Southern Slide

As separatists are patting themselves, unionists PDP and NC are claiming victory in the Mehboob versus Mehbooba poll that witnessed absence of 72% voters. But the modest participation marked by massive unrest, violence and defiance emerged as the new puzzle compelling policymakers to think. R S Gull identifies the key questions being talked about as Srinagar is readying for the vote.

Youth clashing with security forces in South Kashmir on April 24 - the Lok Sabha Polling day. Pic: Qayoom Khan
Youth clashing with security forces in South Kashmir on April 24 – the Lok Sabha Polling day.
Pic: Qayoom Khan

In its recent history, Kashmir has experienced interesting elections. In an elected Lok Sabha, J&K used to nominate individuals, a tradition Supreme Court upheld!

 For the state assembly, parties used to fill berths by nominees. When opposition grew, opponent nomination papers were cancelled. Then rigging started. When people stayed away from the election, they had soldiers knocking at their doors, “encouraging” them to vote. After boycott bogey took over, campaigns started creating its vested interests. Even cross purpose became a purpose.

 But Thursday, April 24 poll – in Kashmir’s first of three Lok Sabha (LS) seats, was a mixed bag. In the interestingly ‘peaceful’ era, south Kashmir witnessed an improvement of one per cent in turnout in five years by polling 28%. But there was violence, fierce protesting and lot of stone pelting in areas hitherto not on Kashmir’s ‘stone pelting map’. Peripheral towns had more untouched EVMs than those carrying some votes.

 The entire mess threw up more questions than answers. These are being asked on the streets as well as in the ivory towers of Kashmir’s governance. These are very simple questions like:

  1. Why street became a war theatre?
Mehbooba Mufti addressing her supporters in a South Kashmir town ahead of LS Polls. Pic: Bilal Bahadur
Mehbooba Mufti addressing her supporters in a South Kashmir town ahead of LS Polls.
Pic: Bilal Bahadur

The quantum of street violence in south Kashmir especially in Shopian and its peripheries is something that, people who witnessed it, say was unimaginable.

 “When we had to deploy the polling staff, for certain areas, we took the routes as long as 30 kms to reach a distance of not more than 6 kms from the town,” an official associated with the exercise said. “In the main town, the polling staff could only be deployed during the dead of the night.”

 Generally the stone pelters were small young boys but at certain places there were elderly people seen managing the supply lines. In a polling station bordering Shopian and Pulwama, a polling officer said they remained under attack for most of the day as four tractor-trolley load of Renbiaar boulders was managed under their nose. At the end of it when polling concluded, departure became a heady task. “We sent our elderly officials and negotiated with the protesters and somehow got out,” the official said on the condition of anonymity.

 In Tral, the most militancy affected belt in South Kashmir, the stations remained deserted and that was it. By 7 pm, most of the EVMs had been stored in the strong room. But that was not the case in Shopian and parts of Pulwama. Shopian’s Fruit mundi where polling staff had to report back was a panicky enclosure where people were crying especially after the young school teacher Zia ul Haq of Hirpora was killed in a militant ambush.

 “It was shocking to see the buses returning without windows and literally converted into ambulances,” the official said. “It was so huge that we opened a desk to record the damaged vehicles.” Almost eighty per cent of 110 buses were damaged and in most of the cases those travelling in them survived with minor injuries. So severe was an attack on one polling station that they left and the EVM to be collected by the electoral staff from neighbouring district. “In a number of cases, the government had to send armoured vehicles (bakatraband) to evacuate the staff and the last EVM was driven to the town at 6:30 am on Friday.”

 This much of violence took place despite 280 arrests in the constituency in anticipation of polling. Police had to rush additional reinforcement from Srinagar to Shopian in midday on Thursday. A police officer said the situation turned so grave that controlling cops sounded difficult. “There were cases in which the subordinates misbehaved with their officers because they were not permitted to use more force,” a police officer said. “The idea was to exhibit a proverbial restraint or otherwise it would have been a massive crisis.”

 Kashmir Police Chief Abdul Gani Mir admitted that south Kashmir was expected to be hard. “We knew it was very difficult because militancy had some local support which was mobilized and that the area was angry over certain things for some time.”

 What Mir referred to was the pent up anger in Shopian the belt feels wronged. From the twin murders of Asia and Neelofer in 2009 to a series of innocent killings in the 2013 summer, it is yet to get any relief that would help it hail its wounds.

  1. So would separatists damage the process more if they are not restricted?

Omar Abdullah  attending an NC rally in South Kashmir. Pic: Bilal Bahadur
Omar Abdullah attending an NC rally in South Kashmir.
Pic: Bilal Bahadur

Kashmir was never part of the Indian urban elite that skipped voting. It is a post-1990s phenomenon. Poll boycott issue led to a vertical split in Hurriyat after 2002 assembly elections.

 But was the low poll in south essentially a response to separatist boycott campaign? Apart from high gathering campaign that JKLFs Yasin Malik had in the belt, all others had contributed their bit. Hurriyat (G) had routinely used the mosques on Fridays to put a word across and the brand new Hurriyat by Shabir Shah and Co also contributed.

 Allegations are flying around that since boycott serves a particular party, there were administrative designs in making it a success.

 Boycott has triggered a debate in the unionist camp. “If India withdraws the right to vote in J&K as it has rolled back right to life through AFSPA, how will the boycott lobby react?” PDP spokesman Naeem Akhter said. “Are not we disfranchising ourselves?”

