Kashmir bypolls: Low voter turnout, mass violence portends a larger underlying malaise

Re-polling held in Central Kashmir’s Budgam district’s 38 polling booths on Thursday came to an end, with a meagre voter turnout of two percent. The repolls were held after polling was disrupted because of the violence that broke out on 9 April, ahead of the voting for the Srinagar parliamentary constituency. The Valley had witnessed massive protests and large-scale violence, leading to the deaths of eight civilians, all in Budgam.

On Thursday, the administration and security forces took no chances. The re-polling was conducted with high security deployment, of two CRPF companies per booth, accompanied with deployments of the J&K Police.

Section 144 had been imposed in the rest of the district as a precautionary measure, with the Army prepared to deploy drones to monitor the situation, if the need arose.

 Kashmir bypolls: Low voter turnout, mass violence portends a larger underlying malaise

Women coming out from a polling station after casting their vote for Srinagar Parliamentary constituency. PTI

Though no reports of violence were reported throughout the day, it was not sufficient to instil any confidence among the voters, to come out and vote.

A resident from NS Pora of Budgam district, Firdous Ahmad, told Firstpost on phone that, “There is heavy deployment of forces around the polling booths. However, people were reluctant to come out as a result of the previous clashes on 9 April. At around 4pm, there were clashes in the village.”

The abysmal voter turnout, recorded at seven percent on 9 April, came as a huge shock to the state and central government. This voter turnout was the lowest in over three decades. The youth had come out on poll day, not to cast their votes but rather, to pelt stones at the staff deployed outside polling booths, in an attempt to keep people from voting.

Taking lessons from that day, the Election Commission deferred polling in Anantnag to 25 May, which was originally scheduled for 12 April. The low voter turnout because of the violence provides a much needed boost to the separatists in the Valley, who had been regularly giving the poll boycott calls for many years, without much impact.

Budgam, which is known to be a relatively calmer area compared to Anantnag and Baramulla, has not seen this kind of violence in recent times – as was seen on 9 April. There were areas in Budgam where people damaged polling booths, broke polling machines and attacked the polling staff. In one such incident, in a village in Budgam, people locked the polling staff and paramilitary forces till evening to stop the polling.

“I have never seen this kind of rage among people in my village. It was so intense that young boys remained outside the polling booth to stop people from voting. However, the army men fired some shots in air to disperse the boys,” Imtiyaz Ahmad from Budgam told Firstpost.

Such was the concern about the violence that Peoples Democratic Party leader Tassaduq Mufti, who is also the brother of state chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, felt that the present situation was not ‘conducive for holding further polls in Kashmir’.

Therefore, on 10 April, he asked the Election Commission to postpone the Anantnag bypolls. The EC too had come to the same conclusion, and deferred the bypolls in Anantnag to prevent any further destruction of public property and violence.

Srinagar: A charred polling staff bus following an attack by a group of protesters at Nowgam during voting for Srinagar bypolls on Sunday. PTI Photo(PTI4_9_2017_000138B)

A charred polling staff bus following an attack by a group of protesters at Nowgam during voting for Srinagar bypoll. PTI

But the low voter turnout in the Srinagar repolls and the postponing of the Anantnag bypolls is being seen by many as a sign that Kashmir is further alienating from India and its mainstream political parties.

The anger which spilled onto the streets of the Valley last year, following the death of Hizbul Mujahedeen militant commander Burhan Wani, has persisted and some say that it may become more intense over the summer.

“It was Wani’s death that further aroused people in the Valley to demand freedom. Until then, it was not this intense,” Showkat Ahmad, a student from South Kashmir’s Anantnag told Firstpost.

Some others mention the role of PDP in this alienation. “It was the PDP-BJP alliance that angered people and alienated them further from mainstream politics,” Arshad Hussain, a medical professional from Anantnag said.

“We never expected that PDP, which had for all these years talked about standing up to India, would so easily join hands with the BJP,” he added.

Political analysts, however, had seen this coming. Days before polling in Srinagar, Noor Ahmad Baba, a political analyst, had predicted that the upcoming elections would definitely have an impact.

“People may vote but the percentage wouldn’t be as much as the previous elections. If one looks back to 2010, under the National Conference’s (NC) rule that time, the Valley had seen unrest. But, public memory is short and they remember the recent unrest more prominently,” Baba said.

This imploding rage among the people has worried mainstream politicians, who had a tough time during last year’s unrest. Many leaders from PDP and NC have privately expressed concerns over their own personal safety and the upcoming summer, which they are hoping doesn’t become a bloody one; as that of 2008-10, when the Valley had witnessed intense protests and large-scale civilian casualties.

Updated Date: Apr 13, 2017 19:12:25 IST