India-administered Kashmir –– As the morning sun shone over Ganderbal's mustard fields and sleepy villages, some of the first few residents milling around a polling station in this central Kashmir district included five workers of a pro-India political party – all middle-aged men – and an uneasy 18-year-old.
On April 18, the men sat at the edge of a narrow bridge leading to a small rivulet, some of them puffing cigarettes and sending coils of smoke into the air.
Standing opposite to them a young man, Shahid (he wished not to say his real name), showed TRT World the voter slips of his three family members.
"This is my father's voter slip, this one my mother's, and this one brother's," he said, displaying the photo identification paper – mandatory to cast vote – before shredding them into several pieces and tossing them into the rivulet.
"What do we have to do with these [voter slips]? We want independence and that's it… Those who vote are Mukhbir [government spies] and betrayers of Azadi [independence]," he said.
The other men watched in embarrassment and scampered off into the polling station, where dozens of heavily-armed Indian paramilitary soldiers and the election monitoring staff waited for potential voters.
The first and second phase of parliamentary elections were held on April 11 and April 18 in India-administered Kashmir, where six parliamentary seats are up for grabs.
On April 18, TRT World visited three districts, Srinagar, Budgam and Ganderbal, where 12 candidates are fighting for one parliamentary seat.
Many Kashmir-based critics and analysts described voting in Kashmir as 'militaristic elections'.
"In Kashmir, the electoral process is nothing but a security operation. In the 90s, people were forced at gunpoint to vote. Today, it has expanded from that overt coercion into a kind of a subtle coercion, patronage and co-option," Srinagar-based Senior Journalist and Analyst Najeeb Mubariki told TRT World.
India has deployed over half a million soldiers in India-administered Kashmir – nearly the size of US state of Florida – making it one of the world's largest militarised zones. To conduct 'smooth' elections, New Delhi sent 11,000 additional soldiers to the region, where a suicide bombing recently killed over 40 paramilitary troops and brought India and Pakistan to the brink of a nuclear war.
"Enormous resources – militaristic, political, and economic – are spent on the idea that there is some form of democratic structure in Kashmir, which later is presented to the world as kind of a main seed of cure that will resolve Kashmir dispute," Mubaraki said.
Curbs on dissent
But for the Muslim-majority Srinagar constituency, the massive troop deployment and limited campaigning of pro-India politicians yielded nothing, as 86 percent of eligible voters boycotted the election.
Those who snub Indian elections are more in sync with the region's pro-independence parties, who have traditionally boycotted the polls and criticised New Delhi for projecting elections in the disputed territory of Kashmir as a sovereignty referendum in favour of India, and ‘misinforming’ the world.
With anti-India sentiments running deep across the troubled region, at least a dozen rebel groups have been fighting for independence or merger of the territory with neighbouring Pakistan, since 1989.
The voter turnout in some districts with a sizeable Hindu and Muslim population was high, however. For instance in Udhampur constituency, a southern mountainous belt, the turnout was over 70 percent.
India's ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has adopted a hardline method in dealing with both the armed rebellion and non-violent popular dissent in Kashmir, portraying its iron fisted approach along the nationalist margins to canvass voters in mainland India.
Hundreds of thousands of troops have fanned across the disputed territory, launching operations against a few hundred poorly-armed rebels and punishing villagers and townspeople with harsh crowd control tactics.
Ahead of the voting, India outlawed a popular socio-political and religious organisation Jamaat-e-Islami, arresting hundreds of its workers and sealing off its prime properties.
Soon after, the Modi-led government moved against a non-violent pro-independence group Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, detaining its top leadership.
Other measures included banning civilians from travelling on a key highway twice a week, suspending India-held Kashmir's ancient yet symbolic trade link with Pakistan-administered Kashmir, and also tightening restrictions on local media through various coercion tactics.
The internet is often shut down and foreign journalists are banned from reporting in Kashmir without a rare permission from Indian home ministry.
"Pressure on media is unimaginable," a senior journalist, who writes for an Indian newspaper from Kashmir, told TRT World on the condition of anonymity.
"Recently, I tweeted a video of an ambulance being denied permission to travel on the only highway connecting Kashmir to the outside world. Immediately, a senior police official called me and ordered I delete the tweet. To me, it was just news."
Fears of BJP-led demographic change
With a slowing economy, slugging job growth, farmers’ distress and other policy failures, the BJP is facing a moment of reckoning. Compared to previous elections, the party's poll promise has deviated from economy and employment generation and rather gravitated towards a polarising rhetoric.
Apart from making Hindu nationalist promises such as strengthening Hindu identity and ending so-called Muslim appeasement, the party has managed to pull the Kashmir dispute into the popular imagination.
To counter the reviving opposition Congress and an alliance of several parties in key Indian states, the BJP has fired up voters across the country by repeating pledges to revoke the special legal status Article 370 in India-held Kashmir. Enshrined in the Indian constitution, the article bars Indians from purchasing properties in disputed Kashmir and also gives autonomous status to it. A similar law prevents Pakistanis from buying land in Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
This posturing has indirectly given regional pro-India political parties, such as the People's Democratic Party (PDP) and National Conference (NC), a new lease of life.
They claim to be contesting the election for six parliamentary seats mainly to deny the BJP a second chance to rule, despite overwhelming public anger against them as well inside Kashmir.
The fear that India will initiate Israel or China-type demographic changes over dissenting lands is palpable. It is this panic that the main regional parties are cashing in on, despite having remained the BJP's allies in the past.
"We were not supposed to vote... so many boys have vanished in their demand for resolution of Kashmir issue. But, we are in danger now," said Zubair Ahmed of Kathivangath village in Ganderbal's Kangan area. It is traditionally a bastion of the NC, which seeks India's control of Kashmir only in defence, communication and foreign affairs, a pre-1953 status of the Himalayan territory.
"If 370 goes, we all will die. But we won't let anyone fiddle with it."
TRT World travelled to Budgam –– a district known for beautiful meadows, apple orchards, pine trees, and a revived armed rebellion –– where Indian troops outnumbered many polling booths with officials recording a low voter turnout of 21.5 percent at the end of the day.
"It's our cause now," said Mohammad Mustafa, a doctorate student and an NC sympathiser.
"I want to remind BJP, if it removes Article 370, there will be bloodbath."
Article 370 'a great distraction'
In Srinagar though, where sentiments against India and pro-India political parties run deep, whether BJP revokes or keeps the Indian provision isn't a benchmark for voting. Here, voting takes place if you are for or against independence of Kashmir.
And it's the graffiti on mortar and brick walls and shop shutters, political gossip in tea stalls, and roadside conversations that offer a peek into the enduring anti-Indian sentiment.
"BJP's plan is to allow Indians buy land here. Aren't a lot of Indians [over 500,000 soldiers] already here?" said Bashir Ahmad of Batamaloo neighbourhood, where a boycott of the elections prevailed and brief clashes between Indian paramilitary soldiers and locals marked election day.
"Article 370 is a great distraction. BJP and pro-India parties are using this distraction to fill their vote banks. It's irrelevant here. We seek complete independence from India and the elections are not a substitute to plebiscite," he said.
In other localities of Srinagar, no or very few votes were cast until late afternoon.
The impact of the boycott was such that some polling officers poked fun at the idea of holdings Indian elections in Srinagar.
"Look at this," one election official said, as he showed the list of electors to TRT World. "Mere 30 ballots cast among 1,211 eligible voters."
By sunset the polling ended with no ballots reportedly cast in at least 90 polling stations across the tense region.