes), where no vote was cast.

Meanwhile, three incidents of blasts occurred during the day. A petrol bomb was lobbed at a polling station in located in the Government Higher Secondary School (Boys) Rahmoo, Shopian, but it missed the target. In another incident, a grenade was hurled at the polling station stationed in Government Higher Secondary School, in Chatapora area of Pulwama district. In the third incident, a grenade was hurled upon polling booth located at Hergam Bathnoor A Tral. However, there was no loss of life or injury reported from both the incidents.

An official in Srinagar said there was no vote in almost 320 EVMs.  The Election Authorities had set up 1250 polling booths at 695 spots.

Bogus Polling

Pertinently the Jammu and Kashmir Pradesh Congress (JKPCC) accused NC and PDP overindulging in bogus voting and sought re-polling at a various booth in Pampore and Rajpora Constituencies. The party spokesperson has sought re-polling at booth No, 4,5,6,78  at BHSS Khrew in Pampore Assembly Segment and at booth No 113 GHSS Niara in Rajpora Constituency.

“NC Candidate Hussain Masoodi, who belong to Pampore constituency indulged in Bogus Voting, besides bringing in people in vehicles from a different location to make them caste bogus votes on these booths. The NC Candidate and his son Yawar Masoodi also indulged in fighting Congress Leader and snatched his mobile and threatened of consequences,” a party statement reads. “PDPs Waheed Parra who had captured Booth No 113 at GHSS Naira since morning used muscle power to overthrow polling agents of Congress Party, besides his close associates beat Congress worker ruthlessly, leaving him grievously injured.” The video of the beating was viral on social media.

As the day neared to end a large contingent of CRPF men was rushed towards Karimabad where stone pelting was going on.

As the clock ticked to 4 PM, everyone was praying for one thing, and easy and safe exit to home!

Better Polled Belts

By 4 pm, when the polling staff leaving the polling stations, more than 14674 voters had actually defied the frightening situation and cast their votes. These included 7512 votes in Pulwama, 4931 in Shopian and 2262 votes of the migrants. Officials said the voters came out in good numbers in upper Shopian and peripheral belts of Pampore, mostly in the Khrew belt.

A group of Ladakhi women in traditional dress showing the indelible ink mark on their fingers.

Long lines of voters were seen in the Shadaab belt of Shopian that was earlier known as Karewa Manlu. While the political parties had done a lot of campaigning in the belt, the people responded with a lot of enthusiasm and a sense of participation.

Kargil Versus Leh

Unlike South Kashmir, Ladakh polled in huge numbers. More than 71.1 per cent voters polled in the desert region. Of 173828 electors, the region witnessed the participation of 123594 voters. However, what made the high altitude polling interesting was that Kargil polled heavily than Leh district. In Leh, official sources said, 54704 voters, cast their votes which makes the participation of 62.76 per cent. In comparison, Kargil witnessed the participation of 68890 voters which makes the participation of 79.49 per cent. The region has four candidates in the fray, two each from Leh and Kargil.

CEO Speaks

Shalindra Kumar, the Chief Electoral Officer addressed a news conference after the polling was over. He said the overall polling in the twin districts was 2.81 per cent. He said Shopian polled 2.88 per cent and Pulwama 2.14 per cent. He said there were a few incidents of violence but all the polling staffers were safe and reached their stations.

Later, the Jammu and Kashmir government issued the following statement:

“Peaceful voting marked the fifth phase of polling for Anantnag and Ladakh Parliamentary constituencies (PCs) in Kashmir and Ladakh divisions of the State. An overall turnout of 18.02 per cent was recorded in Pulwama and Shopian districts of Anantnag Parliamentary Constituency and Kargil and Leh districts of Ladakh Parliamentary Constituency, Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) J&K, Shailendra Kumar informed in a press conference here today.

Shalinder Kumar Chief Electoral Officer addressed a news conference on May 6, 2019, after the Lok Sabha elections concluded in the state. He is flanked by the Kashmir Police Chief S P Pani

The CEO informed that in today’s voting Pampore assembly segment recorded the highest polling of 5.26 per cent while as the lowest percentage of 0.76 was recorded in Pulwama segment of Anantnag Parliamentary Constituency. He said that for smooth polling 695 polling stations were set up across Pulwama and Shopian districts, out of which 20 were Model Polling Stations and two were All Women Polling Stations.

Similarly, for Ladakh PC, 559 Polling stations were established including 21 Model Polling Stations and 57 All Women Polling Stations.

Divulging the details of the voter turnout in Pulwama and Shopian districts, the CEO informed that the total number of votes polled was 14676. With the completion of today’s phase, the overall poll percentage of Anantnag constituency has touched 8.76 per cent. Similarly, in Ladakh PC, the overall poll percentage has touched 63.70 per cent.

With the completion of all five phases of polling today the total percentage of voting in various parliamentary constituencies in the state including Baramulla, Jammu, Srinagar, Udhampur, Anantnag and Ladakh was recorded at 44.51%.

It may be recalled that over 5.22 lakh electors were scheduled to exercise their franchise in Pulwama and Shopian districts of south Kashmir, in the third leg of three-phased schedule for Anantnag Parliamentary Constituency. The number of registered voters in Leh and Kargil districts of Ladakh Parliamentary Constituency was 173709.

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

It may be recalled that eighteen candidates including Hasnain Masoodi (NC), Sofi Yousuf (BJP), Ghulam Ahmad Mir (INC), Mehbooba Mufti (PDP), Nisar Ahmad Wani (NPP), Choudhary Zaffar Ali (PC), Sanjay Kumar Dhar (Manav Adhikar Party), Surinder Singh (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, are in the fray for Anantnag Parliamentary constituency

Similarly, for Ladakh Parliamentary Constituency four candidates including Rigzin Spalbar (INC), Jamyang Tsering Namgyal (BJP), Asgar Ali Karbalai and Sajjad Hussain, both independents are contesting the elections.”

Complaints

Kumar admitted that his office received some complaints. These complaints were investigated, he added. In one complaint, the polling agents of two parties fought outside the polling booth and the entire official teams visited the spot and investigated it.

(With Tahir Bhat, Umar Khursheed in Srinagar)

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