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Lok Sabha election: In Kulgam, vacant polling booths and deserted streets tell the story of a disgruntled people

Redwani, Kulgam: A pack of wild dogs waited outside and inside polling booth number 60. Paramilitary soldiers and polling staff were also present, but there wasn't a polling agent in sight. The booth in Redwani, one of the worst militancy-affected areas of Kulgam district in south Kashmir, had no visitors. Not even a single person turned to vote.

A visible-frustrated paramilitary troop from Bengaluru deployed recently for the Lok Sabha election manned the gate. He shooed the dogs away hoping someone would turn up, but instead of voters, the dogs returned 10 minutes. The stench of a complete boycott hung heavy in the air.

The soldier wondered what was happening. "Why is no one coming to vote?" he asked this reporter, "Is there a curfew? Are there militants living nearby?"

There was, in fact, no curfew, but a strike call given by the Joint Resistance Leadership, an amalgam of separatists groups.

 Lok Sabha election: In Kulgam, vacant polling booths and deserted streets tell the story of a disgruntled people

Only 15 people came to vote at this polling station; among them were two men wearing helmets. Firstpost/Sameer Yasir

Kulgam district recorded a 7.5 percent voter turnout till 2 pm. The highest votes were cast in Noorabad, the National Conference bastion — 11,854 (15.5 percent), followed by Devsar — 11,870 (13 percent). Meanwhile, 1,313 (1.3 percent) votes were cast in Kulgam and the lowest turnout was witnessed in Hom Shalibugh where 591 (0.8 percent) votes were cast till 2 pm.

The Redwani-D polling booth has 822 registered voters, but till 2 pm, not even a single voter had turned up to vote. In the nearby polling both of Redwani-59, there are 873 registered, but this booth too saw the same outcome, and there were no polling agents either.

The Election Commission of India's (ECI) decision to conduct phase-wise polling for restive Anantnag parliamentary constituency on the state police's request made clear sense on Sunday evening when reports of clashes and a grenade attack on a polling booth came from Kulgam, barely hours before it would go for the second-phase of polling for the Anantnag Lok Sabha seat.

On Monday, four people were injured after government forces fired pellets at protesters in Kulgam district.

By daybreak, the defiance became obvious, as deserted streets and desolated polling booths — ringed with security cover — made it certain that this restive zone of south Kashmir, where security forces had to set up new military installations in recent times to counter the ground defiance, only lived up to its image.

The restive Khudwani village — that witnessed a wave of protests, clashes and encounters after popular militant commander Burhan Wani's killing in July 2016 — wore a deserted look. A total of 2,562 voters were registered to cast their ballot inside Shemford School. By 8.45 am, however, no one had turned up to ink their respective fingers.

By and large, people preferred to stay indoors instead of coming to vote. Firstpost/Hilal Shah

By and large, people preferred to stay indoors instead of coming to vote. Firstpost/Hilal Shah

"Nobody is polling here," Rameez, a fresh-faced college-goer, said while hinting at the pervasive deserted nature of his village. "We aren't sellouts. Our brothers have laid down their lives to end ruthless Indian occupation in Kashmir. Those polling will only strengthen this ugly occupation that is killing and torturing us every day."

The remarks clearly reflected the deep-seated anger on the ground.

A similar sentiment was palpable in another restive Kulgam village called Qaimoh, where the polling booth was stoned by angry youths. The government forces had to fire teargas shells and pellets to disperse the crowd. Only one vote had been cast inside the Government Higher Secondary School. A total of 3,900 people are registered to vote here.

Kulgam not only fiercely protested during the 2016 protests, but also sent dozens of its youngsters to militant ranks. Almost two years later, most of those youngsters have become tombstones on the grim landscape of Kulgam.

Perhaps this was the reason why Kulgam, despite carrying the reputation of being a melting pot housing multiple ideologies, had only polled less than one percent of the over-3.45 lakh electorate in the first two hours of polling on Monday.

The boycott dominated in the belt that still carries the remnants of the largely-extinct Marxist ideology footprints in Kashmir, with veteran Mohammad Yousuf Tarigami, the card-carrying comrade still holding its ground in the district. In Noorabad and Devsar areas, however, large queues of voters had turned up to exercise their franchise. Much of the polling was propelled by the pro-India party pockets there.

The voting in the second leg of polling for the Anantnag Lok Sabha seat will decide the fate of 18 candidates, including former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, JKPCC chief GA Mir, the judge-turned-politician Hassnain Masoodi of the National Conference and BJP's Sofi Yousuf.

Given the security sensitivity involved in the district, polling ended at 4 pm, instead of the usual 6 pm. The timing was changed following a request by the state police to the ECI. This, in turn, makes the sullen situation clear in Kulgam, which comprises four Assembly segments of Kulgam, Devsar, Noorabad and Hom Shalibugh.

A vacant polling station in Kulgam. Firstpost/Hilal Shah

A vacant polling station in Kulgam. Firstpost/Hilal Shah

Other than Kulgam, Anantnag Lok Sabha seat comprises three other Assembly segments — Anantnag, Kulgam and Shopian.

The Lok Sabha polls to this constituency are being held in three phases due to security reasons. Anantnag district went to polls on 23 April, while voting in Pulwama and Shopian districts will take place on 6 May.

In the first leg, Anantnag district voted (during the third phase of the General Election on April 23) with a low turnout of 13.61 percent.

"We are not taking any chances with the security in the poll-bound areas today," said a senior police officer, "Given the recent history of the district, it's indeed a challenge for all of us to ensure peaceful polling here."

This is the reason all 433 polling booths in Kulgam district have been designated as hypersensitive. Polling stations for migrant Kashmiri Pandits have been set up at Jammu, Udhampur and New Delhi.

After the 2016 protests kept the district on the edge, the government had to cancel bypolls in April 2017 for fear of violence from the southern pockets like Kulgam. That seething sense of defiance has since then compounded, forcing political parties to go for low-key and indoor public meetings.

"New Delhi is only flogging the dead horse of democracy in Kulgam today," said Shabnam Ara, a political science student from Kulgam town, "It understands well that there are no takers for such farcical exercises here anymore and yet, it are desperate to conduct this military exercise and in doing so, conveniently undermining the ground situation. How long will these rulers keep their people in the dark about Kashmir?"

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Updated Date: Apr 29, 2019 16:39:32 IST