Amidst minimal turnout, the troubled south Kashmir seat has the unique distinction of voting in three phases
The constituency with 1.3 mn voters required more than 300 companies of paramilitary men in addition to a division strength army to ensure an incident-free poll
There’s a new driving etiquette on the Jammu-Kashmir highway. From Nowgam (Srinagar) to Qazigund, and perhaps beyond, piercing whistles are audible. Understanding the command in the whistle is the split-second decision one has to make: is it an order to speed away or to halt immediately? The soldiers behind these commands are sometimes invisible. They are positioned in bunkers to avoid being closer to vehicles, a new safety mechanism after the Pulwama attack.
Over the past few weeks, the government has lined the streets and inner roads with thousands of paramilitary men. These reinforcements are considered key to holding the Lok Sabha elections in south Kashmir’s Anantnag constituency in three phases, ending 6 May. When Election Commission of India announced the 3-phase polls, even established Kashmir experts were shocked. Holding an election in three phases marked a new precedence in Indian electoral history.
The four-district constituency with 1.3 million voters required more than 300 companies of paramilitary men in addition to a division strength army, already in place, to ensure an incident-free poll. Later, the ECI granted yet another concession by reducing the voting time by two hours to enable the polling staff to leave their stations in daylight. Jammu and Kashmir’s security grid believes night movement in the region is “deadly".
In the first leg, the main Anantnag district polled peacefully and the participation was modest: 13.63%. The EVMs were a mixed bag; some carried a modest number of votes and lot many had lower than 10 votes each. Generally, voters remained indifferent. Though the population inhabiting the foothills supported a Gujjar candidate, it’s boiling down to a triangular contest in the plains between Congress’ Ghulam Ahmad Mir, Peoples Democratic Party (PDP’s) Mehbooba Mufti and the National Conference’s Justice (retired) Husnain Masoodi.
Bijbehara, the hometown of Muftis, stayed home, sending only 2% out to vote. Even Mehbooba Mufti’s relatives, including her brother and uncle, did not come out. Two days after polling, the army killed two Hizbul Mujahideen militants not far away from the spot where Mehbooba cast her vote. During campaigning, she avoided addressing a public meeting in her hometown. Even the main Anantnag town polled only 3.47%, much lower than the predicted percentage of even pessimist observers. But the periphery was better. The polling pattern is likely to change as the exercise moves to comparatively “hard" belts, in the next two weeks. The people and the poll mangers are keeping their fingers crossed and hope the exercise remains peaceful. “I doubt the participation will improve as the poll gets into two remaining phases," Mohammad Yousuf Tarigami, the Communist lawmaker who represented Kulgam four times, said. “More than fear or anger, it is indifference."
Post Pulwama, there’s a general impression that south Kashmir is ground zero of Kashmir’s security situation. “There is militancy as it exists elsewhere," admits commentator and former editor Mohammad Sayeed Malik, “But spreading elections to three phases was seemingly a political decision. Maybe this decision-making suits some people, somewhere."
South Kashmir has a fascinating political and social history. Perhaps that’s why the present situation puzzles academic Gull Mohammad Wani, who teaches political science at the University of Kashmir, and belongs to the region. “The region has been a cradle of Kashmir’s main pluralist space and has not changed much," Wani said. “Kulgam is considered to be the bastion of Jamaat-e-Islami but it is being represented by a Marxist Communist for the last two decades in the state assembly. To be honest, if there is some space that Congress can claim to be its own in Kashmir that also falls in south Kashmir." Even for the BJP, the region offers a small chunk of votes every election.
People may be surprised that the “restive" region was the last to get fascinated by the gun. “The new situation that inflicted north and central Kashmir took many years to reach south," Wani said. “Still, it was a lukewarm response." In Kashmir, it was Anantnag that was taken over by the counter-insurgency grid, with Ikhwanis, the “friendliest" surrogate soldiers, controlling it up to 2000. Ikhwanis, also known as “friendlies", created its many bastions across north and central Kashmir much later.
There is an instance of an overnight communal rioting on 20 February 1986, when 129 homes belonging to Kashmiri Pandits were damaged and 16 temples ransacked. Despite the perception damage caused by that event, Kashmiri Pandits, Sikhs, Deabandis, Barealvis, Mirzaisand Jamaatis, almost all faiths, sects and variants continue to co-exist in south Kashmir.
The politics of the region
Congress was born in Srinagar but was rooted in south Kashmir. Syed Mir Qasim, Mufti Sayeed and many Congress veterans belonged to the region. Of the 10 chief ministers since 1947, four belonged to south Kashmir. In 1952, the man who negotiated with Pandit Nehru, the famous Delhi Agreement, was Mirza Afzal Beig, a resident of Anantnag. In 2014, the man who negotiated with BJP the controversial Agenda of Alliance was Dr Haseeb Drabu, a resident of Pulwama.
The big change in the region came when Mufti Sayeed left the Congress and floated PDP in 1998. In 2002, when the party contested its maiden election on human rights plank, the region gave it 10 of 16 seats. With Congress and BJP supportive of his thought process, Sayeed managed to contribute to the ground situation positively. “When Mufti Sayeed took over, the idea was to withdraw the disturbed area act from the region because there was no militant violence," Wani said, insisting, “Later when Omar Abdullah replaced him, the idea was alive and was being favourably looked at."