 Akhter says Kashmir issue is there since 1947. “The requirement is to have a clear division of work. Let the separatists manage the Kashmir issue and let the mainstream parties be permitted to manage the issues of Kashmir,” says Akhtar. “Tosamaidan is an issue that pertains to us (unionists) and not to them (separatists) because it is occupation of a place and not the occupation of state they are talking about.”

 Even NC’s Ghulam Nabi Ratanpuri is furious that separatists skipped opting for the NOTA option. “It would have been a referendum,” he believes.

  1. Is Parliament irrelevant to Kashmir?

 When Chief Electoral Officer Umang Narula was asked to explain a low poll, he said generally J&K sees less participation in the Lok Sabha polls. Less involvement is less interest that bases in fewer stakes. Unlike Jammu, Kashmir is apparently not interested who replaces Dr Manmohan Singh.

 Even NCs Junaid Mattu admits that unlike Lok Sabha, people are more involved in assembly polls because it tackles their grievances. “Parliament elections are being fought over national issues,” he said.

Women outside in  a queue to cast their vote in a South Kashmir Village. Pic: Bilal Bahadur
Women outside in a queue to cast their vote in a South Kashmir Village.
Pic: Bilal Bahadur

 But Lok Sabha has remained off the focus. Firstly, J&Ks six members have never created any impression in parliament. The insignificant number does not make them an impressive voice even if they belong to the same party. The only time, the number mattered was when NCs Prof Saiz ud Din Soz, now the PCC Chief, cast his vote against Atal Behari Vajpayee and his government fell. It cost Soz his basic membership of the party!

 Secondly, on the contributions front, there are no illustrious instances. The last best reference was that of Shameem Ahmad Shameem who would speak and be heard. Since 1996 when J&K was represented, there are not many instances in which the lawmakers might have drawn attention back home. MPs from a small state like J&K usually do the networking for the respective state. Even on this front, it has remained a failure.

 But this leads to another question: if it is apparently so unimportant, why should people become violent?

  1. Why the four districts exhibit two distinct patterns?

 Though the final tally is yet to come, the distinct patterns that the four districts exhibit are stark. Pulwama and Shopian polled 6.32% and 20.43%. Neighbouring Kulgam and Islamabad recorded 36.68% and 39.76% respectively. The best polling areas were Damhal Hanjipora (represented by NC), Kulgam (CPIM), Dooru, Kokernag (Congress) and Pahalgam (PDP) – all in Kulgam-Islamabad. The rest of the two districts completely dominated by PDP exhibited low poll.

 Trigger to the mess was a series of militant attacks. In the first attack, a neo-NC ‘leader’ had two cops dead at his door. Though the army killed the foreign duo and recovered the snatched weapons, the scare was created. The particular belt cast quite a few votes compared to a respectable polling in 2009. The second involved murdering a PDP Sarpanch is Awantipore and the final assault came in Tral where three persons were killed – a Sarpanch, a Lambardar and his son. It created a scare sending panchs and sarpanches to police stations for security. PDP and NC have been accusing each other of the attacks.

 On a logical front Akhter says it is absence of “mainstream opposition”. In Kulgam and Islamabad, Akhter said, it is PDP versus Congress or NC but in Shopian and Pulwama it is PDP versus separatists. “You can beat a vote by a vote and not by a stone,” Akhter said. “It is an unequal contest between a voter and a stone throwing opposition.”

 But NCs Junaid Mattu says it is not because of violence alone. He sees it as “explosion of PDP bubble” as its lawmakers failed to convince their supporters to come out and vote. “It is also a fact that there is an unresolved political issue, there is some sort of isolation at the gross root, sense of fear and local anxieties,” Mattu said. “All this triggered a low turnout.”

  1. Is NC Congress coalition unwell?

This is something that people used to talk in whispers till Congress minister G A Mir said his workers have not totally worked for NC. Politicians believe that in alliances, the most difficult part is to ensure a voter polling for a proxy.

 Cross voting happened in Rajouri Poonch and now in south Kashmir. That was why the coalition flew Ghulam Nabi Azad to the belt and campaign for Mehboob Beg. But the trend is expected to get repeated in north Kashmir as well.

 Mattu, however, denied the reports. “That minister worked hard to ensure coalition candidate gets the votes,” Mattu said. “There is complete coordination despite the fact that alliances are compulsions which, if ideologically different, are uncomfortable for both partners.”

  1. Will South trend impact the rest of two Kashmir seats?

People waiting for their turn to cast their vote at Damhal Hanjipora  in Kulgam district. Pic: Bilal Bahadur
People waiting for their turn to cast their vote at Damhal Hanjipora in Kulgam district.
Pic: Bilal Bahadur

A common man’s belief is supportive. Street response suggests that at least Srinagar will exhibit a lesser polling if compared to 2009. Srinagar city has stayed away since 1996.

 But parties respond differently. “It is an issue for the political analysts and it remains to be seen but I doubt it will have any impact,” Mattu said. “In elections low or high turnout does not matter. In both the scenarios people vote for all the parties, so low turnout should not trigger any sort of victimhood anywhere.”

 For Akhter, it is not an issue. “My problem is that the genuine alienation is increasing and NC is enjoying it. But to what end?” Akhter asks. “The alienation has phenomenally increased in last five years and it has taken the shape of a resistance structure and the credit goes to Omar Abdullah.” Akhter says breaking the hard nut of “resistance structure is very difficult even for the political genius of Mufti Sayeed.”

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