Illustration by Suhail Naqshbandi/KI
Will post-Burhan Srinagar and Anantnag vote in the impending Lok Sabha bypolls?
In Kashmir, by-elections generally don’t attract much attention. But the impending parliamentary elections in Srinagar and Anantnag, scheduled for April 9 and April 12, respectively, have created quite a buzz.
A perennial question that occupies the public and pundits alike in the run-up to elections is back in circulation, only now it is pregnant with the faint optimism that the answer might be different than it has been since at least 2008.
The question: will the people turn out to vote?
Arguably, this question is more significant now than at any time since the armed rebellion broke out in Kashmir nearly three decades ago. For one, it comes when the terror and tragedy of the four-month revolt triggered by the killing of Hizb-ul-Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani last July is still fresh in public memory. Two, there is the bitter experience of the 2008 and 2014 state elections which both followed long periods of mass unrest – that engaging in the “democratic process” yields no relief for the suffering masses, no matter who gets to rule.
Not surprisingly then, the question of people’s participation in these bypolls is being debated widely, from the gossip lounges of the capital city to the shopfronts of rural South Kashmir.
In Srinagar, it is a direct contest between the National Conference patriarch Farooq Abdullah and the ruling PDP’s Nazir Khan. In the Anantnag constituency, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti’s brother Tasaduq Mufti is making his electoral debut; he is up against the Congress grandee Ghulam Ahmed Mir.
The Srinagar seat fell vacant with the resignation of Tariq Hameed Karra, who has since left the PDP for the Congress, while Anantnag must fill Mehbooba’s seat, which she quit last year to take over as the chief minister after the death of her father Mufti Sayeed in early 2016.
In elections since the turn of the century, the four districts of South Kashmir have generally witnessed average polling despite boycott appeals by the separatist leadership. In the last assembly election in 2014, for example, the headline constituencies of Pulwama, Shopian, Kulgam and Anantnag registered voter turnout of, respectively, 38.1%, 50.6%, 56.3% and 39.7%. In 2008, the corresponding figures were 40.8%, 52.7%, 61.6% and 41.2%.
The post-Burhan uprising, though, seems to have significantly changed the situation. South Kashmir was the epicentre of the agitation, and bore the brunt of the state’s brutal crackdown that followed. A majority of the at least 97 deaths during the unrest were in South Kashmir, as were most of the over 10,000 people blinded by pellets as well as the nearly 15,000 arrested. As the uprising began to fade, the region emerged as the hub of militancy. At least 58 men from the area have reportedly taken up arms, and gunfights and killings have become routine. Of the 12 Kashmiri militants slain so far this year as per official records, nine were from South Kashmir.
Understandably, the dominant mood in the run-up to the election here is expressed thus: “casting our vote will be tantamount to selling the blood of the slain militants and all those killed in 2016”.
“I voted in both elections in 2014, assembly and parliamentary. For that I asked forgiveness from the Almighty because I believe I committed a sin. I won’t vote this time. I can’t betray our boys who fought the forces,” says Ghulam Muhammad Hajam, 55, of Newa village in Pulwama.
Not just him, Hajam claims that nobody in his village will vote. “We saw the worst in 2016. Those who vote are enemies of Kashmir. Our sons are spilling their warm blood for a sacred cause. Those who vote betray the martyrs,” he adds.
In the last parliamentary election in Anantnag, Mehbooba defeated the NC’s Mehboob Beg by a margin of 65,417votes. She got 200,429 votes to Beg’s 135,012. Clearly, a large number of people participated in that election.
“The situation is totally different now. Today, the key is in the hands of the youth, the same people who march towards encounter sites at the risk of their own lives to save militants. Even the committed voters in rural areas are under the constant watch of the youth,” explains Shahid Nabi, 21, a student of Political Science at Kashmir University.
Shahid, who comes from Khudwani in Kulgam, believes that only a handful of people will vote in this election, if that. “I am not saying every citizen will boycott the election. That’s because there are people associated with the PDP, NC and Congress for petty interests. Where will this lot go? They will obviously vote to save their skin? But whoever votes could face the wrath of freedom-loving youth,” he explains.
Abdur Rashid, 32, of Anantnag, points out that the contesting parties have not been able to hold even “one public rally”, apparently fearing that nobody would turn up. He adds, “There will likely be clashes at polling stations between those voting and those staying away. So, a law and order problem is on the cards.”
That even Kashmir’s “mainstream” political circles anticipate little voter participation in the impending elections is indicated by the subject of the debate they are engaged in – which candidate would benefit from a poll boycott?
The NC and the Congress have a pre-poll alliance, with the former supporting Mir in Anantnag and the latter standing by Farooq in Srinagar. It may not come to much, though. “A poll boycott would obviously benefit the ruling party as a majority of its legislators are from South Kashmir and they enjoy good support there. The committed voters of the PDP will come out and vote, may be in the wee hours,” says Dr Khalid Ahmed, aphysician from in Anantnag. As for the rest, he adds, resentment against the PDP has risen greatly owing to the “excesses committed by the forces during the pro-freedom protests last year”.
Although Srinagar wasn’t impacted as much by last year’s uprising as South Kashmir, it’s far from hospitable for electioneering. Further, this constituency, which also includes Budgam and Ganderbal districts, has traditionally seen under par voter participation.
Popular wisdom expects Srinagar to keep to its “pro-boycott tradition”, which means rural voters in peripheral Budgam and Ganderbal hold the key. If it does play out thus, it’s advantage NC.
“National Conference managed to win Ganderbal in the 2014 assembly election despite two of its senior leaders Sheikh Ghulam Rasool and GA Salroo distancing from the party,” says Mudasir Ahmed, a postgraduate student at Kashmir University. “Similarly, NC leader Aga Ruhullah retains control of his Budgam bastion. So the NC has the edge,” Mudasir, a resident of downtown Srinagar, adds. In Ganderbal, the rural voters of Kangan are set to play a major role, and Kangan too remains an NC fortress thanks to the veteran party leader Mian Altaf Ahmed.
Moreover, Mudasir says, Farooq’s “jolly style” is still inimitable enough to woo voters.
Still, nobody expects Nazir Khan to just roll over, certainly not when Tariq Karra is in his corner. In the previous election to this seat, Karra, then of the PDP, trounced Farooq by 42,280 votes. And in the assembly election that year, the PDP shocked the NC by bagging five of the eight seats in Srinagar district, until then considered an impregnable fortress of Farooq’s party. Nazir is counting on the goodwill of his party’s five MLAs from Srinagar, and he has cultivated a support base in Beerwah area of Budgam. All this together, he reckons, would be enough see him through.
It all depends, of course, on how many people actually turn out to vote.