Election in Pincodes: A groundswell of anxiety and hope grips Kashmir | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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Election in Pincodes: A groundswell of anxiety and hope grips Kashmir

By, Mir Ehsan
May 21, 2024 08:45 AM IST

The LS polls are the first major elections here since August 5, 2019. Anxiety about delimitation and resentment with State have calcified into historic turnout

Summers may bathe Kashmir in a golden glow that prompts its verdant gardens to burst into bloom, but it is not Safina Begum’s favourite season. The sun rises much too early, pushing her into the monotony of daily chores, tending to her family of six when the rest of her mountainous village of Wopzan hasn’t stirred awake. Last Sunday, though, the 26-year-old jumped out of bed even before streaks of red flushed the eastern sky, and put the kettle on boil.

In Chaklipora, voters have long braved militancy to vote. (HT photo)
In Chaklipora, voters have long braved militancy to vote. (HT photo)

By 9am she was done with cooking and cleaning their half-finished house – its exposed skeleton of serrated rods forever a sore point with her – and sprinted up the pockmarked hill face to the high school grounds. There, her friends had already secured four plastic chairs under a yellow tarp. The mood was jovial, yet the occasion was anything but. Seven days to go for the Lok Sabha polls in her village, the National Conference was holding a rally. “I am not so much into politics, but I love the songs they play,” she confessed, her friends pointing to modified Kashmiri and Bollywood numbers that a live troupe of six men belt out from the makeshift stage. “But this time, I’ll vote,” she said.

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Under a string of flags imprinted with the NC’s red plough poll symbol, Gul Bakht was sitting at the back with a friend, his long pearly beard swaying gently in the breeze. In his youth, he was an NC worker, trekking mountains effortlessly to canvas for votes for his idol – former chief minister Sheikh Abudllah. Today, bent with his 70-plus years on earth, he walks haltingly, with a stick. He has not voted in any election since the tainted 1987 assembly polls that many believe was the harbinger of militancy in the region. “There would either be a boycott call by militants or the elections would be vitiated,” he explained. A lifetime has passed since his last trek to the polling booth – a generation of politicians has handed over its legacy to scions, the region’s special status is gone and so is its statehood. Even ballot papers have been replaced by electronic voting machines. Gul Bakht is still coming to terms with some of these changes. Pressing a button doesn’t have the tactility of a crisp, stamped paper dropped into a box. “But nothing will stop me from voting,” he said.

The Lok Sabha elections are the first major direct polls in the restive region since the tectonic changes of August 5, 2019 stripped the province of its special status and statehood, clamped curfew-like conditions, suspended internet services for months, and led to the arrest and detention of thousands of political workers and leaders. For five years, Kashmir has been largely silent. But now, an undercurrent of energy is surging through the region that has already pushed turnout to record levels in Srinagar (38.49%) and Baramulla (56.29% at 10:30pm on Monday). The Union government believes this is an endorsement of its decisions, underlining its push to boost tourism numbers, clamp down on militancy and expand infrastructure. The Opposition thinks its an expression of popular anger, arguing that roads and water lines cannot measure wounded identity and trampled rights.

The reality is more complex – some are coming to the polls for material benefits such as ration cards, and others out of conviction. Still others point out that roughly half the Valley is still not voting even as for the first time in living memory, there is no boycott call by separatist organisations. “We are with India, and we will be. But Delhi should not have snatched our identity. This is why I am voting,” said Sadaf Ahmad.

The rally is convulsed with chaos – the mike sputters, the generator is indifferent, strings of flags that just won’t stay up, and the stage groaning under the weight of too many people. Yet, groups of young men, undaunted, piece together solutions – a loudspeaker fitted to a van becomes a makeshift mike, the power source from the school building next door is put to use, and the rope is tied to the overhang of a sturdy chinar tree.

Ordinary scenes elsewhere in India, extraordinary in post-370 Kashmir. As NC leader Bashir Ahmad Veeri steps off the stage, he is mobbed by women who have travelled from afar. “This is an election bursting with sentiment. Could it change the course of Kashmir?” he wondered.

