Jammu & Kashmir has recorded an overall voter turnout of a mere 43.5% in the ongoing Lok Sabha elections, its lowest since the 2004 polls. Voting turnout figures for the regions which have gone to poll till now suggest that this could be the least participative election in the Kashmir valley since 2002.
If you turn a place into a graveyard, can you expect its people to vote enthusiastically? Many in Kashmir are echoing these thoughts and showing their disillusionment with the ruling government by not turning up to vote.
The fifth phase of Lok Sabha elections concluded on May 6 and the voter turnout for Jammu & Kashmir’s 6 Lok Sabha seats has stumped many political leaders in the valley and the centre.
Jammu & Kashmir has recorded an overall voter turnout of a mere 43.5% in the ongoing Lok Sabha elections, its lowest since the 2004 polls.
As many as 299 polling booths in Pulwama and Shopian district saw no voting on Monday. It’s ironic that votes in elections across the country are being asked for in Pulwama’s name and yet 266 booths in the district saw zero voting. Security forces cracked down on militants after 40 CRPF jawans were killed in the February 14 terror attack in Pulwama, which was claimed by the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed.
They belong to the Anantnag constituency where polls were held in an unprecedented three phases. Nobody came to vote in 65 polling booths in this constituency according to a report. The turnout was 8.76 per cent, a significant fall from the 28.54 per cent recorded during the 2014 Lok Sabha election.
According to the media reports voter turnout in as many as 90 polling stations in Srinagar Parliamentary constituency was zero. In Baramulla Lok Sabha constituency no votes were polled at 17 polling stations.
While militancy and security played a part, residents of the Valley’s three parliamentary constituencies of Anantnag, Baramulla and Srinagar also showed little enthusiasm for the electoral process. These three seats cumulatively registered a voter turnout of just 19%.
The individual turnout was the worst in Anantnag, where 8.79% of voters came out to exercise their franchise, followed by Srinagar at 14%. At 34%, Baramulla saw a relatively better turnout.
The Valley, embroiled in violence for over three decades, has historically seen low voter turnouts. Over the last five general elections from 1998 to 2014, the turnout in Anantnag has remained below 30%. In 1999 and 2004, it was below 15%.
Unlike the Kashmir Valley, voters in the Jammu region participated in the polls enthusiastically. Turnout in Udhampur constituency in Jammu was 70.19%, higher than even the national turnout so far.
Source: Hindustan Times
Violence mars voting process
Voting turnout figures for the regions which have gone to poll till now suggest that this could be the least participative election in the Kashmir valley since 2002. The continuous bloodshed the state has witnessed has disillusioned the residents.
According to data compiled by the Jammu & Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), a human-rights organisation working in the state, incidents of violence have seen a consistent rise since a low in 2012, with 2018 being the bloodiest year in a decade, News18 reported.
“Last year’s violence resulted in the death of 159 security personnel and 160 civilians. As many as 267 militants were also killed in encounters with the security forces during the year. Of the 160 civilians killed in 2018, 123 deaths were reported from the districts of Kulgam, Anantnag, Pulwama, Shopian, Srinagar, Ganderbal, Budgam, Baramulla, Bandipora, and Kupwara — all these districts come under the Lok Sabha constituencies of Anantnag, Baramulla, and Srinagar,” the report said.
At least 57 killings have taken place in the state as of May 4, according to data from the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), a Delhi-based think-tank on conflict zones. In these 57 incidents, 14 civilians and 59 security personnel lost their lives while 75 militants were killed over the same period. These figures include the fatalities in the Pulwama attack, the report said.
When a day in the life of a Kashmiri is going for one funeral after another, how does visiting the polling booth factor in? What happens when the polling booth itself is bombed?
There were concerns over security that prompted the Election Commission to spread out the voting in Anantnag across three phases. A grenade attack took place at a polling booth in Rohmoo in Pulwama and an explosion at a polling station in Tral area. There were no casualties in either incident. There were also reports of a petrol bomb thrown at a polling booth set up in a school in Shopian. The tense atmosphere found reflection in 320 of the 1,250 booths set up across Pulwama and Shopian that recorded zero per cent polling.
Nobody from the village of Burhan Wani, the poster boy of terror group Hizbul Mujahideen, voted on Monday. Zero polling was witnessed from the villages of other top militant commanders in south Kashmir, the hotbed of militancy in the valley.
The voter turnout reflects the battle of narratives in the constituency. Several separatist leaders had called for a boycott of the polls, while political parties and the Election Commission had appealed to people to vote in large numbers.
Why aren’t Kashmiri’s voting?
Deccan Herald reported that it is the disillusionment with democratic processes and institutions that is keeping Kashmiri voters from exercising their franchise. “Rage with the Indian State has surged dangerously in recent years as the Narendra Modi government has leaned heavily on the use of coercive force to quell the unrest in the Valley. After the PDP joined hands with the BJP to form the government in Jammu and Kashmir in 2015, disillusionment with electoral politics and politicians deepened. It is now manifesting itself in voter apathy. Kashmiri voters see little to be gained from participating in elections. Fear of militant reprisals, too, is keeping large numbers of registered voters at home,” the report said.
People’s Democratic Party (PDP), said that the entire process of polling had been made tedious and unfriendly, thereby discouraging voters from making the effort to come out to vote.
National Conference provincial president and former minister Nasir Aslam Wani said in a report by The New Indian Express that mainstream politics “is becoming irrelevant” and blamed the BJP-PDP alliance. “It demonised mainstream parties. There was a loss of confidence in the political system because of the 2016 unrest and the continuous targeting of Articles 370 and 35A, which grant special status and special privileges to the state.”
