Return to frontpage
Jammu and Kashmir

Polls in the Time of Terror

Kashmiris stand in queue to cast their votes outside a polling station during the first phase of voting to the Jammu and Kashmir state assembly elections at Shadipora, outskirts of Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2014. Thousands lined up to cast their votes amid a boycott call by Muslim separatist groups who reject India's sovereignty over the disputed Himalayan region. (AP Photo/Mukhtar Khan) | Photo Credit: Mukhtar Khan

The December 6 attack by militants in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), during the Assembly elections that have so far witnessed high turnouts, has thrown the spotlight on the dynamics of an insurgent ploy – the call to boycott polls in an attempt to depress voter turnout ahead of the remaining phases of polls.

On December 6, 2014, twenty-one people in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) lost their lives when coordinated militant attacks were carried out by suspect Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) operatives in Uri, Soura, Pulwama and Shopian areas of the Kashmir Valley. Eleven of those killed were from the Indian security forces, six were militants and two were civilians. The attacks were meant for one specific purpose − to depress voter turnout in the remaining phases of the Assembly elections in J&K. In this article, we hope to draw attention to a number of factors that have played into several inter-related outcomes that have emerged from the recent polling in Jammu and Kashmir.

First, we draw attention to the conditions of campaigning in the State and what has allowed for more public campaigning by politicians in J&K. Second, we explain why people have showed up to vote in such high numbers by privileging the voices of voters in some of the poorest areas of the State. Third, we contend that candidate choices before the electorate have led many of them toward a suspected anti-incumbency sentiment. Fourth, we suggest that high turnout in these polls should not be equated with a pro-India sentiment. We believe that many voters have voted precisely to be able to consolidate local Kashmiri control in a bid to forge an effective voice as a deterrent against the excesses of the Indian state.

There is uncertainty over the impact that the militant attacks will have on the polling and the turnout for two reasons: Kashmiri people have long defied poll boycotts, thereby proving that the electorate is not easily intimidated. Moreover, the attacks were localised to military/state targets and were stopped effectively by the security forces with some losses sustained. It is, therefore, unclear if the bullying tactics of a bunch of militants will translate into lower turnout in the remaining phases of the polling. However, evidence from similar cases does suggest that sometimes violence does impact voter turnout negatively.

Campaigning and Turnout in a Conflict Zone

Since the armed struggle started in the Valley in the late 1990s, election campaigning has been a challenge for political parties. Hostile conditions and the spectre of militant attacks have lent themselves to different types of campaigning styles. Many politicians have in the past preferred door-to-door campaigns instead of big rallies with huge crowds where security threats become much more credible. For the first time, campaigns have been open. Politicians have held road shows and rallies even in volatile areas.

Sadly, the reasons that allowed campaigns to be more open this time around have hinged on actions of the security apparatus. Local sources have reported an increase in crackdowns on youth before the elections. Further, as the Election Commission of India declared the polling dates, the local police reportedly went on an arresting spree and took into custody leaders of the Hurriyat factions (Source: The Economic Times, Oct 31, 2014). The Jammu & Kashmir Police also cracked down on Facebook users for running online boycott campaigns (Source: Greater Kashmir, Nov 23, 2014). During the first phase of elections, 60 persons, mostly youth, were arrested in Bandipora and Ganderbal districts (Greater Kashmir, Nov. 22, 2014). Also, 280 youths were arrested in Kupwara and Kulgam districts “to ensure peaceful polling” (Greater Kashmir, Dec. 2, 2014).

Nonetheless, many factors have played into the surprising election turnout this year. For instance, people have cited different reasons for showing up to vote. Some have voted to keep the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) out of power, while some have voted to punish the sitting Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) for failing to meet the expectations of the people. The inaction during the floods in the State may also drown the electoral fortunes of some sitting MLAs in the polls. However, what has emerged from the electorate is a mixed bag of reasons for voting. While developmental concerns have ruled the list, many have turned up to vote against the excesses of the Indian army in the hope that new political representatives can institute a protective buffer for local citizens against the actions of the state.

For instance, Manzoor Ahmed of Turkpora said: “We believe that our elected representatives will save us from all those elements that have a hidden interest to harass a commoner in Kashmir. We don’t want to get troubled by anybody, be it police or Army or STF [Special Task Force] so we vote.”

