People queued up outside the Sheikhpora primary school in central Kashmir’s Budgam tehsil as early as 8 am to vote in the panchayat elections, being held in the state after 10 years.
The same place, 7 km away from hardline Hurriyat chairman Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s Srinagar residence, was the centre of protests in 2010. But it had no impact on voter turnout.
Inhabitants of the Valley seemed to have de-linked the Kashmir problem from the polls. More than 80% turnout across booths in all eight blocks participating in the first phase of the elections.
“The panchayat polls are being fought on a non-party basis. It’s very different from assembly or parliamentary polls and do not have same political connotations. It will help us to improve the living standards in villages,” said Mehraj Ahmad, vice-president of the local mosque’s Auqaf Committee, which has fielded six candidates.
Ahmad, a local poll organiser, has police cases against him for participating in the anti-Indian protests in the past.
“Police even raided my house this year for participating in the protests in 2010. Kashmir is a dispute and I am for its peaceful resolution. We do not dispute Geelani’s ideology and approach, but there are day-to-day problems too,” said Ahmad.
Asiya Bano, in her late 30s, is among four women contesting in the panchayat polls in the Sheikhpora block. She said, “I want drainage facilities, better roads, tap water and power for my village.”
Abdul Aziz Pandit, a farmer, however, did not vote or step out of his house. Pandit lost his son, Sajad Ahmad, 18, in the 2010 street protests. “Don’t ask me anything about polls. Those who are contesting were spearheading street protests last summer. This reflects hypocrisy,” he said.
The security forces were thin on the ground and there were no coercion allegations or reports of militant violence in any block. Chief electoral officer BR Sharma said, “The highest poll percentage is in Kupwara, where more than 86% voted.”