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Kashmir tale: graveyard and the polling station

At an epicentre of anti-India rage, Kashmiris try to deal with the real world that lies beyond the catchword of azaadi. A report by Neelesh Misra.Special coverage

india Updated: Nov 19, 2008 09:49 IST
Neelesh Misra
Neelesh Misra
Hindustan Times

Journalist in the neighbourhood? The word "azaadi" came up in about the fourth minute. In the eighteenth minute, the conversation changed course.

Abdul Ghani Mir, a 72-year-old gravedigger, stood on a narrow street that was choked by hundreds of anti-India protesters last year and this summer. This is where they came last year to bury Abdul Rehman Paddar, the 25-year-old man who wore one trouser on top of another in the biting cold. The man who had no face. The man who police had said was a terrorist, but turned out to be just a carpenter.

Mir was one of the angry men who helped bury the young carpenter whose killing peeled the layers off Kashmir's worst kept secret: extra-judicial killings. Mir supports freedom for Kashmir. But on Monday, he walked up to the school building a few hundred metres from the graveyard – and voted, he said, for the National Conference.

Monday's stunning turnout of about 64 per cent in the Jammu and Kashmir elections threw up many explanations from all sides, but in this Kashmir town, one explanation was clear: beyond the romanticized dream of freedom, Kashmiris want to move on, participate in the democratic process and deal with the real world.

It is a sentiment that exists alongside the anti-India discontent that runs deep in the Kashmir Valley.

"The Shias were at the booths at 7 a.m. If their man won, they would try to control us. So we also landed up at 8 a.m. in big numbers," said Mir, a Sunni Muslim, standing before rows of graves of alleged militants.

In the slushy filth-lined Wah neighbourhood not too far away, women made up their minds and walked out of homes after 8 a.m. – to vote, without the men.

"Look here, look at this road," Asha Begum, 60, said in rapidfire Kashmiri through an interpreter as she tapped the reporter on the chest. "We are part of the town but we clean this road ourselves. We voted to change that."

Six filthy ducks ambled by. Stink rose from the sewers in Wah, clogged drains lining the cobbled road of broken stones. There has virtually been no electricity for 10 days. The taps pump water only for a couple of hours a day.

Dozens surrounded the reporter. Someone else tapped him from the back.

"Can you write about the dogs please? They are catching dogs in Srinagar and releasing them here. I want the new MLA to look into this," said Jahangir Rashid, 26, a long distance sociology student who also voted.

More women poured out of homes. The loudest brought her daughter.

"My daughter is a graduate, she is unemployed, I thought if I vote she might get a job someday," said Rahat Begum, who guessed she was around seventy. The daughter, Afroza, blushed.

On the edge of the town outside a roadside tea shop, Mukhtyar Sheikh, 60, was frowning instead.

"I did not send my two sons for the processions. You just have to throw stones," said Sheikh, a woodcutter whose sons, 20 years and 25 years-old, help him at work.

"What use are these (separatist) strikes? If I am able to use my hands to cut wood, I will eat. If I don't, what will I eat?" he said, soaking in the sun as he sipped on his tea.

The 26-year-old man serving tea, Shakil Ahmed, had boycotted the elections. But his father Ali Mohammed, a kerosene trader, voted on Monday.

"The same people shouting "Boycott Elections" slogans get on top of the buses of politicians," Mohammed said.

"Then they seek votes."'

First Published: Nov 18, 2008 22:22 IST