Kashmir bypolls: Srinagar violence, abysmal voter turnout reflects erosion of democratic space in the Valley

For almost two decades, India has showcased the high voter turnout in elections in the Kashmir Valley as a symbol of acceptance of its democratic values by the Kashmiris.

Even when elections were held in the penumbra of violence and separatism, India could argue that the enthusiasm of Kashmiris on polling day, when they came singing and sloganeering in large numbers, settled the annexation debate and gave India political and moral legitimacy over the Valley. But, the cushion that bolstered India's stance might now be slipping.

On Sunday, byelections for the Srinagar parliamentary seat threw up alarming signs of the mood in the Valley. Polling was blood-stained, as violence claimed eight lives. Hundreds of people – Kashmiris as well as security personnel – were injured in the clashes.

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

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

But, what would worry India even more is the abysmal turnout. Just around seven percent voters cast their vote in the constituency spread across three districts – Srinagar, Budgam and Ganderbal. To put it in perspective, the figure was much lower than the turnout seen even at the peak of militancy. In 2014, nearly 26 percent voters had participated in the Lok Sabha polls.

Srinagar district has traditionally been averse to polling. Since it is the bastion of separatist leaders and hardliners, voters rarely come out in large numbers, either because of fear or as a show of solidarity. In many of the Assembly constituencies of the winter capital, the turnout is sometimes in single digits, and that too because of the presence of Kashmiri pundits.

But, the adjoining district of Budgam, home to the Sher-e-Kashmir airport, has traditionally recorded high numbers during elections, taking up the overall figure. This year, even in Budgam, voters either stayed home or shut down polling booths.

It is evident that in spite of the tranquility on the surface, the Valley is simmering. People may have returned to work after nearly three months of protests, in the aftermath of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani's death, but their resentment and anger is still burning inside.

A few months ago, when the Valley was burning due to protests and violence, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti had argued that an overwhelming majority of people were with her and only a handful supported the separatists. But, the low turnout shows that the CM needs a more realistic assessment of the ground. Mehbooba's government has clearly lost much of its political clout and legitimacy since its alliance with the BJP, and the botched up handling of events that followed Wani's encounter.

The other worrying sign is that unlike in the past, Kashmiris seem to be losing faith in mainstream parties. In the past, voters would vent their anger against the establishment and the incumbent by investing their faith in either the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), National Conference party or even the Congress. But, that seems to have changed. If National Conference leader Farooq Abdullah, his party's and the Congress' joint candidate for Srinagar, could not enthuse voters, there is an alarming political vacuum in the Valley.

Women coming out from a polling station after casting their vote for Srinagar Parliamentary constituency of Jammu and Kashmir at Budgam in Srinagar. PTI

Women coming out from a polling station after casting their vote for Srinagar Parliamentary constituency of Jammu and Kashmir at Budgam in Srinagar. PTI

For many years, Mehbooba's PDP enjoyed the tag of the party of soft-separatists. Its insistence on a dialogue with Pakistan, sympathy for anti-India sentiments and vocal opposition to the BJP in the previous Assembly polls had earned PDP the support of the majority in the Valley. But, the alliance with BJP has dramatically changed the popular perception.

Soon after the death of former chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, when his daughter was vacillating over the issue of continuing the alliance, a senior Congress leader had told Firstpost that his party would be very happy to see Mehbooba continue with the government. It will finish the party for several years, he had argued. His prophesy now has a ring of truth.

In two days, elections are due in Anantnag, the parliamentary seat vacated by Mehbooba after taking over as chief minister. Locally known as Islamabad, the volatile district is considered a barometer of popular sentiment.

On Wednesday, if the election turns out an encore of the violence, protests and boycott in Srinagar, the Indian government would have to seriously consider the implications of the erosion of democratic space and the negation of the argument that since Kashmiris vote with India, they vote for India.

Updated Date: Apr 11, 2017 09:52 AM

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