Residents themselves seemed to be taken by surprise. Even before the polling booths opened at 8 am on Monday in this Muslim dominated district on the India-Pakistan border, long queues had begun to form outside them.
Separatist sentiment had never struck deep roots in this district 240 km north of Jammu. The population comprises Gujjars, Bakerwals (a partially nomadic tribe) and converted Rajputs, who are ethnographically quite different from the Muslims of the Kashmir valley. Even so, given the all pervasive cry for azaadi in the Valley, there were apprehensions that voters in the three seats of this district too — Poonch, Mendhar and Surankote — had been influenced by the sentiments of their co religionists there. The queues proved the fears entirely groundless.
People in the queues did not even conceal their political affiliations. “I'm voting for Bashir Naaz, the Congress candidate,” said Mohammed Rafiq, a farmer at Khari Karmara village. Shortly ahead of him in the queue, fellow farmer Mohammed Shafi in contrast insisted he preferred Aijaz Jan of the National Conference.
“I finished my household chores early so that I could join the queue before it became too long,” said housewife Rehmat Bee. Located along the Line of Control, the residents of parts of Poonch are inured to the sounds of Indian and Pakistani troops violating the ceasefire and exchanging fire every now and then. Poonch is also in the news for the Poonch Rawalkote road, marking a new trade route into Pakistan, opened on October 21.
Mohammed Hussain at Digwar village, is a former militant voting for the first time. He was in Pakistan for six years with the Jamiat ul Mujahideen. But he tired of insurgency — and the lack of support for it among his people — and returned to the pastoral life in 2004.
“There is a special thrill in pressing the EVM button,” said the former militant.
“I'm delighted to be voting for the first time,” said burqa clad 22 year old Nikka Bano. “But I want a job too.”