11 districts vote in first Jammu-Kashmir local polls in 13 years
Voting began in 11 districts of Jammu and Kashmir in the first of the four phases of urban local bodies elections Monday morning amid tight security in the first such polls in 13 years.
Monday’s elections are being held for 422 wards out of a total of 1,145. The initial voter turnout has been tepid with only 75 votes cast in three wards in Srinagar in the first two hours, election officials said.
For Baramulla council, the response has been cold with just 37 people out of 937 casting their votes while no vote was polled in Azad Ganj ward of Janbazpora block of Baramulla district which has 1100 votes.
In Handwara, 31 voters out of 514 had cast their votes in the first two hours.
The media was stopped outside Handwara and Kupwara towns before being allowed in. But reporters were not allowed near polling booth to “ensure safety of voters”, a senior government official in Kupwara said.
“For safety of voters we have issued instructions how to cover these elections. I will look into it why you have been stopped,” Kupwara’s deputy commissioner told Khalid Jahangir told HT.
Mobile Internet services have been suspended in south Kashmir in the view of the first phase of urban local bodies elections. Mobile Internet speed has been downgraded to 2G in other parts of the Kashmir Valley.
In Jammu region, the response was better with longer queues seen outside polling booths.
Shaleen Kabra, the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) of the state, said voting which began at 7 am will end at 4 pm. Three other phases of polling would be held on October 10, 13 and 16. As many as 2990 candidates are in the fray for the elections.
Of the total, 150 polling stations have been designated in Kashmir division and 670 in Jammu division.
“In Kashmir division, 138 polling stations have been categorized as hypersensitive while in Jammu division 52 polling stations have been categorized as hypersensitive,” news agency IANS quoted Kabra as saying.
Many Kashmir voters ‘clueless’
The municipal elections are being held in four phases, covering 79 municipal bodies with an electorate of about 17 lakh but many voters complained that they were “clueless” about the candidates or the voting schedule.
The state’s two main parties —the National Conference (NC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) — have boycotted the elections over the “lack of clarity” surrounding the Centre’s stand on legal challenges in the Supreme Court to Jammu and Kashmir’s special status.The last elections to urban local bodies were held in 2005.
The NC and PDP’s boycott has made the polls a direct contest between the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party ( BJP) amid an escalation in violence in the state.
Shoaib Ahmad, a resident of Srinagar, which is voting in the first phase, said people in his ward did not know who the candidates were. “Ask anyone here if they know who the candidates are, they will tell you they have no idea. There is too much secrecy,” Ahmad, who works at a private company, said.
He said the government was only interested in “showing” that an election was being held, but did not intend to conduct the polls in a proper manner.
Ishfaq Ahmad, a resident of Ganderbal, which will vote in the last phase on 16 October, echoed Ahmad’s view.
“We have no idea who is contesting from our ward. There has been no campaign or door-to-door canvassing by anyone. Even the government has not put the details of the candidates on the election commission website. There are simply no details anywhere,” he said.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a police official said the candidates filed their nominations in secrecy and did not campaign openly because of a threat from militants.
Militant outfit Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) had in January warned former panchayat members against contesting the elections. The group’s operational commander, Riyaz Naikoo, had threatened to pour acid into the eyes of anyone who dared to contest the polls. Unidentified gunmen killed two NC workers in Srinagar’s Karfali Mohallah on Friday.
“The candidates have been given security and most of them have been taken to secure locations, but the situation is such they cannot campaign. The threat is not only from militants, but from mobs as well,” the official quoted above said. As many as 2,990 candidates are in the fray for the multi-phase polls.
Apart from the secrecy surrounding the candidates, people in parts of state’s summer capital said they did not know the voting timings as well.
“Forget about who is contesting, we do not even know when is voting taking place in our area,” Ghulam Qadir, a resident of Srinagar’s Sekidafar area. He said he has seen many polls, but “nothing like this has ever happened”.
A senior Congress leader, who wished to remain anonymous, said the atmosphere in the state was not conducive for polls, but their party decided to contest after the BJP-led Centre “forced” the elections on the people.
“This is the most low-profile election in the history of the state. The atmosphere was not conducive for the polls, but it was thrust on us by the Centre,” he said.
The Congress leader said the secrecy maintained by the administration over the whole process has cast a shadow over the exercise. “In such a situation only the candidates’ friends, relatives and party colleagues of the candidates will come out to vote .”
Security beefed up
Around 40,000 additional forces have been deployed and a three-tier security has been thrown around the polling stations, security officials familiar with the matter said.
Separatist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq was on Sunday placed under house arrest. On October 2, police took Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front chairman Yasin Malik into preventive custody. Hardline Hurriyat Conference chairman Syed Ali Shah Geelani continues to be under house detention ahead of the four-phase polls.