It’s “less like elections and more like war mobilisation”: The verdict from south Kashmir

The 2019 Lok Sabha elections in Jammu and Kashmir have been accompanied by an unprecedented level of security personnel deployment, even as the restive south Kashmir region has witnessed a near absolute boycott of the electoral exercise. Tauseef Mustafa/AFP/Getty Images
22 May, 2019

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.

According to Khurram Parvez, a human-rights activist in the state, the crackdown in the prelude to the elections was of greater importance than the elections themselves. “Look at the number of people that immediately come under suspicion with the retributive decisions that the state seems to have taken,” he said. Parvez added that people in Kashmir do not place any value in the elections because “a democratic exercise ought to be participatory. In Kashmir, it accompanies militarisation and an atmosphere of threat.”

Khurram’s words were borne out during my visit to another village in Pulwama, a small hamlet called Tahab, on 5 May. Clusters of soldiers in cricket helmets and fatigues manned every crossroad on the road to Tahab. The village had witnessed scores of preventive detentions by the police and armed forces on 1 May—one detainee was as young as 15 years old. An old woman in her seventies, Khati, told me, “There have been close to 80 detentions from this village. Almost every house here has one detainee.” Several villages across Pulwama and Shopian had similar stories. Khurram told me that detentions in Kashmir come under three categories: illegal detentions, where individuals are detained within military campuses without any police paperwork; detentions under the sections 107 and 151 of the code of criminal procedure, which allow preventive detentions; and detentions under the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act, 1978. Khurram said that the state is “totally non-transparent about both the deployment of troops as well the number of such preventive detentions.”

At Tahab, a young man approached me. He said he was a 24-year-old Kashmir University student, but refused to be named. “No one in this village is going to vote,” he told me, before comparing the act of voting to “sacrilege,” as the village deifies its slain separatist militants. “These are not elections,” he said. “Do elections require such a large scale deployment of military? It looks less like election and more like war mobilisation.” He claimed that the only people who would vote “are those who have been offered largesse from political parties mostly in form of jobs at J&K bank.”

On 6 May, I travelled through the empty roads of Pulwama en route to Shopian. Voting was underway and an internet shutdown was in place. The streets were lined with military personnel, armed with guns and crowd control equipment. According to the state police, the majority of booths in the region were “hyper-sensitive.” An unprecedented three-tier security ring guarded all the voting booths in the area—ten armed guards manned the polling booth from inside; 30 formed a peripheral outer ring. This arrangement was complimented by roving military vans patrolling multiple booths at random intervals.

Barring the village of Shadab Karewa, in Shopian, where I saw moderate crowds outside voting booths, across the rest of Shopian and Pulwama I encountered only empty booths manned by visibly upset polling agents. At Shadab Karewa, a young Kashmiri man, who refused to divulge any personal details despite repeated questions, told me that he would not vote. “Why would we vote? To insult the boys being killed every day?” When I asked him about the queues outside the village’s booths, he attributed the turnout to the demographic makeup of the village. “There are about 2,400 homes in the village. Only 100 are Kashmiris. Rest of them have come from different regions. This is the only village where you will find voting.”

Then I travelled to Dogripora, the village of Lateef Dar, the last member of the Burhan Wani group, who was killed on 3 May. The Burhan Wani group comprised 11 young Kashmiri men, who joined the pro-Pakistan militant organisation Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, and were led by 22-year-old Burhan. Almost the entire village had turned up at Dar’s funeral. After Dar’s killing, the booth at Dogripora was relocated at the last minute to Reshipora, a neighbouring village. Here again, polling agents sat idly on the chairs, lazing in the sun. Outside this booth, several men thronged in my direction. I inquired if anyone was going to vote. A man, seemingly in his thirties, said, “They are all same to us. The political statement we are willing to give is through the attendance on the funeral sites. We already did that.”

Back at Dogripora village, I met Mohammad Azharuddin, Dar’s neighbour. “We were friends and knew each other from childhood,” he said. “You are a Kashmiri yourself, aren’t you? You do not know what is going on here?” Azharuddin alleged that he was regularly detained and tortured by the police. “They suspect I motivated Lateef to join militancy,” he added. “But it is the biggest myth perpetrated by media that we rejoice taking up gun. Nobody wants his son to die like the way mujahids do here.” He said that the security forces “suspect me when I grow beard. If it is my faith, they have problem with, my faith and faith alone will shape the language in which I articulate my resistance.”

Azharuddin claimed that Kashmiris want nothing to do with “either Pakistan or India.” He reiterated the state’s longstanding demand for a referendum overseen by the United Nations. “If it turns out majority of people live with India, I will accept that decision but this political dispute needs to be resolved through the framework already put out by the United Nations.” His monologue had drawn a large crowd and they clapped for him when he finished.

By the evening of 6 May, voting numbers were out—both districts recorded a total 2.81 percent voter turnout. It should be noted that this decision to abstain from the electoral process seemed to be voluntary. For decades, election campaigning in Kashmir by mainstream politicians has competed with boycott calls issued by separatist leaders. But this time around, the general perception among locals was that boycott appeals were far more subdued and barely got any attention in the press.

Another bugbear of the Kashmiris is the current governor Satya Pal Malik. In June 2018, the BJP withdrew from its coalition with the PDP, triggering the implementation of a governor’s rule in the state. Malik’s tenure has been racked by controversies. In November, the PDP and the National Conference staked a claim to form the government. But the governor dissolved the state assembly instead. His decision to disregard the PDP’s and the NC’s show of strength did not go down well in the valley. After the high drama on government formation, on 20 December, the state came under president’s rule. According to the constitution of Jammu and Kashmir, president’s rule in the state is “exercisable also by the Governor of the State.” Malik’s role has since been a subject of shrill debate inside the Valley. “The gubernatorial rule in Kashmir is very authoritarian and the governor is very unabashed about it,” Wahid, the researcher, said. “We have seen a sharp reaction to every step of his. In such cases, what happens is that each layer of anger piles on another until we have an explosive situation.”

There are also indications that the president’s rule is likely to continue. The BJP has hinted that it does not favour holding assembly elections any time soon. According to a senior member of the state police, who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, security agencies also support delaying assembly elections in the state. “It is understood that an elected government will play a spoilsport in counter-insurgency operations. So security-wise, it’s better if president’s rule stays until we have a semblance of peace,” he said.

On the night of 6 May, after voter turnout percentages had been released, I met Khurram again. He told me, “Kashmiris did not conflate elections with the disputed nature of state, Indian state did. It’s them who wanted to project elections as some sort of referendum over legitimacy of India’s rule in Kashmir. And there they have it.”