September 19, 2002


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The Rediff Special/Basharat Peer

The beauty of the Kashmir Valley flaunts itself: majestic mountains embroidered with green firs and pines, paddy fields ripened to a tinge of gold by the summer sun, a crystal blue sky. The journey from Srinagar to the northern Kashmir districts of Baramulla and Kupwara, over a long and winding road between apple orchards and open fields, is surreal.

But when it comes to politics in the valley, there are no bright blues, lush greens, or golden hues. It is the grim shade of grey that prevails in the statecraft of both the secessionists and the pro-India supporters.

The first of four phases of the Jammu and Kashmir assembly election took place on September 16 amid militant threats to the participants, security forces coercing the people to vote, a boycott call from the separatist All-Parties Hurriyat Conference, and a complete strike throughout the valley. Despite the challenges, north Kashmir and the districts of Kargil, Rajouri, and Poonch went to the polls and the electoral authorities announced that 44 per cent of the voters had turned out in the first phase.

Voting was relatively peaceful: only a few scattered attacks by militants in Rajouri and Pooch, a small blast that claimed a life in Handwara, and protests by the people against the security forces at various places.

The turnout surprised the observers, pleased the government, and displeased the secessionist groups. Clearly 2002 is different from 1996, when the previous assembly election was held. This time round, there were queues of enthusiastic voters voluntarily thronging the polling booths, even in towns like Handwara and Kupwara, which are not far from the Line of Control that divides the state between India and Pakistan and where militancy is rampant.

Observers call it the 'Lone factor'. Abdul Gani Lone, founder of the People's Conference, who was killed on May 21, 2002, hailed from Handwara village and had a large following in the entire Kupwara district. His supporters came out in large numbers to vote for the four "proxy" People's Conference candidates, who have promised to carry forward the "mission of Lone Sahib". "Proxy" because, officially, the People's Conference is boycotting the election and the candidates are contesting as independents. Yet, while campaigning, the candidates carried pictures of Lone and promised to fight for azadi (freedom) on the floor of assembly.

Another reason for the high turnout is being attributed to the anti-incumbency factor. Voters in Handwara accuse their legislator, National Conference member and state Agriculture Minister Chaudhary Ramzan, of nepotism and corruption. "We want to end Chaudhary's regime," said Majid Mir, a voter in Handwara. "So we are coming out to vote."

According to official figures, the turnout in Handwara was 50.62 per cent votes.

Yet, barely a few miles from Handwara town, on the Handwara-Kupwara road, there were scenes that raised serious questions about the promises made by the Election Commission and the Government of India that the polls would be free and fair.

Queues outside tents converted into polling booths at Nutnusu village near Kupwara gave the illusion of picture-perfect democracy. But the people standing there, under the watchful eyes of personnel of the paramilitary Border Security Force, said they were being forced to vote.

In the queue was 14-year-old Yousuf, a class VIII student. "The army told me to vote," he said. "They will check for the polling mark (indelible black ink) on my finger and if it is not there, I will be beaten up. So I am here."

He knows that his name does not figure in the voting list, that he is risking his life by going to a polling station. But he fears the army more.

Not all, though. Some claimed they stayed away as a reaction to the security forces asking them to vote. In Chogul Maidan village, also in Handwara constituency, agitated villagers raising pro-freedom slogans told that they had intended to vote, but after some soldiers tried to force them, they decided to boycott the polls.

"We were willing to vote, but early in the morning army men came to the door telling the people to go and vote. When I argued, I was slapped and hit with a gun butt," said Subhan Beg, 60.

Tales of coercion poured in from villages dotting the Bandipora, Pattan, Sangrama, Sopore, and Baramulla constituencies. It was here, in the tiny villages and small towns that television crews forgot to cover, that democracy was lost.

"We do not care for the Hurriyat's boycott call, but we are not voting because soldiers told us to do so. If it is a free and free election, then you do not force people. It is not democracy but dhum-ocracy," said Shabir War, 35, resident of Kulangam village, in Handwara constituency. Dhum, in Kashmiri, means to force or choke.

In the traditional National Conference strongholds of Gurez, Uri, and Karnah -- all located near the border --- the voters were more enthusiastic. The constituencies recorded turnouts of 68 per cent, 66.5 per cent, and 65 per cent, respectively.

Reasons for the high turnouts were varied. In Trehgam village, where the man hailed by secessionists as the 'Father of Kashmiri militancy', Mohammed Maqbool Butt --- who was hanged in Tihar Jail in 1984 --- was born, the turnout was an amazing 83 per cent!

This village has seen scores of its young die in the militant ranks, but the election was about development and ousting the sitting National Conference legislator for neglecting the village by voting for his opponent.

"These elections are not about deciding whether we are for azadi [freedom] or for India. It is a vote against the National Conference," said Abdul Khaliq, 60, a Trehgam farmer, who used to vote for the National Conference before the secessionist movement began.

It is indeed strange to see those seeking secession also clamour for better governance from the very government they are against.

"Those wanting to secede know it is long battle. Thirteen years of conflict has tired many of them. Now these war-weary, pro-freedom people want short-term gains as well, which comes from having a say in the political establishment. That is why they are voting," remarked a seasoned Kashmir observer.

The candidate's potential, as always, is an important factor. For instance, the Rafiabad constituency, located in Baramulla district, where militants are very active, saw 52 per cent voter turnout, most, apparently, rooting for National Conference nominee Shareefuddin Shariq. Reason: this National Conference Member of Parliament stands a good chance of becoming a minister should his party come to power.

"Having your legislator as a minister helps. We would get a better deal," said Tahir Khan, a teacher.

The greatest irony was the astounding fact that the areas where militants are most active --- Kupwara, Bandipora, Handwara, Trehgam and Rafiabad --- saw a high turnout, while areas where militancy is low --- Sopore, Sangrama, Pattan --- the voter turnout was poor.

The spotlight is now on the second phase of elections, scheduled for September 24.

J&K Votes 2002: The Complete Coverage

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