On 6 May, Jammu and Kashmir voted in the final leg of the state’s five-phase Lok Sabha elections. The state has six parliamentary constituencies, and for the first time in its history, polling for Anantnag—a constituency in south Kashmir comprising the four districts of Kulgam, Pulwama, Shopian and Anantnag—was spread out over three phases, due to security concerns. Since 2014, south Kashmir has witnessed a massive upsurge in home-grown militant activity. The regular gunfights here, between security forces and militants, seem to follow a script. Locals assemble in raucous crowds and march straight to the security fortifications, allowing trapped militants to escape. By the time the gunfights are over, houses in which militants sought shelter are burnt wrecks, accompanied by significant civilian casualties. Given this backdrop, between 22 April and 13 May, I travelled to Pulwama and Shopian to gauge the reaction of voters to the electoral process.
The numbers tell the story—Anantnag recorded an abysmal 8.76 percent voter turnout. And according to the locals, this virtual boycott was mostly voluntary. There is a pervasive fear in south Kashmir that the region might careen into a long haul of violence if the Bharatiya Janata Party retains power at the centre. In 2014, the BJP had formed the state government for the first time in Jammu and Kashmir, in coalition with the People’s Democratic Party. The combination of state and central control allowed the BJP to implement its security doctrine— pioneered by Ajit Doval, the incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s national security advisor. Doval’s doctrine, first laid out during a 2010 lecture, is a hard-line stance that the NSA summed up as: “In the game of power the ultimate justice lies with the one who is strong.” It brought the region to a tipping point last year and made 2018 the worst in terms of causalities in a decade. Siddiq Wahid, a fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi, told me, “The poll participation has already revealed the frightening detachment among Kashmiris. They have articulated a very clear message that elections mean nothing to them.” He added that Kashmiris were uncertain what would happen post-elections, “but it certainly is not going to be positive.”
On 22 April, I travelled to the town of Pulwama, which was scheduled to vote the next day. During the journey aboard the heavy motor vehicles that ply in the region, I attempted to strike a conversation with a fellow passenger about the elections, but was met with silence. When all the passengers had alighted, the driver told me, “He probably thought you are a cop. This area is full of sleuths who report to police and army,” and added that nobody would tell me “if they are voting or not.” In the town’s market, a 22-year-old who owns a mobile phone store agreed to speak to me on the condition of anonymity. I asked him if he would vote. “Never, I cannot deceive the ideals of our martyrs,” he said, referring to militants killed in gunfights. “Every vote cast is a vote to people who legitimise Indian rule over us.”
Pulwama—the site of the 14 February attack on a CRPF convoy that made international headlines—and its surrounding region of south Kashmir has borne the brunt of the state-wide crackdown that followed the attack. On 19 February, the union ministry of information and broadcasting asked the state administration to flag “resistance art” in the region. “It has been learnt that in Kashmir valley, there is an emerging trend of using different types of art to shape and promote an anti-India narrative,” stated the order. This was followed by a co-ordinated crackdown on separatist individuals and groups in the state via the Enforcement Directorate, the National Investigation Agency, the Jammu and Kashmir police and the income-tax department.
It began with a ban on the Jama’at-e-Islami Jammu and Kashmir—a socio-religious organisation that pursues the political agenda of complete autonomy for the state. Then, on 16 March, the state police released a list of 650 school teachers from across the state, who were suspected of “militancy related” activities. The list was complemented by an order that allowed a state-government drive against its employees whose “close relatives or extended family members are involved in separatist politics, militancy, cases of stone-throwing or have been linked to Jama’at.” On 22 March, the home ministry outlawed the separatist leader Yasin Malik’s Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front. On 30 March, Satya Pal Malik, the governor of the state, formed a multi-disciplinary terror-monitoring group with a mandate to target “militant sympathisers” among “government employees, including teachers, who are providing covert or overt support to militant activities.” Subsequently, on April 18, the state government warned its employees against associating, directly or indirectly, with “unlawful associations” referring to the Jama’at and the JKLF.