A red flag with a white plough on it wraps his forehead --- and face --- leaving only those serious black eyes exposed. Today, this mask is his only shield.
On a normal day, this lean, slightly built youth would not need the mask. He would push his boat to the bank of the Dal Lake, along the main road passing from the Srinagar city centre to the famed Mughal Gardens overlooking the lake in the lap of the Zabarwan Hills.
For endless hours, Mohammed Yousuf would wait for a customer to take a boat ride. On a lucky day he would make a hundred rupees, or even fifty more. He is one of the many Kashmiri boatmen who have been reduced to penury by the 13-year-old separatist insurgency, which has crippled tourist traffic in Asia's second largest tourist spot.
With the announcement of the assembly election and the expected rise in militant activity, even local tourists had stopped taking boat rides lately. But things have suddenly taken a positive turn.
Competing for visually impressive presences on television channels, political parties have started organizing boat rallies on the picturesque Dal Lake. The Congress, the National Conference, even the hitherto unknown parties seem to have revived business for the boatmen of the Dal.
Party slogans now are music to the boatmen's ears. It is good business. A motorboat owner hired Yousuf to help him ferry the National Conference workers for some rallies. He hesitated initially, but agreed after a little persuasion.
"I get 300 rupees a day," he says.
But elections in Kashmir are being held in extraordinary, dangerous times. Militant groups have threatened to act against those participating in the poll process. And here participation does not merely mean contesting the election, but even ferrying workers or putting up posters. Bashir Ahmad, a motorboat owner, was shot in the legs for putting up National Conference posters at the Dal Lake.
"I wear the mask because I am afraid of the guns on both sides," says Yousuf. "It is often the poor who bear the brunt here."
Although the mask shielding his face is a National Conference flag, and he steers a motorboat, which is a symbol of electoral enthusiasm for the cameras, Yousuf is unconcerned about the high-profile electoral process in his state. "My concern is my work," he says. "I want to make my money and go back home."
Home is where his mother waits for him. Worried for his safety, her last words to him every morning before he leaves for work are: 'May God protect you.'
Yousuf is uncertain whether he will vote in this election, and wants to play it safe. "If my whole locality votes, then maybe I will. Or if the army asks us to come out and vote, I will." Otherwise, he is indifferent. "I would rather sit at home. I am not really bothered. Why vote when the politicians have done nothing for us?"
But he confesses to being caught between two fears --- one, the coercion by security forces to cast his vote; two, the fear of militant retribution if he does. "The military will break your bones if you do not listen to them," he says.
There have been such allegations in the first phase of the election. The state government has promised that such incidents will not be repeated, but people are cynical.
The Dal Lake, where Yousuf lives, is a relatively peaceful area. Militant activity hardly happens here anymore. Yet, an invisible, unknown fear of the militant backlash continues to cloud Yousuf's mind. A fear that is more intense because it is unseen. "You do not know anymore who is a militant. They will not beat you up; they will just shoot you. Maybe in your leg, maybe in your head," he says.
But there are others who scoff at this threat. Political party workers do not feel any danger from the militants. At a Jammu & Kashmir People's Democratic Party rally in Chadoora in Budgam district, central Kashmir, one can see many such fearless campaigners. Young men with green sheets wrapped over their shirts, donning green bandannas, some even with green eyes, cheer, sing, and dance in a frenzy. With short, trimmed beards, they could even pass as mini-militants without guns.
The enthusiasm of the crowd brings back memories of the hysteria of the pro-freedom rallies of the early 1990s. Only, the cops are friendly this time. The slogans have changed. The anti-India cry for aazadi has been replaced by anti-National Conference slogans.
"We want to replace the National Conference and get rid of the oppression. Enough is enough," says Bashir Ahmad from Lasjan village, one of the cheerleading, campaigning youth. But he fumbles for an answer when asked to describe that oppression.
Then, after a brief pause, he rattles off his list: "The nepotism, the hereditary rule of the National Conference, the Special Task Force of the police, which tortures people and demands bribes for releasing anyone they pick up..."
He, however, does not find anything wrong with the hereditary approach of the JKPDP, where daughter Mehbooba Mufti is a vice-president of the party while father and former Union home minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed is the president.
In Chadoora too, militants have asked people to boycott the election. But the cheering crowd tells you otherwise. "We are not scared of militants here. They target the National Conference, not us. Here everyone supports Mir Sahib, the PDP candidate," says Bashir.
"Even militants feel we are not supporters of the security forces like the National Conference is. They know we are not against the [secessionist] movement," he adds.
Up on the dais, another vice-president of the JKPDP, Muzaffer Beg, advocates opening up the Rawalpindi Road and allowing people-to-people contact, and emphasizes that his party will press for a dialogue between India and Pakistan to resolve the Kashmir issue.
I am compelled to ask if Bashir and his friends believe that separatist sentiment will die if the JKPDP forms the government, winds up the notorious STF, and ends corruption.
The young men look at each other and become quiet. Their young faces turn grim. It is Bashir again who breaks the silence: "We would still want freedom," he says. "The desire for freedom lives in our hearts."
The others nod in agreement.
J&K Votes 2002: The Complete Coverage
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