In 2008, PDP got 12 seats from the region simply on the basis of its earlier term. However, an NC-Congress alliance kept Mufti in opposition for six years. By early 2014, when PDP swept all the three Lok Sabha seats across Kashmir, BJP had risen with Narendra Modi as the leader. Given the BJP’s aggressive politics, this time Mufti sought a decisive mandate against the right wing party. The region gave him 13 seats in the assembly polls. Post-polls, he took more than two months to negotiate and finally shook hands with the BJP. Then all hell broke loose.
Reshaping of south Kashmir
“I know of two south Kashmirs," one senior officer told this reporter. “The one that existed in 2014 and the one that was born after 2014. To me, these are two different entities." In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the region recorded 28.84% poll participation—this improved to 54.91% in the subsequent assembly elections.
BJP signed the Agenda of Alliance and conceded to the PDP’s key concerns. PDP insiders said its ally used the courtrooms to further its agenda while delaying the promises it was committed to. “That showed the party in a bad state and we could do nothing," concedes a former minister. “When Mufti passed away, his daughter was promised that situation will improve but the BJP pulled out as part of their Lok Sabha management."
There was, however, a bigger character who played a much larger role in reshaping Kashmir, especially the south: Burhan Wani. After the new-age militant’s death in July 2016, Kashmir caught fire, especially south Kashmir. For the next three months, Kashmir did only one thing—counting corpses, managing burials and ensuring the hospitals had the emergency basics. An anger that was brewing in the south over the ‘North pole, South pole’, as Mufti would describe BJP-PDP alliance, got an outlet.
By the time a semblance of normalcy returned, more than 100 civilians, mostly below the age of 25, had been killed. Of them, 59 belonged to south Kashmir. For the first time, the hunter shotguns were used for crowd control. Official statistics put the number of injured at 9,042, mostly by pellets, and 5,407 of them were from the south Kashmir region. Of 782 persons hit by pellets in their eyes, 390 were from this area. Some of them went blind.
Mehbooba’s effigies were burnt in 2016. The feeling of betrayal is the predominant narrative three years later. Her frequent uncharitable remarks added insult to injury. Last week, many voters said that their motivation to come out and vote was just to “teach her a lesson".
Though the erstwhile crowd puller literally wept publicly at two places, residents are unwilling to forget her “toffee" remark. In August, at the peak of 2016 unrest, with home minister Rajnath Singh on her side, Ms Mufti had famously reacted angrily to a reporter: “Had a kid gone to buy a toffee from an army camp? A 15-year-old boy who attacked a police station, had he gone to buy milk?"
During the unrest itself, all the garrisons that had been withdrawn were reopened, and the situation got back to like in the 1990s. This took the anger and hate against the PDP to the next level.
The deepening unrest
The law normally takes its own course. In the follow up to 2016 unrest, police registered 3,773 cases across Kashmir—1,254 in south Kashmir—for damage to public property during and after the unrest. Of the 11,290 arrests, 4,998 took place in this region. Youth listed in police records have to go through the mill of law enforcement. This process is a punishment in itself, where many individuals evolve from suspects to stone pelters and eventually to militants.
“We were seeking implementation of the Agenda of Alliance while trying to evolve some mechanism to engage the youth," PDP’s youth leader Waheed ur Rehman Parra said. “In Kashmir, the people who dominate the streets are below 18. Even militancy recruitment stops at 25. But we had nothing to engage with them. Regardless of the withdrawal of cases against first-time offenders, thousands of the youth started facing law and thanna became their only centre of adverse engagement. This led to the crisis."
“Mark my words," Omar Abdullah said days after Burhan’s killing. “Burhan’s ability to recruit into militancy from the grave will far outstrip anything he could have done on social media." His grave actually became the ‘new recruiting shrine for militancy’. In 2018, Kashmir witnessed 99 anti-militancy operations and 57 of them took place in south Kashmir. As many as 85 civilians were killed in the region in 2018.
Today, south Kashmir has more homegrown militants than foreigners. Every death required a funeral and every funeral was a huge gathering. “The politics took a different route for engagement," Parra said. “These funerals were a rejection of the idea of democracy; these were celebrations of death as BJP ensured PDP fails to deliver."
These young, well educated, homegrown rebels are a breed apart. “While I was desperately looking for my brother and cousin so that I could convince them to renounce militancy, I visited 112 families of militants; almost 90 of them told me the security grid interventions forced them to join militancy," Syed Tajamul Imran, a management graduate said. He has already buried his militant brother but his cousin, a police deserter, is still at large.
In Kareemabad, the PDP got 1,400 votes in 2014. “Now we have seven graves there. How will we go to seek a vote and how will they actually oblige us?" Parra asked. “In the first term, PDP gave Awantipore the Islamic University and in the second term an AIIMS. In the aftermath of Pulwama suicide attack, a school teacher was brutally killed. This devoured the development narrative from us. We have not even visited the area."
This situation created indifference towards democracy well before the Lok Sabha elections were announced. In the 2018 fall, when Kashmir governor Satya Pal Malik decided to hold urban local body elections against the advice of the PDP and NC, south Kashmir responded interestingly. There was very low participation—130 of the 263 municipal wards remain vacant.
Right now, talking publicly about PDP in most of the region is a sin. But its loss is unlikely to be an NC gain because the PDP continues to be the major political force in the region. That is where the fault line lies. A tectonic alteration can be disastrous.
Masood Hussain is Editor, Kashmir Life
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