South Kashmir Lok Sabha constituency has created precedence in the electoral history as it would go to polls in three phases. Shams Irfan visited the restive region that witnessed a chain of crisis in last three years to understand how its apparent volatility is paving way for one of the most security intensive elections in Kashmir history
The small sleepy hamlet of Chattergul, some 35 kms from Anantnag, perfectly reflects the mood of ideologically torn south Kashmir; half of its population vows to stay away from the polls, and other half is keen to vote to keep BJP out.
The divide is significant as Chattergul has a mixed population of Kashmiri, Gujjars and a few Pandits.
Located on a hillock that can be reached after climbing a road that remains lapped up in pear and apple trees, Chattergul is the last village where Kashmiri is spoken as mother tongue.
A narrow but well-carpeted road takes one to over fifty small but exclusive Gujjar hamlets that lie scattered over a vast and rugged expanse. These hamlets hold key to upcoming election’s outcome in case there is low poling.
“This is where real voting happens in south Kashmir,” said Aziz, a village shopkeeper pointing towards the Gujjar dominated villages.
On a rain drenched afternoon as Congress’ Ghulam Nabi Azad’s helicopter touched down at a vacant patch of land on village outskirts, hundreds of people, mostly Gujjars, rushed to greet him. He was accompanied by G A Mir, Congress’ candidate from Anantnag constituency. It was Azad’s third stop-over of the day in the belt.
In nearby school ground, Azad assured party workers and loyalist not to worry about BJP as long as Congress is there to defend them. “We won’t let anyone harm Kashmir’s special status,” Azad told people as they cheered jubilantly.
Almost half-an-hour later, Azad and Mir left with a promise to come back and listen to their grievances thoroughly.
“This time we are not voting on the basis of issues that we face. This election is about our safety and existence,” said Shakeel Ahmad Shaksaz, 40, district president Anantnag, OBC department Pardesh Congress. “We are telling people the truth about what Kashmir could face if BJP returns to power.”
Shaksaz has had a busy day mobilizing workers for Azad’s rally. “If BJP returns, we all know what it means for Kashmir,” said Shaksaz, as the crowd around him nod.
His senior, Mohammad Ramzan Shaksaz, 57, Chairman Kashmir OBC department, Pardesh Congress, who saw Azad up to his helicopter, along with hundreds of women and men, is happy to see people out on the streets. “This area has no mood to boycott,” he tells everyone around him happily. “People know this election is about Kashmir, so how can they stay away and let others decide our future.”
As Shakshaz talks about upcoming elections and Kashmir issue in the same breath, four middle aged men, who sat on a shop-front opposite him, turn their heads in disagreement. “Nobody can do anything to resolve Kashmir issue that we know,” said one of the friends who refused to share his name.
“How can we vote when so many people were killed? How can we forget young pellet victims? How can we let our brothers down?” asks another angrily.
Jowhar Ahmad Wani, 40, another shopkeeper says he could relate with people in the plains. “We feel their pain and emotions.”
As Wani talks hundreds of Congress supporters, flashing small banners and big smiles, pass him jubilantly as if on a victory march. “It hardly makes any difference what BJP will do to Article 370 or 35A; we are living in everyday misery anyhow,” said Wani.
But despite the divide in Chattergul, which falls under Shangus assembly constituency, represented last time by Congress’ Gulzar Ahmad Wani, both Azad and Mir are banking on it to corner their opponents.
In Kokernag, the place famous for its gardens and trout fish farms, the mood is entirely different, as people are eager to participate in the electoral process for the sake of keeping “communal forces away”.
Ghulam Nabi Kuchay, 72, who has never missed a vote barring troubled 1996 assembly elections, when the militancy was at its peak, feels voting is important to make Kashmir’s voice heard in the Indian parliament. “If we don’t vote, wrong people will reach there and do whatever they wish.”
Kuchay, associated with Congress since his college days in 1960s, has a strange wish now: “I want to see Dr Farooq Abdullah in Indian Parliament. Nobody understands Kashmir like he does. I am saying this despite being a Congress voter.”
Around the same time, Azad was addressing a small gathering of party workers in remote Larnoo village, some 14 kilometres from Kokernag, assuring them that, “BJP can’t abrogate Article 370 even if they rule India for 200 years. Congress won’t allow anyone to touch Kashmir’s special status till the party exists in India,” he said. “If people turn out in good numbers to vote, then only our candidate can win with a huge margin.”
But both Azad and Mir know that getting people to vote in volatile Anantnag constituency is a challenging job.
Who is contesting?
After weeks of negotiations and high level talks when Congress and NC failed to reach a consensus on Anantnag seat, they coined a new term: friendly contest. But on the ground, the contest is not as friendly as both the parties might like to call it.
