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.”