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What do low turnouts say about Kashmir and India?

October 14, 2004

Srinagar on an election day, if the one I witnessed is any indication, is an unnerving sight. I'm standing at one end of Lal Chowk. Just the number of shops around me indicates this should be a bustling place. Instead, all I see are several gun-toting military men, a few of their jeeps, and an armoured car straight out of 'Damnation Alley.' Painted on its side, the
mildly curious name 'Rustam.' Other than this much, a sort of windblown silence.

This, of course, is the response to the boycott call from separatist groups here. Everywhere I travel this day, the boycott's effectiveness is clear. Apart from soldiers, the only people on the streets are cricketers, playing innumerable exuberant games with little plastic balls. They are certainly not voting. In booth after booth, officials and agents sit idle, waiting
to service the occasional voter who strolls in. In booth #70 in Ali Kadal, it's been a futile wait. At 1:30, the turnout is stuck at zero: not one of 933 registered voters has shown up to exercise the spanking new EVM. Other booths can hardly sneer at that: by afternoon, many have totted up less than twenty ticks on their lists.

Enough people, cricketers included, are willing to tell us why they won't vote. We want a faisla [decision], they say, an answer to our demands. Why should we vote for people who never deliver what they promise? Sure, and what are your demands? Many -- most -- say "aman", or peace. But enough also say, with neither hostility nor hesitation, "azaadi". Freedom.

How do you react to that?

Freedom talk in Kashmir. I'm reminded throughout the day of what Pervez Hoodbhoy, Pakistan's best-known physicist and an eloquent voice for peace, once told me over coffee in Lahore. "I feel so sad urging that Kashmir be allowed to choose if they want to join us," he said. "Because I truly believe they'd be better off in India, or even free, than in Pakistan. But
your guys have messed up there so badly that nobody in Kashmir wants to stay with India."

It annoyed me no end, but I had to ask myself: how much truth in this?

I've had to ask it again through visits to Kashmiri Pandit camps in Delhi and Jammu -- and now here, this election day in Srinagar. Yet while I meet several men in Srinagar who spoke this language of azaadi, not one had anything but contempt for Pakistan.

Now it's hard for an Indian to accept that so many here are disillusioned with India. Is it any consolation that they are fed up with Pakistan too?


Rural Srinagar stands in contrast to the city. We visit several booths in Ganderbal, going up to Kangan on the Kargil road. At each one, lines of high-spirited voters wait their chance, jostling and good-naturedly teasing each other. The counts we get indicate that there will be about 30 to 40 percent voting here. This, when put together with single-digit city numbers, produces the 20 percent turnout figure for Srinagar that made the rounds. While small, that number is at least more respectable than zero.

And yet, it can't help but raise still more questions. What do such low turnouts say about Kashmir and India?

You also can't help but wonder about an election, an entire society, so drenched in security. Two weeks in Srinagar over two different visits, and in my waking hours I could hardly have had a spell longer than five minutes when I didn't see a man with a gun, or spooky concrete bunkers, or rolls of barbed wire, or those strange armoured cars. (Firdous, Rajender, Agnibarsha). What does it mean that this is now merely normal?

What do we do to the soldiers we call upon to serve like this for years on end?

Just days earlier, in the election's first phase, teams had fanned out to do the same poll monitoring exercise I had volunteered for. One roamed the booths in Baramulla. About noon, their Sumo drove over a IED (improvised explosive device, an acronym that everyone knows in Kashmir like they know a cavity in their teeth) which blew it across the road. The man who had actually invited me to join the monitoring project had his leg broken. Three others were injured. The driver, Ghulam Nabi Shaikh, and a young journalist, Aasia Jeelani, died.

Days earlier than that, some polite men visited a young human rights writer and researcher at his Srinagar home. They asked some innocuous questions. Then they took out a gun and shot him in the abdomen. He lives, but he and family are, understandably, shattered.

People I speak to in Srinagar about these incidents only shrug. The occasional "tut-tut", but mostly resigned shrugs. For this is normal too. Normal Kashmir stuff. Normal Kashmir tragedy stuff. What I find hardest in this city is coming to terms with everything that's "normal." In some ways, I do -- but it is a normal with an uncomfortable edge.

Almost the only experience that doesn't leave me depressed lands me in trouble with my wife. That's because I tell her the truth about one of the sights of Srinagar: its women, who are gorgeous, period. Several times during my stay, I stop short, watching a band of young ladies walk by, each more lovely than the next.

Once that this happens, I'm sitting in a small park on the shores of Dal Lake, looking across it at a spectacular vista of hills and snow-capped mountains. Then five belles stroll past, giggling secrets to each other.

Then there's a man in khakis with a long gun.

I'm writing a postcard to my wife through all this, so I mention the young ladies in it. I'm struck by seeing such beauty in this delightful setting, but in this place where gunmen roam. How to explain that? I try as best as I can, but the phrase that I end up using -- that the girls are so "heartachingly pretty" -- gets me some stern wifely treatment.

And there's the caged surprise. Dinner one evening is at the old family home of a retired bureaucrat. Through the meal, I hear a low, rumbling voice from some corner of the rambling house. I can't tell what it is saying. So after a while, I pay no attention. Not even to the occasional whistle.

Then somebody lugs a large cage in. In it is a nondescript hill mynah. The lady of the house greets the bird with a "Kyon mynah, kya karti ho?" Swift comes the reply: a quick, guttural "Tum kya karti ho?" I can scarcely believe it. But then the little brown thing tops even that. She tilts her head back and says, still guttural but clear as day, "Allah-o-Akbar!"

My jaw falls open. But the feathered beast must be as amused by me as I am astonished by her. She lets out a ear-splitting whistle. Then, a tiny and perhaps celebratory dropping.

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Death Ends Fun:

Dilip D'Souza

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Number of User Comments: 6

Sub: Nothing to wonder about

There's nothing to wonder about at all. The deployment of so many security personnel is forced by the actions of Pakistan and the Islamic terrorists.How ...

Posted by Varun Shekhar

Sub: srinagar diary

Inspite of your acute sense of observation you have missed the point.The difference which is so evident in and around Srinagar and rural areas around ...

Posted by bhupi

Sub: God help India...

Why isn't anyone bitching and moaning for the cause of the hundreds of thousands of Pundits, who are the real Kashmiris?!? Why is the valley ...

Posted by pathur s. swaminathan

Sub: assessing intent

There were Muslims in India who asked for partition but surely nobody wanted partition riots. An anlytical mind would have forseen the calamity. There has ...

Posted by N J Ramesh

Sub: A Srinagar

Hi Only in India, Hindus, the so called majority community is living in refugee camps in one part of the Nation..Is it possible in any ...

Posted by rkesavaprakash


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