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|September 20, 1999||
The Rediff Election Special/ Chindu Sreedharan
The slaughter of democracy: How the army forced people to vote in Kashmir
This is not an incident that I will forget in a hurry.
At 1630 hours, just half an hour before polling officially ends in Jammu and Kashmir's Baramulla constituency, I am passing through Natnussa, a village in Kupwara district, on my way to Srinagar. Ahead, I see a small procession traversing the mud road that almost runs parallel to the one I am taking. I take a closer look and, for the fourth time today, see election at gunpoint.
There are women and children in the group. Men too, though their number seems less. Around 70 people altogether. And shepherding them, guarding them, are Rashtriya Rifles jawans.
The villagers walk slowly, sullenly. Many of the 10 to 15 armymen carry long sticks besides their weapons. There are a few at the head, a few behind -- and the rest walk on the flanks, their sticks at the ready. The villagers are being taken to the polling station ahead. I have seen animals being led like this, but this is the first time I witness the same treatment being meted out to humans.
Someone, you see, some bigshot authority wants to show the world that Kashmir polled decently.
We stop the vehicle. It is too good a shot to miss. Throwing caution to the winds, I take out my camera. Fiaz and Rashid, the journalists with me, follow suit.
The reaction is swift and violent. Two jawans run towards us and snatch Fiaz's flash. My camera is already in my bag. We tell them we are from the press, that this is a public road, that we are allowed to take pictures. That doesn't help. There is some hollering from their part, and we are ordered to leave the place. The procession by now has stopped and all jawans are concentrating on us.
"Aap log yahan se jaye," comes the order, "Or we will show you."
I wave the Election Commission pass in their face. No dice.
"Give me your camera," orders a jawan and makes a half-hearted grab for my bag. I push it behind me, and back towards the vehicle.
"Aap yahan se pyar se jayoge ki nahi?" a junior commissioned officer starts towards us, "Okay, come with us."
Fiaz by now has managed to get his flash back claiming he hasn't shot anything. We get into our vehicle. As we start moving, more out of pig-headedness than anything else, we click a couple more shots. There is a wild rush to stop us from the head of the procession. But we beat them to it.
I look back to see the RR men gesticulating angrily. And the sheep being led to the vote.
I have started from Srinagar early in the morning. The road seems scrubbed of the overwhelming security presence it boasted on the 16th. Today, only a minimum number of personnel is visible. Apparently in Kashmir, on sensitive days like this the forces are kept off the roads as much as possible to avoid militant attacks.
Just before Baramulla town I stop to pick up Rashid and Fiaz. Our vehicle, which sprouts a huge press sticker, is stopped by a group of men. They are the first of the numerous people who stop my vehicle to complain about how security personnel are forcing them to vote. All are ex-militants. They were taken into custody yesterday evening, some 300 of them, by the army.
"They released us only this morning. They have ordered us to bring out all the people to vote. Their officer told us they would give us time till 1030 and if the people don't vote then, they would come and drag them out. They said that they would come in the night to check and if we didn’t have the ink mark on our finger they would beat us," a youth tells us.
So will they vote?
"We will not, Inshallah," they claim, "We are being beaten up for the past eight years, so what’s one more time?"
"The way things are going," adds a youth, "we may pick up the gun again."
A few kilometres ahead, in Baramulla town, which is observing a near-hundred per cent hartal in protest against the poll, we stumble upon a blast site. A bomb had gone off here, near the general bus stand, 10 minutes ago. Luckily, no one has been hurt.
"But there is another waiting to explode," a jawan says, pointing to a battery, with wires running from it, by the roadside. The blast, a local person tells us, is the fourth since yesterday.
At the main polling station, there are plenty of policemen but no voters. The National Conference's Abdul Rasheed Shaheen, the PDP's Muzafer Husain Beig, Independent Saifuddin Soz or any of the other seven candidates have no attraction here. At the sight of the press, a group suddenly forms and there is a small demonstration with the slogan:
Nare Takbeer Allah Akbar
Hum kya chahte?
Hum kya chahte?
Goli, lathi ke sarkar
Nahi chalega baar bar
Nahi chalega baar bar
The infamous Sopore is more deserted than Baramulla. Inside booth number 73B, I meet M Shahin Sheikh and Shah Shah. Their identity cards, they tell me, have been taken by the BSF; those will be returned only after they produce the nishan on their finger.
Unfortunately, Shah’s name isn't on the voter's list. He cannot vote. "Please mark my finger then," he tells the polling official, holding out his hand, "I came only for this."
The official obliges. "Poor people. Why get them into trouble?"
A little later our vehicle is stopped by a mass of humanity running on to the road. This is Chaugal, the time 1030. Fifteen minutes ago, there was a blast here near the polling booth. Now the BSF is turning them out of their houses, and violently. They have been beaten up, the people tell me, some of them showing bruises.
"The army had come in the morning and told us to vote. Now the BSF is trying to force us," they say.
I can see BSF men running into houses, waving their sticks, shouting "Nikal bahar." When they recognise me for a journalist there is a slight drop in their energy. Their claim is they are searching the houses to make sure that there is no militant hiding there with another bomb.
"That is a lie," says Mohammad Ismail Hasan, "they are using that as an excuse to harass us. They had beaten us up before the blast too for not voting."
And had anyone voted? No, inquiries at the polling station reveal that not even one of the 822 votes have been cast till 1100 hours.
"Tell the Indians through your paper that we do not want to be part of India," says another, "it is security people like this who make us hate India."
Handwara is the only place where I find people actually voting. But then, this is not surprising – the area is the NC stronghold. But even here, I get to hear about the army's interference. As told by Bhat, a 50-plus gentleman:
"I recently shifted to this place. My vote is 25 miles away from here. The army came in civil dress in the morning and told me to vote. I told them I don't have a vote here, but they didn't believe me. They said if I didn't produce the mark in the evening I would be beaten up. Now I have come here to see whether I can get them to mark my finger. You see, today is a hartal and there are no vehicles – so I can't even go to my village to vote."
1230 hours finds me in Kupwara. Here there have been a little bit of polling. But again, I hear the same story: the people have cast their votes not because they want to, but for that ink stain on their finger. A short walk through the heart of the town, sans anything to identify me as press, is educative.
In an alley, an RR major is telling an old man standing with a pail in his hand: "Put that down and go and vote. You can do it later. If you don't…"
His men, meanwhile, are moving into houses and repeating the same. I introduce myself.
"So what I should do?"comes his answer.
What kind of operation is going on here, Major?
"We are making sure that there are no militants or explosive devises planted," he says, "That is all."
People say you are forcing them to vote?
"People may say anything…. I am an Indian. Be an Indian."
But weren’t you telling that old man to vote?
"My office is over there. Please wait for me. We will talk."
I walk on. A little ahead, I meet Fiaz who had gone to another part of the town. Two RR jawans, he tells me, had waylaid him. Has he voted? No, he has not? Why? Because he did not want to.
"They told me to come with them to the booth and raised their sticks," he says, "Whereupon I showed them my identity card. Then they cooled down and told me, 'Hum apne duty kar rahe hain.'"
We move on. We hear more complaints, witness more incidents. And finally stumble on the mother of it all in Natnussa -- sheep being led to the slaughter of democracy.
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