Irshad Wani, a young shopkeeper of Bazar-e-Sumbal (Sonawari), voted against the National Conference (NC) for its ‘failure to to provide adequate relief’ to flood victims. “Like city people lost houses, we lost an apple tree which has the same value [to us] as that of a house and we lost hundreds of trees. Nobody cared about us. We were given Rs. 3,000, which is a shame,” he added.

However, Sajjad Ahmad Lone, who also voted against the NC, had a different reason. “They (elders of his town) are voting for the NC since 1947 but [the NC] could not even deliver sadak (roads), pani (water) or bijli (electricity). We have never voted, but now let us vote for a change,” he added. Similarly, Rabiya, a first time voter in Aloosa village, said, “We have been exploited by traditional politicians… now we have come out to vote for change.”

Amongst other reasons cited by voters were employment, development and peace. Zeba Begum of Doban village, for instance, said, “We have seen no development. The security forces used to harass us, now we vote to end these problems…We need drinking water, electricity and roads.”

Musadiq Ahmed, a young voter from Malangam, said he is voting for the first time although he was eligible for voting in 2002 as well. He said, “I only voted this time after I found everybody failing on the political front, be it separatist or pro-Indian politicians. Now I vote to choose my representative who can provide us with better facilities.”

For an older generation of voters like Abdul Jabbar of Bandipora (an octogenarian), the ideal of autonomy is still to be politically strived for. He said that he voted to choose a representative who can fight for autonomy.

At Madar, people had swarmed around the polling booth. “We are voting for basic amenities,” said Farooq Ahmed of Bonpora. In the next breath, he added that they were voting for daily needs, but still stood by the slogan that Kashmir is a disputed issue, which needs to be resolved.

Polling stations located in volatile areas like Papchan, Rampora, Lankrishipora, Gamoora, Hajin in Sonawari and Boorosa in Ganderbal witnessed low polling in the recent Lok Sabha polls, but were abuzz with long queues of voters for the Assembly elections. Similarly, the polling booth at the main town of Bandipora was locked by youth during the recent Lok Sabha elections, but witnessed 90 per cent polling this time.

Similarly, some people expressed a desire to vote and defy the boycott call to deter the BJP. In the border town of Gurez, people were seen expressing concern over the entry of the BJP in Valley politics. “We should at least ignore boycott calls this time to keep the BJP at bay,” said Assadullah Lone of Dawar village.

How Terrorist Attacks Replaced a Failed Poll Boycott

In early September, a young man who identified himself as a “stone-pelter” came to see us in Bandipora. He was a student at a local college and spoke articulately (on conditions of anonymity) about the politics of Kashmir. During the conversation, he offered us some information. He said that young people like him were going to boycott the Assembly polls. He said they were going to do so by making people aware of the need to resist the Indian state. Resisting the elections was one such method. Later on, multiple officials of the Indian army suggested to us that although many such young stone-pelters described themselves as having no party or group affiliations, many were in fact aligned with the Hurriyat (an all-party group that asks for self-determination of the Kashmiri people). It was even alleged that some stone-pelters were on the payroll of the Hurriyat, i.e., they received between Rs. 1,500 and Rs. 3,000 for indulging in disruptive activities, mostly stone-pelting. Kashmiri civil society workers dismissed these allegations as bogus and aimed at portraying the stone-pelters more like ‘students-for-hire’, rather than actual activists for the Kashmiri cause.

How are we to square this information away with the young student’s admission that they were in the process of organising a poll boycott, given that this is exactly what the Hurriyat also called for in later months? A poll boycott was called for, but it failed as 71 per cent of the Kashmiri electorate showed up to cast a ballot precisely in conflict-affected places like Bandipora. So why did the boycott fail? And were the recent militant attacks in the Kashmir Valley a result of the failure of the poll boycott?

As described earlier as soon as the elections were announced, the security apparatus moved in to try and curb any possible electoral disruptions by carrying out what they termed “preventive” arrests. As there was a massive crackdown on hardliners and separatist activists, even moderate Hurriyat leaders who were free contained themselves and restricted their pleas for a boycott to press releases.

A senior advocate in the Jammu and Kashmir High Court told us that the Hurriyat knew about the political repercussions of a boycott call in the form of a possible electoral gain for the BJP, but at the same time could not shun the policy of boycott. “So they called for boycott but preferred to remain silent this time. No ground work was done to propagate the boycott,” he added.