Anxiety, hope

Article 370 is a lightning rod in the Lok Sabha campaign, especially in north India, while in the south, the spectre of delimitation due next year looms large. In Kashmir’s Anantnag-Rajouri constituency, these two very different issues collide to create a flux of identity, emotion and politics. The controversial delimitation process has changed the contours of the seat, which covers 18 assembly seats across Kashmir and Jammu, the demographics changing dramatically as one crosses the snow-crusted peaks of the Pir Panjal. This has created new anxieties around turnout, and helped create a new lever for divisive politics. Though no assembly segment-wise trends hold salience – there have been no assembly elections in the region in a decade – six of the 18 segments are in the Jammu districts of Rajouri and Poonch, dominated by members of the Hindu Pandit, Gujjar and Pahadi communities. In 2019, the Jammu constituency – of which the six assembly segments in Rajouri and Pooch were a part before delimitation – recorded a turnout of 73%. BJP’s Jugal Kishore Sharma won. In contrast, the old Anantnag constituency saw 8.9% turnout, the winner Hasnain Masoodi of the NC receiving just 40,000 votes. “The gerrymandering was done with the express intention of taking Kashmir’s voice away. This is why turnout has become such a big issue here,” said Veeri.

People’s Democratic Party (PDP) chief Mehbooba Mufti is contesting after breaking away from the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration over differences in seat-sharing. It’s a battle of survival for the former CM, who is fighting with her back to the wall after her party was ravaged by desertions.

In chinar-lined Bijbehara, her message finds some resonance. This is her family home, where her father, the former chief minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, is buried. In this town, sliced by the sluggish waters of the Jhelum, many carry personal bonds with her. “This is not an election for land or any issues. This is an election for our leader, Mehbooba ji,” declared Dilshada Begum. Mehbooba’s strategy hinges on taking a big lead in south Kashmir to offset some of her weakness in the Jammu regions.

To counter her, the NC has named former minister Mian Altaf, who is also a spiritual leader of the largest tribal community in the state, Gurjars. Every year, tens of thousands of people make their way to their family home in Baba Nagari, Wangath for celebrations. The NC believes he will be instrumental in drawing votes from the nomadic community that is now neck-and-neck with Kashmiri Muslims in electoral strength in the seat. “It’ll be a gamechanger,” said Veeri.

Myriad sentiments

The heat and dust of politics in the Valley rarely touches the pristine village of Chaklipora, perched atop a precipice on the Pir Panjal next to a gurgling stream gushing downstream. Here, the 5,000-strong population of Gujjars, who travel through treacherous mountain passes from Kashmir to Jammu every winter and go back as temperatures rise in the plains during the summer, eke out a marginal existence gathering firewood from the jungles and walking to the plains for manual labour. Many of them rear animals, live in straw-and-mud huts, and are intimately tied to the local communities through milk production and shared culture. No one in the village has ever graduated high school. Talking about government jobs or availing reservation elicits either a sheepish smile or angry murmurs about neglect.

“Here, we will see 90% voting,” said Mamunsab Khatana. His reasons are functional. “Voting is important for us because the only thing that makes officials sanction our work is a letter from an MP or MLA. Without that, they don’t listen to us.”

He recalled two decades of turmoil in the 1990s and 2000s when every election was scarred by a boycott call enforced ferociously by separatists, and the inevitable volley of threats from both separatists and security forces. For a community with little connection to militancy, voting was the only way to signal our defiance. “Our elders taught us, never waste your vote – even if militants raise their guns at you”

This time, the village is leaning towards Mian Altaf due to the Gujjar’s reverence to the spiritual leader, but there are outlying issues – almost every young man has a friend or relative who is in jail over charges of stone pelting or showing up for a protest. “But it’s our right to vote and make the government. We’ll walk 50km down the mountain meadows if we need to,” said Yusuf Khan.

In Anantnag town, the mood is decidedly more sombre. The reality that the tribal community is impoverished – more than half of them are below the poverty line, and many of their settlements are scraggy heaps of bricks on the edges of town, next to the streams or flood-prone river banks – weighs down on Basharat Chouhan.