“Cluster policing is happening around polling stations in the name of security and polling stations are being set up at a distance from a village and there are police personnel who are guarding it. So, the villagers have to walk about five kilometres to get to the polling station. A voter in Jammu and Kashmir needs the motivation to come out and vote. By making it difficult, they will not be encouraged to vote," said senior PDP leader Naeem Akhtar in a report by Livemint.
Khalid Isaac, a journalist from Kashmir, wrote in Greater Kashmir that politicians, whom people in Kashmir have voted for during all these years, have failed to live up to the expectations of the masses for many reasons. “Everyone wants to know what politicians have done for them at least during the past three decades? How come these leaders, who all along have claimed to represent the people, have amassed so much of wealth which is disproportionate to their sources of income,” he wrote.
He added that politicians cannot blame New Delhi for the low polling percentage. “It’s their “collective failure” and they should own the responsibility for it. Had the politicians remained in touch with the common people today situation in Kashmir would have been different. Prior to the 2019 elections, people in large numbers used to come out to vote and choose their representatives. They used to defy boycott calls and militant threats to exercise their franchise. But this time around they stayed away from polling booths despite separatists failing to enforce the boycott call due to the stern measures taken by the government. Nor were the militants allowed to threaten the people or disrupt the polling anywhere. Despite government creating conducive atmosphere politicians couldn’t do much to pull people out of their homes on the polling days,” he added.
Shaky grounds for valley politicians
The very low voter turnout in Kashmir has brought Mehbooba Mufti (PDP), Omar Abdullah (NC) and others at loggerheads. Omar Abdullah and others are holding the PDP and the BJP responsible for the prevailing situation in Kashmir and are claiming that people have lost interest in elections due to misgovernance.
On the other hand, Mehbooba Mufti is reminding Dr Farooq and Omar Abdullah that Kashmir witnessed low voter turnout in the 1996 Lok Sabha and Assembly elections and at the same time she is alleging that the low voter turnout in Anantnag constituency was a “conspiracy against her.” The new entrants are tearing into Farooq Abdullah and holding the Abdullahs and Muftis squarely responsible for the prevailing volatile situation in the Valley.
Polling in Mufti's home turf of Bijbehara Assembly segment, which took place earlier on April 23, offered another indication of voter apathy towards politicians of all parties. During the third phase of the election, 40 booths in Bijbehara recorded zero per cent voting.
The sharp decline in voter turnout figures in the Kashmir valley is a big setback for the gradual gains made in terms of making elections participative. This becomes all the more important as Jammu and Kashmir assembly elections are also waiting to be conducted. Many are calling this low voter turnout a referendum by itself.
Ashok Swain, professor of peace and conflict research at Uppsala University, Sweden, said that the Doval Doctrine has become counter-productive in Kashmir.
"The so-called strong-arm strategy has never worked, is not working, and will never work. They only make their core Hindutva support base happy, but India is losing Kashmir in a big way. This is a typical hard line Israeli strategy that the Modi government is following and it is nothing but self defeating,” he added in a report by Firstpost.
NC Spokesperson Imran Nabi Dar in the report said that given the volatile situation in the Valley, going to the public for votes has been a humongous task in the ongoing Lok Sabha polls. "The last five years have seen large scale resentment against arrests, cordon and search operations (CASO), killings and a huge increase in militancy,” he said.
Party workers themselves didn’t turn out for voting. “Low voter turnout in Kashmir so far in the parliamentary elections has triggered concern among political parties, as a large chunk of their workers have also not come out to vote,” Economic Times reported.
The sentiment of the parties was also shared by security agencies, which have prepared an internal note on the “causes of the low voter turnout” and “alienation within the cadre of the mainstream political parties,” the report said.
“National Conference workers came out to vote, but the voter, in general, is disillusioned and dejected with the kind of situation the PDP-BJP government created in the state after 2014,” Nasir Aslam Wani told ET. According to him, the “mainstream politics is limping back to normalcy” but issues like ban on travel on highways and law and order situation were causing voters to stay away.
The case for South Kashmir
South Kashmir has been a real no go zone not only for the political mainstream workers but somehow for the security establishment as well. Such is the uncertainty in the south that no open rally has been addressed by any of the mainstream parties. Almost, all the meetings in the south have been held closed doors and only party workers were present in the closed-door-meetings, Firstpost reported.
South being a PDP stronghold saw only 13.61 per cent turnout in Anantnag Lok Sabha seat which went to polls on 23 April.
In Pulwama town, PDP spokesperson Waheed ur-Rahman Para talked to The Wire that the government is no longer trying to encourage voters in south Kashmir but to demoralise them. In an edited testimony, he said that an encounter just three days before the election was meant to kill the democratic process.
“Yesterday’s funeral [of Lateef ‘Tiger’] – these funerals are now the political events of south Kashmir. Ten thousand people arrive spontaneously, without an invitation. This is the crowd we should be seeing at political rallies. Those 10,000 people are voters – but who among them is going to vote?” he said in the testimony.
“Their sentiments are on the boil, because for the first time, the government became more interested in anti-militant operations as elections got closer. Otherwise, if you want a smooth election, you don’t mobilise 10,000 people against participating. Automatically, an encounter is an anti-election event. It is a design to kill the democratic process,” he said.
“Each of the 7,000 people at yesterday’s funeral [in Dongarpora, Pulwama] will stop their families from coming out. And the district where the operation happened [Shopian] will do the same. We cannot ask for a celebration amid their mourning,” he added.
As DH reported, India has long held up the participation of Kashmiri voters in the democratic process as proof of their support for, and desire to stay with, India. That evidence is weakening.