Kashmir is one of the most militarised regions in the world. As it holds elections in three phases to avoid potential clashes, some soldier-guarded polling stations are recording as few as 25 people turning up to vote.
Anantang, Indian-administered Kashmir - When the third phase of the Indian general elections began on April 23, tens of millions went out to exercise their right to vote in 95 constituencies across India.
In parts of Kashmir, however, it was a different story, with many sitting out the poll in anger at the Indian government.
At one polling booth in the village of Bijbehara, in Indian-administered Kashmir’s Anantang province, just 46 votes were cast in an area with an electorate of 1,274 people. In another polling booth, just 25 votes were cast.
For the Indian authorities, the success of elections in southern Kashmir are crucial after years of violence between Indian security forces and Kashmiri rebels.
The clashes intensified when in 2016 troops killed rebel commander Burhan Wani, sparking mass protests and resulting in a deadly crackdown by Indian forces, which has killed hundreds of civilians and rebels alike.
In southern Kashmir, which includes four districts; Anantnag, Kulgam, Shopian, and Pulwama, polling booths have been categorised as hyper-sensitive with a heavy military presence.
Polling booths stationed inside schools and colleges had rings of security to ensure protest-free polls. The federal government has also sent 400 additional paramilitary units to what is already one of the most militarised regions in the world.
Elections in south Kashmir, authorities say, are challenging due to the rebel presence.
After decades of strife in the state, the fighters enjoy strong public support and there is widespread anger towards elected officials for failing to stop the repression of civilians by Indian forces.
Just before the election, authorities launched a massive crackdown against separatist leaders in Kashmir in order to prevent calls of a poll boycott. But by banning groups like Jamaat-e-Islami and the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), and arresting their members, they have succeeded in pushing more people away from the political process.
‘Turned into a garrison’
At a government school in Anantnag’s Bindoo, more than two dozen paramilitary troopers with automatic rifles and shotguns were stationed around the semi-constructed, single-storey building with not a single voter visible. Dozens of police vehicles stood near the gates, a scene copied and pasted to nearly every polling station across Kashmir.
On streets too, civilians were absent. The few civilian cars on the roads were being used to ferry troops to different polling buildings within the district. On election day, civilians say, the district had turned “into an army garrison”.
“Holding an election under the barrel of a gun, what kind of elections is that?” asked 27-year-old Basit Ahmad, further explaining his reasons for not voting. “Two of my friends lost their eyesight due to pellets [fired by Indian forces]. How can we betray their sacrifice…? We did not vote that is our referendum.”
Elections for a single parliamentary seat in south Kashmir are being held in three phases to mitigate the threat of violence and protest, a situation unlike anywhere else in India and without precedent, even given Kashmir’s turbulent history.
Indian officials assert that violence has been minimal and approach talk of a boycott with nonchalance.
“No one in the administration cares about the boycott, we just want it to go violence free,” a senior official told TRT World, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“In the third phase, there were some minor clashes in some parts but the phase passed peacefully.”
Shailendra Kumar, Chief Electoral Officer of Jammu and Kashmir state, took a very different tone, imploring Kashmiris to ignore calls for a boycott.
“Everyone has to be fearless and utilise their franchise, the chance to vote comes once every five years, and my appeal is for every one of them [Kashmiris] to come out and vote,” he told TRT World.
Nevertheless, for many of the 13.6 percent of Kashmiris who voted in the April 23 phase, voting has less to do with belief in the system and more to do with wanting to make life under Indian rule more tolerable.
“I voted but it wasn’t for jobs and development,” said 27-year-old Bilal Ahmad, a shopkeeper in Anantang’s Dooru village.
“I’ve been promised that the harassment of the youth will end. I was arrested several times and I do not want to face it more,” Ahmad told TRT World.
“They want to sell the narrative that the elections have been held in Kashmir and everything is fine. But the message of the boycott is otherwise,” said 28-year-old Khalid Ahmad, an engineer from Shopian village.
“We know what we face every day and every night. We live in fear and our resistance is the boycott,” he added.
For the mainstream local parties, reaching out to people in south Kashmir has been difficult, and they blame the “betrayal from New Delhi” for the low voter turnout.
“South Kashmir has been under turmoil for last more than three years now. After the killing of Burhan, the situation has not been good,” said Rafi Ahmad Mir, a senior leader of the regional Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), adding that the tense situation between India and Pakistan has also affected the mood in Kashmir.
Abysmal voter turnout in Srinagar LS constituency (14%) & 13% in the first phase in Anantnag LS seat (2% in Bijbehara, 3% in Sopore & 7% in Srinagar) has caused much embarrassment to the authorities in Kashmir. Hence the delay in LA polls. Low turnout expected in Shop, Pul & Kul.— Gowhar Geelani (@gowhargeelani) April 27, 2019
“There are multiple reasons for the voting percentage dropping, mainly the betrayal of Jammu and Kashmir by Delhi. In 1996, in the first elections they promised autonomy and never fulfilled,” Mir said.
Indifference to elections
The turn-outs for the first and second phases of the elections stand at 35 percent and 14 percent.
The fourth phase of voting in southern Kashmir begins in Kulgam district on April 29, the final voter turnout of the constituency will only be released after the fifth phase of voting on May 6, when Pulwama district will go to polls, but it is expected to be low as the two districts, along with Anantang, are more prone to militancy.
Experts share that opinion; that many Kashmiris have lost faith in the traditional political system.
“Kashmiris are indifferent to the elections,” Kashmir-based academic Dr Sheikh Showkat said, saying manipulation of final tallies and fear campaigns warning of the BJP threat helped keep voter numbers up very slightly.
According to Professor Gul Muhammad Wani, a Kashmir-based political scientist, instead of belief in the democratic process, for many Kashmiris the “sense of siege, sense of being, disempowerment have deepened”.