The contest is between former Chief Minister and PDP’s president Mehbooba Mufti, Congress’ Pardesh President Ghulam Ahmad Mir and NC’s new face Hasnain Masoodi, a retired High Court judge.
While both Mehbooba and Mir are seasoned politicians with a solid political background, NC’s Masoodi is a newcomer with relatively less ground level connectivity.
In 2014 Lok Sabah elections, the contest for Anantnag seat was interesting one as Mehbooba defeated NC’s Mehboob Beg by a margin of around 65 thousand votes. Since then, Beg has quit NC and joined PDP. Now he is campaigning for Mehbooba.
But it is not an easy task to seek votes for Mehbooba even in her once strong bastion of south Kashmir.
At last week’s public rally in Bijbehara where Mehbooba spoke, the enthusiasm among handful of party workers, who had gathered to hear her, was missing.
“If Mehbooba cannot gather even three hundred people in her hometown, it means there is something seriously wrong with the party and its message,” said a former PDP loyalist from the town who refused to be named. “I am sure she has over 300 relatives in this town!”
So far Mehbooba has not attended any big public rally in south Kashmir. Like NC and Congress, Mehbooba too has chosen to address people at places considered ‘friendly’. On April 16, Mehbooba’s cavalcade was pelted with stones in Khiram area of south Kashmir where she had gone to visit a shrine.
“Before PDP joined hands with BJP, Mehbooba used to map entire south Kashmir without fear,” said another PDP worker. “Now we cannot even go to our own villages and towns.”
Same is the case with NC as most of the interaction with voters and workers is done inside highly secured Government Housing Colony in Khanabal, Anantnag. There is hardly any sign of elections in any part of the constituency. There are no posters, buntings, or banners announcing candidates in this part of Kashmir. Almost all the poll related party meetings are done either behind closed doors or secured walls. But even such meetings are not safe anymore. On April 16, Masoodi survived a grenade attack in Tral where he was meeting party workers at a NC leader’s house. So far no public rally was held by any of the three political parties in Tral, Pulwama, Shopian, Awantipora, Pampore or even Anantnag towns. “Nobody dares to visit these areas anymore,” said Ghulam Hassan Bhat, 50, a private teacher from Arwani village in south Kashmir. “There is a lot of anger among people for all politicians across parties.”
Even small public rallies addressed by Ghulam Nabi Azad so far were held in friendly pockets like Larnoo in Kokernag, Kapran in Dooru and Chattergul. No rally had more than a few hundred locals in attendance. Most of the crowd was made up of party workers who shuffled between these locations to make Azad feel comfortable.
In Shopian, the apple town of Kashmir, which has seen most number of encounters and militant killings since July 2016, no political rally was held so far.
Last week, Mir’s son Mir Naseer Ahmad, vice president of Youth Congress, held a small party convention of workers at Circuit House, Shopian. This was the first political activity by any party in the Shopian district which is going to polls on May 6. “There were just over hundred workers who attended the convention,” said a local journalist who covered the event.
One of the young speakers told audience emotionally that this area has seen bloodbath in last two years. “The only way this area can prosper is if people vote for Congress,” he told party workers.
But outside the Chowgam Circuit House, located close to a garrison, there is no sign of upcoming elections in the entire district. “Who will dare to talk about elections in this town?” asks Suhail, a young fruit merchant from Shopian. “Every single village in Shopian, Pulwama and Kulgam has been subjected to extreme brutality. How can anyone even think of voting here?”
Interestingly, even lawmakers who represented assembly segments in Kulgam, Shopian and Pulwama districts are not visible on the ground. “I have not seen even a single political worker talk about elections this time,” said Suhail. “The situation is not favourable for elections given the ongoing bloodbath in south Kashmir.”
A large number of political workers, who fled their native villages and towns in south Kashmir during post-Burhan Wani protests, have not returned so far. “These workers are living in government provided accommodations in Srinagar,” said a local PDP worker who didn’t leave his home in Shopian. “But not all of us have fled our homes.”
Those who stayed back are not able to canvass openly given the daily encounter and killings in the district. “We have not been able to meet people openly,” said Bashir Ahmad Sofi, 55, PDP’s Zonal President, Shopian. “I am sure in coming days we will move out and try to convince people to vote. But it is not going to be an easy task for us to mobilise people.”
Interestingly, one of the visible political faces in Shopian town is Javaid Qadri of BJP. Despite changed situation on the ground, Qadri has stayed in the town throughout. “So far we have not done any kind of political activity, but in coming days, we will try to meet people,” said Qadri. “We are planning a rally soon in Shopian.”
