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September 18, 1999


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Massive security cover thrown over Baramulla

Chindu Sreedharan in Baramulla

The khaki-clad, waving arm brought our vehicle to a screeching halt. But the damage was done. We stopped one metre beyond where we were supposed to.

"Kahan baag rahe hai," the boy Border Security Force personnel roars, yanking open the door on my side, "Utro!"

That I was from the press, was running an hour late, and that it is pretty difficult to stop when someone jumps out from behind a vehicle and waves his hand cut no ice with the boy.

"Utro gaadi se," he hollers again.

I muttered about the dangers of allowing kids to play with guns -- very quietly, of course -- and got out. His two seniors who approached us, though made of the same stuff, were slightly better. Plus, they seemed to have an idea about newspapers, press and suchlike.

"I-card nikalo," says the senior-most. I handed him the requested object, which he studied with impressive care. The kid, meanwhile, was moving around the vehicle snapping at the driver to open this door and that.

The man with the gun finally finished scrutinising my I-card. He handed it back, somewhat reluctantly. The kid, however, does not relish the idea of letting us go without showing us who the boss was and revealed his anger by banging the door.

A rare incident, I thought, as we started off again. But I was proven wrong at the next check-post. Though my press card saved me from any real harassment (at a few places it even got me waved through), one thing was very clear. The security forces -- mainly the Rashtriya Rifles, BSF and CRPF -- were the kings of the road, and they meant that everyone, especially the local people, knew it. It was evident from the way their vehicles demanded the right of the road, the way many jawans went around checking civilian vehicles and their body language.

I felt the tension as soon as I left Srinagar. Some 10 km from the capital starts the Baramulla Lok Sabha constituency. Its 761, 901-strong electorate (of which 1,143 are migrant Pandits) is spread over the two districts of Baramulla and Kupwara.

Government forces could be seen in large numbers -- in fact, this is the poll for which the biggest security deployment has been arranged in Jammu and Kashmir and, probably, in India -- and quite a few new check-posts have sprung up.

Civilian buses were stopped at each point, the passengers made to get down and queue while their identity cards were checked (if you forgot to bring some sort of identification you have had it, says the driver), and then made to walk ahead some distance before they could board the bus again.

A little beyond Paton town, an armyman who takes a liking to my identity, says half in apology for the delay: "Pakistan log ke paas identity cards nahin hota."

The anger of the Kashmiris at such precaution was evident from their sullen faces. Then again, there was no love lost between them and the security forces anyway.

"You must write about this, how these people harass us," a few tell me.

Travelling on towards Baramulla town, I began to get the feeling that the heavy deployment was being counter-productive to the election cause to some extent. Besides the already-fortified road opening parties, there were additional personnel in impressive numbers all through out. So, finally, all you could see whichever way you looked were khaki or fatigues -- with a sprinkling of sullen-faced locals.

True the heavy security arrangement would, as JK DGP Gurbachan Jagat expected, reduce the threat of militancy engulfing the poll, but would it encourage the people to come out and vote? I doubted it. For one, such overpowering security was enough to scare the pants off anyone. Then again, in many, many pockets, people are not interested in voting. They are not part of India, they say, they want independence. So unless the security personnel forced them to, they would sit at home and think of azadi.

Baramulla, which has 442 hyper-sensitive booths (up from last year's figure), 216 sensitive (up, again, from what it was in 1998) and 216 normal polling booths, has 10 candidates in the fray including one from the BJP, another from the JD-S, a third from the Janata Party and two ex-militants.

The real fight, however, is among the National Conference's Abdul Rasheed Shaheen, the People's Democratic Party's Muzafer Husain Beig and ex-NC, now-Independent candidate and sitting MP Professor Saifuddin Soz.

Soz and Beig, though fighting each other, have decided to join hands on one thing. Both apprehend that the state government would resort to massive rigging and so have decided to form their own anti-rigging squads who would patrol the sensitive booths.

"We have decided to have flying squads of 5 to 10 people," says Beig, "But the NC may try to prevent that by getting the police to take away the licences of taxi drivers. As it is, there are so few vehicles available."

"The rigging here," he continues, "will be different from the blatant one they did in Srinagar. It will be more subtle. There are about 7,000 to 8,000 daily wagers working with the government. Their livelihood depends on retaining their jobs. Instructions have already gone to these people to move from village to village in groups of five or so and cast votes. Even if only 5,000 people do this and each casts only one vote, that is still 5,000. That might not matter in places where there will be heavy polling, but here where the polling percentage will be low, that will be very decisive."

But, I ask, would the polling agents not recognise these voters as bogus in their own area.

Beig has an explanation for that. Most agents refuse to do duty in their villages, fearing reprisals from militants. So they usually go to other areas, where they will not be recognised -- but then, they would not recognise the people either!

The areas where Beig expects rigging are the far-flung areas of Kupwara and Gurez, Handwara, Garkot in Uri, Patton, Nehalpura. Wannigam and Rohama in Rafiabad.

Both Soz and Beig say the polling percentage here would be much higher -- maybe 40 to 50 per cent -- than it was in Srinagar. They claim they have been able to mobilise people "passionately" in many places.

"The people are now beginning to realise that by not voting they are helping the National Conference," Beig claims.

Whether that is true needs investigation, but what is quite obvious is that there are chunks of people who hate the NC. Visits to Handwara, Kupwara, Sopore and Trehgam found not even a single person who said that -- forget liking Dr Abdullah -- he didn't hate the man. What has the CM done to alienate these people, I wonder. However powerful their anti-India feeling is, isn't three years time enough to do something to soothe it?

The militancy threat, the fear psychosis, I was told in Srinagar, would affect the poll process. True -- but that looked insignificant in contrast to the anti-incumbency and anti-India feeling that was in evidence, at least in the places I visited.

Campaigning too has been very, very low-key in the constituency. For instance, travelling to Kupwara, you will have to look really, really sharp to find an election bunting or poster -- and even then, you may not see any.

"The actual polling," says a local journalist, "will be low -- unless the security personnel force the people."

And lesser the polling the better it is for National Conference is the general opinion.

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