April is a season of hope when trees blossom, flowers adorn our gardens and farmers look forward to a fulfilling year. The polling day on April 9 charred all the vestiges of hope as democracy played an ugly dance and eight youngsters were killed. Anger in the Valley has reached a tipping point, death is sought, not feared, but is New Delhi listening?
By the time polling ended in the Srinagar-Budgam parliamentary constituency on April 9, eight people including a teenager were dropped dead and over 200 injured in clashes between protesting youth and forces across the segment, spread over three districts of Srinagar, Ganderbal and Budgam. Not only did the by-poll turn out to be the bloodiest in the electoral history of Kashmir, the voter turnout recorded was the lowest ever, seven percent, as people across the three districts stayed away from booths, fighting ding-dong battles with forces throughout the day to reinforce the message: the Valley is simmering with anger and the delay in confronting the Kashmir political problem head on could result in more trouble for the government in the days to come.
Since the Kashmir problem came to the fore, New Delhi has repeatedly held that high voter turnouts in the state, particularly since 1996 after the eruption of militancy, as a vote for New Delhi’s rule. However, the single-digit polling, going by the same argument, the large-scale protests on the polling day and near-complete boycott of the electoral process can be interpreted as an outright rejection of the democratic process in Kashmir and a warning equally for New Delhi and regional political parties including the grand old National Conference and the Peoples Democratic Party to open channels of dialogue with all stakeholders. Though there has been low polling recorded in Kashmir in the past as well, for the first time, however, Kashmir has rejected the electoral process as the participation of the people has never been so low.
Ever since the PDP joined hands with the BJP to form the government in Jammu and Kashmir, people have been talking about the “betrayal” at the hands of the Kashmir centric PDP which had sought vote in 2014 Assembly elections to keep BJP away from entering the Valley. The killing of Hizb commander Burhan Wani was the spark that led to the bloody uprising of 2016 which continued for five months. Since there has been no thaw in pro-freedom protests which haven’t only overtaken south Kashmir but have spread to Budgam which has declared militancy free some years ago. The district has traditionally been a hub of mainstream politics in the past.
“The anger has been simmering in Kashmir for the past nine months but only the government kept ignoring it, despite panels from New Delhi warning both the government of India and the state government to initiate the dialogue process on Kashmir,” said a senior political analyst. “While the situation went from bad to worse the governments did nothing to use the opportunity provided by the winter to initiate a political process on Kashmir. Instead, the encounters grew and so did the resistance of the people to try and save militants. The night raids searches and mass arrest led to the rising anger.”
That was the time when, instead of taking a political initiative, the government decided to hold the election when the situation was ready to erupt and needed just a spark. And when the three civilians were killed during an encounter in Chadoora tehsil of Budgam, barely some days ahead of the polling, it led to the simmering anger across the district as village after village the killing dominated the discourse and people vowed to boycott the polls.
“I am saying it very clearly that this violence is being created by them (Government). Why did Chadoora incident happen and why three young men were shot dead? What were the intentions? I was scheduled to address people there that very day,” National Conference President Farooq Abdullah told media, days before the election as his party and Congress who decided to fight to the election jointly directly attacked the ruling PDP for the killing.
Voices on Ground-Zero
On the day of election, on April 9, deep in Budgam district in Kanihama village, a bridge over the Sukhnag Nallah that feeds Jhelum River, was the dividing line between protesting youth as young as 12-year old Arif Hussain and paramilitary forces of CRPF and JK Police with the latter trying to push the former back to take control of the entire area. By 12 pm, the polling station set up in Government Middle School at Batpora hadn’t seen even a single person turning up to cast vote.
The boycott was also intensified by the alleged smashing of the doors and window panes of the houses dotting the banks of the Nallah. “How can we forget sacrifices of our martyrs to participate in the polling which ends up strengthening the hands of the mainstream parties in the state as well as New Delhi,” said Muzaffar Hussain, a post-graduate student at Kashmir University. His views were shared by an elderly man, Abdul Gani Bhat who was basking in the sun. “Look they smashed all the windows of my house but we all have to sacrifice something to keep this movement going,” said Bhat.
The scene at Kanihama replicated itself at the majority of polling booths in Budgam and elsewhere in the constituency and the polls were marked by clashes between civilians and forces. But by the time the clock ticked past 12 pm, the situation in the constituency deteriorated with news about the killing of a teenager, Faizan Fayaz Dar (15), coming from Dalwan village, a part of Charar-i-Sharief assembly constituency.
Soon the number of killings went up to 2, then three, and by evening seven civilian were killed in forces’ action in Budgam which has traditionally witnessed large participation of people in elections in the past. As the situation went from bad to worse, another youth who had got severe bullet injuries in Ganderbal succumbed, taking total death toll to eight.
At the time when the news about the eight killing hogged headlines, J&K’s Chief Electoral Officer Shantamanu told a press conference that just 7.14 percent polling was recorded in the entire segment with just 90050 people casting their votes. While the intense clashes at several polling stations forced re-poll in at least 38 polling stations, the result was abysmal with just two percent of over 35000 people casting voting this time.
The killings and fresh cycle of protests forced the Election Commission of India to defer the elections to the Anantnag seat till May 25 after the Valley was on the brink again. “The spectre of fresh unrest in the middle of spring had only just been averted,” observed a political analyst. The ECI took the decision after the State Government communicated to it that situation in Anantnag parliamentary segment “isn’t conducive to hold free and fair polls” on April 12—a move that was criticised by the opposition who alleged that the PDP was facing defeat in the constituency. The PDP’s Tasaduq Mufti is contesting against Congress’ G A Mir from Anantnag. The polls have only been deferred to 25 May, when the Valley would be warming up to fresh tourism and business season.
“Is the postponement for a month and a half the answer? Not at all. The by-poll has only been further pushed towards the summer, the peak tourism and business season,” read a front-page editorial in Greater Kashmir, the leading English daily of Valley which termed the deferment “a cure worse than the disease”.
With south Kashmir already simmering with anger, it remains to be seen now whether the government would go ahead with the elections or defer it in view of the threat that Kashmir might slip into another summer of unrest.