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Lok Sabha election in J&K: In Mehbooba Mufti's hometown of Bijbehara, fear, hopelessness and reluctance grips voters

Bijbehara: The question haunted him through the night, but when dawn broke on Tuesday, Mushtaq Malik had made up his mind to vote. Early in the morning, he left his home 'like a thief', criss-crossed the lanes to reach the polling station in his area.

 Lok Sabha election in J&K: In Mehbooba Muftis hometown of Bijbehara, fear, hopelessness and reluctance grips voters

Wali Mohammad waits for his turn at a polling both in Omah village of Dooru. Firstpost/Hilal Shah

"I don't want anyone to see me going to the polling station," Malik, 42, a government employee and a neighbour of PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti in the Baba Mohalla area of Bijbehara, said, "I am not just afraid, but I feel ashamed too. But what can I do, they (Muftis) have done so much for us."

A few hundred metres ahead, he looked left and right before entering Bijbehara PHE Division polling station. A group of burqa-clad women stood in a queue. As Malik entered the polling station, a group of paramilitary soldiers frisked him.

"Have you come to vote?" a soldier with a rifle slung across his shoulder, asked. "Yes," Malik replied with an embarrassed expression. He then rushed into a room where polling agents checked his name. After the beep, he soon disappeared. "It is a compulsion, not choice. I am her (Mehbooba's) relative and there are expectations," Malik said as he rushed back to his home in Bijbehara, the home town of Mehbooba who is contesting polls from the Anantnag Parliamentary Constituency.

The lanes of Baba Mohalla, the neighbourhood of the Muftis, wore a deserted look. But a well coordinated network of workers managed to pull voters out of their homes. "There is something that makes me feel bad about voting for any party this time around," Malik added, "But voting today feels as if you are butchering your own family members."

It is party networks like these that the former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister hopes will help her pull off a consecutive victory from this seat. But there is huge difference between the Kashmir of 2014, and particularly its southern parts, and the state today. During her rule, after the killing of militant commander Burhan Wani, most of the civilian and militant killings that took place over the past three years were reported from here.

But then Mehbooba has been also using the turmoil in recent weeks for political gains. Much of the discourse on her alliance with the BJP that has angered people here, seems to have shifted to the issues of Article 35-A and the BJP's push to abrogate it using the legal route.

People waiting for their turn to vote at Omoh Verinag in Dooru. Firstpost/Hilal Shah

People waiting for their turn to vote at Omoh Verinag in Dooru. Firstpost/Hilal Shah

Indeed, Kashmir has figured in nearly every election speech that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah have made in recent days and weeks with the duo promising to abrogate the special status that the state enjoys under the Indian Constitution. "We are voting to protect the Article 370 and 35-A. Only a Kashmir-based party can push for it, not the Congress," said Wali Mohammad, 73, in Omah village of Dooru, "The only person who can fight the agenda of the BJP is someone who knows the party better and understands what could happen if this is abrogated."

The government has made unprecedented security measures to ensure peaceful polls, but there is little enthusiasm among the people here. Only 1,108 (1.2 percent) people had come to vote in Bijbehara till noon — the lowest turnout in Bijbehara. The overall percentage was 8.2 per cent. Bijbehara has 93,516 voters (47,067 male, 46,222 female and 227 service voters).

The Bijbehara segment has highest number of female voters and interestingly the PDP chief has a huge network of women workers, whose husbands or children have been given either jobs in Jammu and Kashmir Bank or in the government sector. So, in return, the party feels it is their day to repay the debt.

This single constituency has been divided into three parts because not enough security forces are available to gain control of these areas where separatist sentiment runs deep. The bypolls for the seat couldn't be held in 2017 after eight people were killed during elections in relatively peaceful areas of the Srinagar parliamentary constituency. This time around, at least 18 candidates are in the poll fray.

A polling station in Bijbehara. Firstpost/Sameer Yasir

A polling station in Bijbehara. Firstpost/Sameer Yasir

The very reason for cancelling the election was also because most of the civilian and militant killings that took place over the last three years in Kashmir have been reported from this region.

The polling in Anantnag constituency is divided into in three phases on 23 April, 29 April and 6 May with 90per cent of the polling booths in the south Kashmir constituency declared as "hypersensitive".

An official spokesman said in a statement that the district has 5,29,256 voters, including 2,69,603 male, 2,57,540 female, 2,102 service electors (2,091 male and 11 female) and 11 transgender voters. For smooth polling, the Election Commission of India has set up 714 polling stations in the district, the spokesman said.

Earlier it looked like a clear win for the former chief minister as she faced almost no competition. Then, the Congress state chief GA Mir entered the poll fray and spoiled the party. He is likely to spoil the chances of an easy win for Mehbooba. "We are voting for Mir sahib," said Kifayat Haider, a resident of Dooru village. "At least he will develop this area. We know how the situation is in the rest of Kashmir and no one among this lot will be able to change that."

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Updated Date: Apr 23, 2019 15:41:47 IST