We gathered in Srinagar to monitor the elections of April 26th, the second phase. Trouble was, we gathered in general silence and despondency, and a definite apprehension as well. We could not help thinking about what had happened in the first phase.
One of our teams was in Baramulla that day, travelling in their Tata Sumo. From accounts we got later, it was just as we might have expected: the people in the Sumo were keyed up and eager as they visited booth after booth, collecting data and impressions. Then they ran over a land mine. The driver and a young woman called Aasiya Jeelani died; the young man who had actually invited me, Khurram Pervez, suffered a broken leg and is still in hospital as I write this.
The tragedy weighed on all our minds, and I was no exception. It could have happened to any of us, and it could happen on this day as well. I never knew Aasiya, but I heard enough about her in my time in Srinagar to know that this was a special, thoughtful, committed young woman. She was with a small group called the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons, writing and editing much of their quarterly bulletin. We are all poorer for each unnecessary death around us: thinking of this land mine horror, I could not get that thought out of my mind.
And yet, this was a taste of Kashmir today. I could not help being profoundly apprehensive about the day, though sure I wanted to go through with what we had planned.
My first impressions that election morning were of the Lal Chowk area. Over a quiet breakfast in our dingy hotel, we saw security men wandering down the street, entering buildings and climbing up to 1st and 2nd floors, searching for signs of trouble. While a few ordinary residents of the city were strolling about, the greatest presence by far was of security forces, complete with guns, jeeps and an armoured car parked in the centre of Lal Chowk. As I said, we were already apprehensive; these sights only heightened the feeling of unease. In addition, I couldn't help feeling some sympathy for soldiers and policemen, working in these tense conditions day in and out. No wonder there is a steady trickle of reports from here of jawans losing their sanity and assaulting their superior officers. When and how will all this end?
The morning vista from our hotel window raised other questions: what kind of election is this going to be? What kind of society is this, living under the gaze of tens of thousands of gun-laden security personnel?
We drove straight out of Srinagar, heading for the rural parts of the constituency, specifically various villages in Ganderbal (Gangerhama, Dudrehama, Tullamulla, Barsoo, Lar, Benhama, Manigam, Kangan). In most of the booths, except Manigam, there was steady voting in progress. Lines of voters, divided into men and women, were waiting patiently to vote. We covered these areas mainly in the morning, so the voting figures we collected were necessarily early. But our impression was that the voting turnout in these areas would touch 30-40 per cent. For example, in Tullamulla booth #28C at 9.25 am, 82 out of 923 voters had voted; in booth #29D, 108 out of 896. These were typical numbers. In most booths, fewer women had voted than had men: in booth #28C, 23 of the 82 voters were women. This was also typical.
We got sporadic reports of malfunctioning EVMs. At Duderhama, we were told the machines were out of order at the start of the day, and nobody knew how to repair them. So voters had to wait for them to be repaired.
It was here that we had our first encounter with people who refused to vote. A man told me: "We won't vote until our issues are addressed. The whole world knows what Kashmir's situation is. We don't want this atmosphere of guns; we want peace in this area." Some others spoke of wanting "azaadi", something we would hear through the day.
Outside the Duderhama booth, a jawan from the Rashtriya Rifles came up to me to ask who I was and what I was doing. He seemed inquisitive and friendly, and we exchanged a few pleasantries until a fellow jawan called him away. Both this second jawan and their superior officer asked him testily who I was and why he had been speaking to me.
At booth 54 in Lar, a fight broke out between National Conference (NC) and People's Democratic Party (PDP) supporters. Security men and the surrounding villagers quickly stopped it. For those who don't know Kashmir, it's worth pointing out that these two parties effectively dominate politics there, certainly in Srinagar. NC is the Farooq and Omar Abdullah party; PDP is where Mufti Mohammed Sayeed and Mehbooba Mufti belong.
Armed men were a constant presence, in large numbers, at each booth. Typically, there would be one set of men at the entrance to the school being used for voting, and these would check our IDs. Another set sat outside the room(s) where the voting was taking place.
We had stray reports of coercion by armed forces. At Lar, one man told us that the "police harass us"; near Kichpara, some women of Barawulla village said the Army had come to their homes some days ago asking them to vote. Other press teams we met while travelling had reports like this too, one from Manigam village only minutes after we had passed through. But we ourselves had no first hand experience of coercion.
In booth #49 in Benhama, we met the sitting PDP MLA, Qazi Mohammad Afzal. There was an ongoing argument in this booth about people who had come to vote but had found their names spelled wrongly in the lists. The presiding officer told us that he had evolved a method to deal with such situations with the polling agents present: if they recognized the person concerned as someone from the area, named as on the list, they would allow him to vote.
This seemed reasonable. But then Afzal told us that he had issued these instructions to the presiding officer. We said to him that as a serving MLA, he had no business interfering in the electoral process in any manner, including this one. He left in a hurry.
Outside booth #24B in Kangan, we met a woman walking out with several others, clearly agitated. I stopped to ask her what the problem was. She showed me her election card (Daizy Akhtar, 21 years old) and told me that the people in the booth -- she specifically said PDP people -- would not let her vote because they said she wasn't the person whose photo was on the card. On the face of it, this seemed unlikely to me, because the photo was unmistakably hers. Besides, why would the PDP alone conspire against her? There was something else going on here.
