Ideals collide in Kashmiri elections

Patelbagh, India
// Asadullah Bhat is no stranger to polls, but he is not sure why he keeps coming back.

“My wishes have not been met, change has not taken place,” the 45-year-old paddy farmer said while waiting to vote for the seventh time in 25 years, all in this village a few dozen kilometres south-west of Srinagar. “But we have to vote because the government will be formed either way – so I keep hoping.”

Voters in parts of Kashmir went to the polls amid heavy security on Saturday in the fifth phase of staggered elections to choose the Jammu and Kashmir state assembly. Protests and deadly violence flared and accusations of vote-rigging flew as the people of this war-torn Himalayan valley continued their conflicted duet with Indian democracy.

The predominantly Muslim region has been gripped by conflict since 1989 when separatists took up the gun against India. About 60,000 have died and although violence has slowed in recent years, separatists see elections as a show of fealty towards New Delhi.

Yet turnout in the early phases of polling had reached nearly 70 per cent in some districts. Though numbers have begun to droop as voting moves into less India-friendly regions, Saturday’s results – nearly 50 per cent turnout in two Kashmir districts – represent significant increases from the previous elections in 2002.

Observers see an emerging line of thinking that separates independence from day-to-day governance.

“Why not delink voting from azaadi?” said Shabir Hussain, editor and publisher of a local daily, Kashmir Newsline, using the Urdu word for independence. “Unless we make ourselves a party to these elections, India will continue to thrust jokers and tricksters upon us. We have to consider what kind of damage we are doing to ourselves.”

That damage has been visible throughout the elections — in beefed up security across the valley, in empty streets every Friday and every polling day as bands of Indian troops enforce daytime curfews and in violent flashes from police, who beat up a handful of journalists attempting to cover an anti-election rally on the previous day of polling, Dec 7.

Kashmir election days rarely pass without trouble. On Saturday an early morning protest in Koil village escalated to stone throwing, prodding security forces to open fire – killing a 21-year-old student and injuring two others.

Yet thousands of Kashmiris stood in slow moving lines under cloudy skies to make their mark. Their differing voices revealed the complexity of Kashmir.

Saba Settar, 18, was idealistic about her first vote. “I hope I can choose a candidate who will solve our problems,” said the Pampore resident.

Ms Settar placed education before independence, saying “of first importance is our future”.

Naseer Ahmad, 22, a university student, participated in the mass anti-India protests this year but saw no contradiction in voting.

“I support independence first, but I also vote,” he said, queuing up with friends in Pampore. “We can’t let Jammu get all the government attention.”

In Patelbagh village, Abdul Rahim Yattoo, 70, a farmer, seemed to contradict himself.

“I don’t want all our men that have been killed in the last 20 years to have died in vain, so I want azaadi,” he said. “But I’m happy with India, so I’m voting.”

In traditionally separatist Shopian and Tral, locals are less happy. Several dozen young men chant anti-India slogans outside a Shopian town polling place. Inside, a Congress party poll minder was roughly ejected after accusing an opponent of helping burqa-wearing women to vote twice.

In the village of Nikas, near Shopian, villagers said soldiers had come the previous night and urged them to visit the polls. By noon Saturday voting stood at 12 per cent.

“This is democracy, we have the right to boycott,” said Arshad Hussain, a Nikas resident who did not vote. The 28-year-old is unemployed despite a master’s degree in history from Kashmir University. “India is taking only our blood, not giving anything in return.”

Yesterday, Manmohan Singh, the Indian prime minister, spoke of giving back at a Congress party campaign rally near Shangas, in Anantnag district, which will vote on Wednesday. He announced a reconstruction programme of 26 billion Indian rupees (Dh1.97bn), along with planned power projects, roads and colleges.

“Autonomy and self-rule is also possible if the Congress is brought back to power,” he told a crowd of less than 1,000 supporters. Mr Singh congratulated Kashmir for its participation in the elections, saying “this proves that you have full faith in democracy”.

Mr Hussain, the Nikas resident, foresaw a dark future. “People are not joining together, taking one line,” he said. “Sometime they are with India, sometime azaadi.”

Mr Bhat, the Patelbagh paddy farmer, may have hit on why.

“The mainstream politicians cheat people and among the separatists there are no good leaders,” he said. “[Politicians’] children are studying in another country, in the US, but look at ours — they have no education, no future. What kind of leadership is that?”

-- published in The National, www.thenational.ae, on Dec 15.

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