A tour guide who coordinates trekking expeditions for tourists, Chouhan is seeing the campaign focussed on questions of statehood, dignity and Article 370, which he believes hold little salience for a community struggling to get their forest rights claims ratified and quota benefits realised. “Look at us. Our boys can’t even finish school and we have no jobs. Most of us don’t even live in the cities. These questions of identity and freedom are too lofty for us. We have to live first.”

Smaller parties

Among the other players, two are prominent, but are battling the perception that they’re proxies of the Centre. Apni Party, founded by businessman Altaf Bukhari, has fielded Zafar Manhas, a Pahadi who has focussed on the Poonch and Rajouri regions where his community has significant presence. “The people in Poonch Rajouri are the sufferers for 70 years even though they are the first line of defence,” he said. A 10% reservation for the Pahadis, announced by the government just before the polls, has driven a wedge in the region with many Gujjars opposing the move.

There is also Saleem Parray of the Democratic Progressive Azad Party, founded by former Congress CM Ghulam Nabi Azad, who earlier had entered the fray in Anantnag-Rajouri but later withdrew. In rally after rally, Azad has focussed on the misdeeds of the NC. “The people remember my tenure as CM. They will give us a chance,” he has said.

The enthusiasm about the elections has meant that a string of independents – once unheard of here – have also jumped in. A Kashmiri Pandit, Dilip Kumar Pandita, divides his time between Anantnag, his birthplace, and Jammu, where he runs a business. “Our community welcomed Article 370’s removal. But on the ground, we have not moved beyond assurances. This needs to change,” he said.

Shadow of militancy

The sullen alleys of Redwani Bala village grow silent as afternoon falls over its 600 households. The smashed chassis of an SUV and the bombed out husk of a two-storey house bear witness to an encounter last week that killed two terrorists. Stories of two local militants who are active in the area looms as a grim portent of the fear that stalked the area and depressed turnout for decades. Resentment about the Indian State, historical grievances about plebiscite demands and the accession accord, and anger over the treatment meted out to young Kashmiri men has calcified into reticence. Outside a tea stall, three men refuse to give their names but express disinterest about the elections. “We don’t care who votes, but we will not,” said one of them.

Rumours about a terror strike in Shopian that killed one man and another in Pahalgam that wounded two tourists – the attacks coming six days before elections – have injected fear into the conversation. “If we vote, we will get singled out,” said a second man, refusing to be identified.

It is villages such as Redwani that make Anantnag the heart of militancy in south Kashmir, and temper any excitement about turnout. But here too, there are some new voices of defiance. Tariq Ahmad, a tailor, is one of them. With seven members in his house, Ahmad wants electricity bills to be slashed and for local water bodies to be cleaned. “We want to live a peaceful life so we want to vote. Can you believe what it means to live in a village where encounter is a way of life?”

Zafar Javed, who runs a hardware store, is more strident. “We might not know all the candidates but we will vote. Because we want our voice in the government.”

New spring

As he knocks on doors, his supporters recount the harrowing 18 months he spent in detention after August 2019, an experience that has added to his stature. But, he cautions, it would be a mistake to link elections to support for the government. Walking next to him, Aadil Ahmad nods. “Our people have no other option. They cannot pelt stones, they cannot protest. UAPA lag jayga (they’ll be charged under UAPA). They’ll be sent to Agra and Jodhpur. There is anger but there is also fear. Elections are the only outlet,” he said.

As he walks past a shop selling dry fruits and biscuits, the owner waves at him. Abdur Rashid hasn’t come out to vote since 1987, fearing retribution from either the militants who would enforce a boycott, or the forces who would coerce people to vote. But he has changed his mind this time. “They took everything from us, our dignity, our identity. Now, we only have the vote left,” he said, his feeble voice suddenly firm. “Do you think I’ll give it up?”

HT looks at some key constituencies across the country that encapsulate the issues shaping the ongoing Lok Sabha electoral contest. This is the 27th in a series of election reports from the field that look at national and local issues through an electoral lens.

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