When I suggested that I'd be happy to walk in with her and see this denial of her right to vote for myself, she and her friends repeated loudly that she would not vote, and left the booth. At this point, another man standing nearby came up to me and told me she was lying -- she had voted earlier in the morning, and had now come again, in an effort to vote for a second time. Besides, he said, her accusation against the PDP was because this area was a stronghold of the NC leader Mian Altaf; no doubt Ms Akhtar was a supporter.
The overall impression from these rural booths was of a quiet election, even with the occasional incidents I have described above. We did notice that even though people were voting in reasonable numbers, shopkeepers in nearly every village were observing the day's boycott call.
By 1230 or 1pm, we were back in Srinagar. The contrast between the rural areas and the city could not have been more obvious.
One, the boycott call, issued by separatist groups, was clearly being observed by nearly everyone. All shutters of shops were down, and streets were nearly deserted. (Except for people playing cricket and, in two cases, chess and carrom).
Two, as a result, the voting percentages were startlingly low. At one booth, (#70, Budgar, Ali Kadal), we found that zero people had voted out of 930 on the list, and this was at 130pm. Coming from Bombay as I had, it was hard to comprehend a polling booth where nobody had turned up to vote.
At Soura, a group of men explained the poor turnout to us, getting heated as they did, though not really with us. "Since 1989," they said, "we have decided not to vote, and we will keep this up until a 'faisla' happens here. These elections have brought us nothing! We will keep up this kind of boycott of them until we get azaadi!" Freedom.
These men don't believe political parties ("they are all thieves and international crooks", one said). "Farooq ne zulum kiya yahan! Mufti ne bhi zulum kiya!" (Both Farooq and Mufti have committed crimes -- literally, "wounded" -- against us). Several shouted that they did not want to be with "Hindustan". Are you for Pakistan then, I asked. To a man, they loudly shouted no. There was, if possible, even more contempt for Pakistan. "We just want a free Kashmir, free from both these countries," they said.
Interestingly, while approving of the boycott and expressing these opinions about India, they were just as dismissive of the Hurriyat leaders as they were of politicians. So I asked one man, if you reject all these politicians, who will lead you here in Kashmir? He made me write down the name he mentioned: Fazul Haq Qureshi. "Learn about him!" the man ordered me as we left.
We found sentiments like these, with only minor differences, nearly everywhere we went in Srinagar. To be fair, we also heard a lot of longing for "aman" (peace), a word that was mentioned just as often as "azaadi". Many people spoke of being weary of the years of violence and the oppressive security presence, and yearned for a return to peace.
Other booths we visited (Idgah/Tibetan Colony, Pathar Masjid, Mukhdoom Kocha, Khanyar, Islamiar Yarbal, Akkal Mir, Nowpura, Shivpura, Buchpora) had very low turnouts as well, some in the single digits late into the afternoon. The exception was booth #6B in Khanyar: 104 out of 891 on the list had voted. In Shivpora and Rajbagh, apparently upper-class areas of the city that we visited nearing 4pm, less than 50 votes had been polled out of a total of 4000 on the lists.
What was obvious to us, everywhere, was the resistance of the people to the election process. There were two aspects to this that struck me.
First, there was the boycott call that many approved of, as explained above. These elections meant nothing to them because they would not help them get what they wanted, whether azaadi or aman. This opinion was freely and widely expressed.
Second, fear. For some, there was the worry: what if someone from among those who called for the boycott spots me going to vote? Would I then become a target? Others were afraid of the security forces. Many people expressed these fears.
Two thoughts I was left with after the trip to Srinagar.
First, the calls for azaadi. How seriously should we take them, given the fear, the calls for boycott and the generally uneasy climate in Srinagar? As a retired Kashmir bureaucrat told me one evening, people will say anything to a journalist. I was definitely aware of that, not least because it isn't only in Kashmir that people will say anything to a journalist. Certainly too, there must have been people who would not agree with the azaadi-wallas, but who were afraid to speak out.
But even given those factors, I was convinced there was a sizeable slice of these non-voters who wanted this freedom, and thus this was something for Indians to pay some attention to. For this reason: most of these people were calm and even friendly as they said these things. There was no hostility I experienced, not once. It was as if they were telling me, this journalist from India, this is a given. Your best bet is to understand and accept it, because we believe we are being reasonable and any reasonable person will understand and accept what we are asking.
This calmness was more forceful than any hostility would have been.
Second, news reports about the Srinagar election that I have read outside Kashmir say that it was a peaceful election with a moderate turnout. My reaction to that is: Peaceful, yes. Moderate, no.
Our trip through the constituency was largely uneventful. While we heard reports of violence in other parts of the state, we did not experience any. At least on the 26th of April, we would agree that Srinagar had a generally peaceful election.
But that word "moderate" is quite misplaced. When you combine the 30-40 per cent turnout we estimated in rural Srinagar with the pitiful numbers in the city itself, you will indeed get the 20 per cent turnout that reports claim for the constituency. Yet that is still an alarmingly low number.
Something is wrong with democracy in Kashmir, and the turnouts in Srinagar alone are a clear sign of that. (There are others as well, some of which I have touched on in this article). What's the answer for us in the rest of India? Do we ignore the signs? Or do we sit up and take note?
Your call. I merely observed.