Jammu and Kashmir civic election: Valley sees low voter turnout, but polling process remains largely peaceful

On Monday, as Jammu and Kashmir underwent the first phase of municipal elections, the voter turnout in the Kashmir region was 8.3 percent as compared to 80.95 percent in the Jammu region. While voting crossed the 10 percent mark in only two districts in Kashmir — Kupwara in the northern part and Budgam in the central part — the Jammu and Ladakh districts saw more than 50 percent turnout, the highest being in Rajouri (81 percent).

“We have come out to strengthen democracy,” said Bashir Ahmad Mir, a municipal candidate contesting on the Bharatiya Janata Party’s ticket for Bagh-i-Mehtab ward number 74 in central Kashmir’s Budgam district.

Mir said that the voter turnout in his ward was not satisfactory, but at least it was something. By the end of the day, only 9 of the ward’s 859 voters had done their bit to “strengthen democracy,” amid heavy security deployment and a near total shutdown across the Valley.

Mir said that that the low turnout was largely due to the security threat posed by militants, who had issued multiple warnings to candidates and voters in the run-up to the polls. Besides, Mir wasn’t contesting in his own locality. A resident of ward 16 in the Humhama area in Budgam, Mir could not contest from there as the seat is reserved for women. “Otherwise, there are 250 people in my locality who would have voted for me,” he claimed. “Now those votes have gone to our candidate from my area.”

Voters at a polling booth in Kargil, Jammu and Kashmir. Image: Randeep Kher/101Reporters

Voters at a polling booth in Kargil, Jammu and Kashmir. Image: Randeep Kher/101Reporters

Mir is confident of his victory. In several such municipal wards across Kashmir, candidates have either won uncontested or were up against one or two other contestants. Several candidates across the Valley will assume their offices unopposed.

In the early morning, as voters trickled into the high school at Bemina, on the outskirts of Srinagar, several voters were still unaware of the candidates they were voting for. The secrecy, officials say, was necessary to protect the candidates.

Only three days ago, the killing of two workers of the National Conference in Srinagar had led to apprehensions. Despite the killings, Srinagar saw a turnout of 6.2 percent. Most votes, as usual, had been cast in the first half of the day.

At Bemina, tension was palpable as voters attacked journalists at a polling station. The police intervened and prevented matters from escalating.

Candidates and party workers said that the boycott of polls by the state’s major regional parties — the National Conference and the Peoples Democratic Party — had impacted the turnout. Sajjad Lone, chief of the separatist-turned-unionist People’s Conference, termed local polls as “the poor person’s votes”. Speaking to reporters during polling in Handwara, Lone said that if the regional unionist parties were serious, “their MPs and MLAs should resign, boycott their salaries and constituency development funds.”

Roads were deserted in north Kashmir’s Handwara town in Kupwara district, which saw a voter turnout of 32.3 percent. By 2.30 pm, polling staff at several booths in the town began preparations to wind up, an hour-and-a-half ahead of closing time.

Tight security measures put in place

The last elections held in the Valley were the bypolls for the Srinagar parliamentary seat in April 2017. The election saw widespread violence in the Budgam district, taking the security establishment and observers by surprise. Polling was disrupted by protesters at several booths. On that day, at least nine civilians were killed in firing by security forces. Subsequently, the bypolls for the vacant parliamentary seat of Anantnag were deferred indefinitely.

This time around, however, the Valley only witnessed minor instances of stone-pelting. No major militant attack took place, despite repeated warnings by the Hizbul Mujahideen of killings and acid attacks against contestants and voters. Police officials credit this to various preventive measures taken ahead of the polls to prevent a repeat of last year’s events.

A senior police official said that the “well-calibrated phasing” of the elections helped reduce the incidence of violence. The official said that instances of pre-poll violence were lower compared to the 2005 municipal and 2011 panchayat polls. “It was probably historically the lowest violence,” he said, adding that this was due to a “well-calibrated plan of action that was executed well on the ground.”

The officer further said that the summoning of several persons with “adverse backgrounds” and issuing warnings to them through a magistrate under Section 107 of the CrPC had helped prevent an outbreak of violence. According to him, several such men were warned. The municipal elections being conducted peacefully was “work half-done” as it would lift the security establishment’s spirits, he said.

However, according to a political activist in Handwara, the atmosphere of peace was deceptive. “The real test will be in the panchayat elections,” he said. “As it is, militants have a smaller presence in the towns. Things will become serious when villages — where most militants are active — go for polls.

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Updated Date: Oct 08, 2018 22:50:56 IST

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