Popular perception of an electoral ascent by the BJP in the Valley has divided people on the issue of a poll boycott. In Bandipora, some religious organisations were seen propagating the vote so that the BJP could not take advantage of the poll boycott. “This time it is a sin to boycott. By doing so we are facilitating those who massacred Muslims in Gujarat to rule us,” said Mustaq Ahmad, an Imam of a local mosque. Clearly, as the evidence for the voter turnout so far suggests, Kashmiris have defied the poll boycott. The Hurriyat, which was given the task of enforcing a boycott by those backing separatism, has failed to do so.

However, political arithmetic aside, the boycott is of key importance for interests across the Line of Control (LoC). Low turnout, whatever way it is achieved, shows a lack of local belief in the institutions of the State and in democracy. Internationally, it can be read as a rejection of Indian democratic practice.

Hardline Hurriyat leaders were taken out of the equation through detention. The moderates apparently asked Pakistani groups to not enter into the fray to back a boycott at the barrel of a gun. In this manner, moderate Hurriyat leaders were trying to play peacemakers and in an awkward way may even have been trying to reduce the levels of violence in Kashmir during the elections. However, they may have overestimated their own voice and the general ambience of political discontent with sitting representatives that is the background to this particular election.

The failed poll boycott allowed mainstream militant groups like the LeT to emerge as the enforcers of the boycott. The manner in which the electorate turns out for the remaining phases of the polls will establish the impact of the December 6 attack.

Complicated Candidate Choices

Situated on the banks of Wular lake and guarded by the hills of Harmukh, the town of Bandipora was once famous for three A’s- A’lim (knowledge), Adab (good manners or literature) and Aab (water). Over the last three decades, Bandipora’s reputation plummeted to being an entrepôt for insurgents into Kashmir and for having surrounding villages that have birthed insurgents and counterinsurgents known as the “ ikhwanis ”. However, to view Bandipora solely through the lens of insurgency and conflict is to miss a lot.

The signs of official apathy and neglect are visible —the rubble and blind curves that pass off for a highway from the State’s capital, Srinagar to Bandipora, the dusty and dilapidated roads in the town marked by illegal encroachments, an unkempt Wular lake, and irregular streets and footpaths.

Until a few decades ago, Bandipora was a bastion of the NC where it won four times since 1977. Since then political events have changed the way voters feel about the party to the point that today it cannot guarantee a popular mandate for itself in the town.

Most important of all political failures in the region has been the inability of successive political representatives to bring adequate development to the area. As a resident, Ali Mohammad stated, “We had a plan [in Bandipora] much before the Srinagar Master Plan was framed. However, political corruption devastated the plan.” The Bandipora plan was designed by representative GA Mir, who despite having a limited mandate managed to implement some of it. Roads were built at right angles and drainage facilities were provided. However, things came to a halt a few years later. Seven MLAs, including three Ministers, could not expand the plan and even failed to save the older version, thus badly affecting the drainage and road link between neighbourhoods in Bandipora.

In 2008, the people of Bandipora were hopeful once more when Nizam-ud-din Bhat of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) won the elections after more than two decades. The people of Bandipora began to think in terms of a “new beginning” as Bhat was once the close aide of the late separatist leader, Abdul Gani Lone. For this change, the people had defied the boycott call of separatists and surprised even the government who were expecting a lower turn out after the Amarnath incident.

“It was the hearty wish of everybody to see Bhat winning as he was also the victim of election bungling,” said a local teacher. There was jubilation in the town when Bhat was declared winner. But five years down the line, the sitting MLA, Bhat, will have a hard time repeating history. He was seen and described by people in Bandipora as somewhat invisible. Today, Bhat’s biggest opposition comes from Congress leader Usman Majeed. In the previous Assembly elections, Bhat defeated Majeed by a narrow margin of 820 votes, and in the recent parliamentary elections, the PDP led the constituency by only 254 votes. Also, National Conference candidate, Mohammad Abdullah Wani, and Advocate Nazir Ahmad Malik of Awami Itehaad Party (AIP), will act as speed breakers for these two top candidates as they will eat into the votes of both candidates in different pockets. There is some hope held by the PDP, that their narrow win the Lok Sabha elections may help them gain an edge over their competitors in the Assembly elections.

On the other hand, it is entirely possible that large-scale voter turnout in the elections may be detrimental to the PDP in this constituency as failed expectations of voters could turn the vote into an anti-incumbent one. In one of the election meetings of the PDP, even party president Mehbooba Mufti acknowledged that her MLAs didn’t pay attention to their areas and worked more for their own benefits rather than strengthening the party.