It would be premature to completely write off any of the political party on the basis of their inability to get people out in the open or hold public rallies. There are people who are keen to vote but will assess the ground situation till last moment. There is another set of people, who reside in some of the most militancy prone areas like Arwani, Redwani, Khudwani, Yaripora etc. who will not vote but want political process to take roots in Kashmir, especially in the south.
For them having a local representative is important rather than having nobody at all to share their grievances with. “Last time, when my cousin was picked up by army we couldn’t secure his release for five months,” said Ajaz, a shopkeeper from Arwani village. “If there would have been a local representative, we could have at least asked him to intervene and secure his release. But without anyone there, whom should we go to and seek help from?”
Since Burhan Wani’s killing in July 2016, Arwani has witnessed most number of militant killings. There is hardly any week when the village is not under cordon and search operation (CASO).
A Jama’at-e-Islami hotbed, Arwani was completely gutted in April 1979, after Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged by dictator Zia-ul-Haq.
“I am sure nobody will vote in this village,” said Ghulam Rasool Mir, 52, a tailor whose shop is hotspot for social and political discussions in the village. “But I strongly believe that local representatives are necessary as you need someone to listen to your woes. Given the situation on these elected representatives work as a buffer between people and the army.”
Apart from Mir’s village, which he believes will not vote, there are a number of small villages in Kulgam belt who have long pending issues which will force them to vote. “There are around 99 villages in Homeshalibug assembly constituency, and not everyone is going to boycott.”
Interestingly, in 2014 Lok Sabah elections Jama’at dominated villages in otherwise militancy dominated belts even polled a few dozen votes for BJP!
But the killing of Burhan and the subsequent bloodbath changed Arwani and its people completely. “Before 2016, we considered PDP our party. But post-Burhan changed everything. And her (Mehbooba’s) toffee remark was an insult to our wounds,” said Mir. “We are living in constant fear since then.”
As one interacts with Jama’at members it becomes clear that PDP may have lost its loyal voters but not its sympathisers completely. “You cannot believe what Mufti (Sayeed) did for us. He saved Jama’atis from the terrors of Ikhwan and STF,” said Mohammad Maqbool Bhat, 65, a retired government teacher from Arwani who is rukn (basic member) of Jama’at-e-Islamia since last forty years. “I will not vote but still I cannot deny Mufti’s contribution in making our life a bit easy and free.”
With life coming to a virtual halt after sunset in most parts of Pulwama town, the fear of unknown takes over. “Like early 1990s, most of the marriage functions now take place during day time,” said Shamim Ahmad, a resident of main-town Pulwama who recently had a small function at his home. “I told my guests categorically that they should come on time and leave before dark. Having a guest at home is now a liability given regular CASOs and surprise checks by army.”
There has been a visible change in villages surrounding Pulwama town especially after the killing of key militant commanders like Sameer Tiger and Zahoor Ahmad Thokar.
“The anger is mainly against PDP,” said Sajad, a local resident who is in fruit business. “But that doesn’t mean that people will vote for other political parties instead. I am sure this area will see most of the people staying away from election process.”
So far no visible political activity has taken place in Pulwama town. Even the traditional voting pockets in the district are indifferent to the upcoming polls. “There is zero political activity in Pulwama this time,” said Nazir Ahmad Nazir, a retired engineer from the town. “Last two and half years have been very difficult for Kashmiris especially for people in Pulwama. I don’t remember two straight weeks when there was no encounter or killings.”
Nazir, who belongs to a political family, has never seen people such indifferent towards elections as they are now. “Even far flung areas, which used to vote traditionally in assembly elections, are seething with anger. There are hundreds of local boys who are behind bars. In such a situation how can anyone expect them to go out and vote,” asks Nazir.
The situation is almost same in Pampore town and its adjoining areas. During last assembly elections, peripheral villages in Pampore voted in large numbers. There were long lines outside polling booths in Khrew, the hometown of NC’s current parliamentary candidate Hasnain Masoodi.
“I am sure these areas will vote again,” said Yawar Masoodi, who unsuccessfully contested assembly elections on NC’s ticket from Pampore. “Right now the focus of our campaign is on Anantnag district as it will go to polls first.”
Yawar is confident that Shopian, Kulgam, Pulwama and Pampore towns will vote. “We are not sitting silent entirely in these areas. So far we have held introductory meetings with our party workers. In coming days, you will see big rallies taking place in all these areas.”
But as one travels through the interiors of Anantnag constituency, a sense of indifference towards elections and politicians is visible. “If we are forced to vote like we were in 1996, I will press NOTA instead of voting for any of them,” said a Jama’at member in south Kashmir. But given the trend that north and central Kashmir have exhibited, the participation or staying away has been non-coercive and voluntary.