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The surreal polls of Bandipora

There are no banners, posters, or bands to be seen on the streets here. No candidates either. It is hard to imagine an Indian election will be held here in four days. A report by Rashid Ahmad.

india Updated: Nov 14, 2008 02:04 IST
Rashid Ahmad

There are no banners, posters, loudspeakers, or bands to be seen on the streets here. No candidates either.

It is hard to imagine an Indian election will be held here in four days.

That, perhaps, is the point: in Kashmir’s atmosphere of sullen anger, the coming elections are widely regarded as a symbol of Indian rule.

The elections are scheduled for the assembly seats of Bandipora, Gurez and Sonawari, 65 km north of Srinagar. It is a region of soaring mountains, crisp air and open skies. There are 19 candidates contesting the Bandipora seat alone.

But where are they? Most are in their fortified homes, guarded by security forces.

“Not a single candidate has so far held any public rally here,” said Mohammad Subhan Bhat, a shopkeeper in the main bazaar. The candidates readily confirm their fear and lack of electoral enthusiasm.

“We have restricted our activities to individual contacts,” said People’s Democratic Party (PDP) nominee Nizamuddin Bhat. “The situation is not conducive for holding road shows.”

“In rural areas we do hold public meetings,” said Bhat. “But in urban areas the mood is that of defiance.”

On a recent evening, 600 residents of Bandipora town marched against elections. Kerosene torches in their hands, they shouted slogans of freedom. “Hum kya chahtey? Azaadi! (What do we want? Freedom!)” was the favourite cry.

“Elections are not an alternative to our right of self-determination,” said university student Fayaz Ahmad. Both factions of the multi-party Hurriyat alliance and other separatist groups operating outside it, have called election boycotts since 1996.

This time the calls are more strident, more demanding: self determination.

“Earlier it used to be militants enforcing the boycott,” said a Congress party functionary, requesting anonymity because he feared for his safety. “Militants were easy to tackle. We have held huge rallies in the past elections. We would just ask for security cover and go for public meetings.

“There are no militants around this time. The boycott campaigners are unarmed civilians.

“We cannot ask for a crackdown on them, can we? We have seek votes from these people.”

There is one man addressing a “rally” — of about 100 people. Former Union Minister and Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Shanta Kumar was talking to Gujjars, Muslim nomads who have stayed aloof of the separatist struggle.

But the Gujjars have been bused in under armed escort from a nearby Gujjar village. A villager called Shamuddin is running a BJP ticket, and Kumar is here to lend him support.

“This ground has been specified for election rallies by the authorities,” said a police officer in charge of security, who declined to be named. “It remains under tight security cover round the clock. This is the first public meeting being held here.”

So how do other candidates, well, campaign?

At home, mostly. They call supporters to their secure residences and mostly woo them with the wazwan, Kashmir’s traditional banquet reserved for weddings and special occasions.

“One independent invited around 200 people for lunch on Sunday and served them wazwan,” said another Bandipora shopkeeper, Ghulam Nabi Mir. “The guests had been brought from highland villages.”

For the record, the main contenders for the Bandipora assembly seat are the PDP’s Nizamuddin Bhat, the Congress’s former minister Usman Majeed and National Conference nominee Ghulam Rasool Naaz.

It doesn’t really matter who wins.