Majeed, on the other hand, is a different type of politician – one with an insurgent past. A former ikhwan , he has an interesting history. In an interview, he spoke openly about his ikhwani past. 1 He had crossed over the LoC [to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir] in 1989 and returned to India after training in 1990, only to be arrested twice in crackdowns. Around 1992, he joined the Ikhwan-ul-Muslimeen. He ran a base camp across the LoC for two years and was also the Vice Chairman of the United Jehad Council between 1992 and 1994. He was a rebel even amongst the Kashmiri ranks of the militants. He described a major turning point in his career when he picked a quarrel on a matter of policy with an ISI director, Liaquat Shah.

Three months later, Majeed was back in Kashmir and a bit later had turned into one of the biggest supporters of the Indian state by joining the counterinsurgent ikhwanis , specially curated by Indian army regiments to aid in conventional counterinsurgency. In 2002, Majeed won an election on an Awami League ticket, but lost by a narrow margin in 2008. Since 2009, he has been a part of the Indian National Congress(INC).

Today, Majeed has been able to rope in the youths who were involved in stone pelting or those that have cases pending against them. When the election dates were announced, the local police had arrested dozens of youths in the town. However, Majeed, who is able to wield considerable influence, was able to get them released. Some of the youths who wished not to be named said they took shelter in the office of the Congress in Bandipora and Majeed assured them that their cases would be revoked. Later, the same youths were seen campaigning for him during his election campaign. A day after the polling, Majeed also threw a thanksgiving party in which more than 100 youths, most of them the protesters, were invited.

Those who didn’t compromise or approach the mainstream leader are still in police lock up.

A few things become clear from this narrative. First, that a town like Bandipora, has defied a poll boycott more than once. This leads us to believe that for the residents of the town development issues are more important in the short run than matters of separatism. We do not think that the recent high turnout reflects a desire amongst Kashmiri people to forgive India’s coercive actions in the Valley. We think that the critique of the Indian state and a coherent resistance to its policies remains strong. However, people also have to deal with developmental issues and the current turnout signals a desire for development in the face of repeated failures at the hands of elected representatives.

Second, from what we have found, candidate choices before the electorate remain dubious. They are mostly asked to pick between a non-functional MLA and an opposition politician with a chequered past. There is no guarantee that the next representative will be better or worse than the previous one. This fuels an anti-incumbency sentiment, which has been made worse with the NC’s handling of the floods in Kashmir. Similar choices are faced by the electorate in Sonawari, where one of the chief candidates is Imtiaz Parray of the INC. Parray is the son of an infamous counterinsurgent ikhwan , Kuka Parray, who, like Majeed in Bandipora, turned from being an ikhwan to being a politician until his assassination in 2003 at the hands of militants. While Imtiaz Parray does not share his father’s past, many locals think his candidature through a Congress ticket does not bode well for the party in these elections.

A resident of Hajin village (Kuka Parray’s hometown) said they have struggled hard to earn a good name for their area which the ikhwanis had smeared. “We can’t afford to vote for his son and bring him back which will again give us bad name,” he added on conditions of anonymity.

The ikhwanis under Kuka Parray were not known for their mercy in Hajin and the villages that surround it. Several locals were either recruited or killed by them. A former close aide of Parray spoke to THC and described much of what went on under Parray’s regime when he was the local area commander of the ikhwanis . 2 There were abductions and killing, forced marriages of ikhwan recruits with local girls and much extortion.

“Please don’t relate Azadi with voting. We voted to stop killers [from] coming to power. We want to take revenge,” said Mohammad Junaid, a literature student of Hajin after the first phase of polling.

( Sheikh Saleem , a Kashmiri journalist, was born in Bandipora town in North Kashmir. He currently writes for Rising Kashmir, an English daily. He studied journalism at the University of Kashmir, Srinagar and has written for The Indian Express and several online magazines, including The Kashmir Walla and Kashmir Dispatch . Vasundhara Sirnate is the Chief Coordinator of Research at The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy, who travelled to Kashmir on a research trip in September this year.)

End Notes:

1. Interview with The Hindu Centre’s Vasundhara Sirnate on 5 September 2014.

2. Vasundhara Sirnate of The Hindu Centre interviewed several former ikhwanis during a recent trip to Jammu and Kashmir. The interviews were given mostly on conditions of anonymity. This particular interview was conducted in a village a few kilometres away from Hajin, with a former ikhwan who picked his own name for the interview. He asked to be identified as “Yakub”.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email The Hindu Centre