October 2002 News

Doda defies terror, 52% vote

8 October 2002
The Asian Age

Doda: Thirteen votes were cast at booth number 4 D at the Town Hall here during the first 15 minutes of polling on Tuesday. At 7.15 am a grenade blast at the main entrance gave everybody a shock. Then came indiscriminate firing from assault rifles. Two fidayeen were attempting to force their way into the polling station. Hearing the blast and gunshots, the polling staff dived to the floor or hid behind the walls. Outside, CRPF and local police personnel took up positions. Two CRPF men had already fallen and two more were injured in the gun battle that ensued. Fifteen minutes later, when the firing had stopped, one militant of the suicide squad was dead. His bullet- riddled corpse lay in a pool of blood on the main road a few yards from the Town Hall’s main gate. His accomplice retreated and quickly disappeared into a nearby alley. Surprisingly, the fidayeen attack failed to dampen the spirit of the electorate. Polling resumed just 45 minutes after the firefight. The six constituencies of Doda district witnessed about 52 per cent polling on Tuesday in the last of the four-phase Jammu and Kashmir Assembly elections. The overall turnout for four phases was 46%. The turnout in Doda was the highest of all four phases. Counting will be taken up on October 10. In Lolab constituency, in the Kashmir Valley’s Kupwara district where polling was put off following the assassination of law minister Mushtaq Ahmed Lone, a significant 44 per cent voted. When this correspondent arrived at the Town Hall at 11 am, 254 of 575 votes had been polled. Presiding officer D.R. Parihar said that when the attack began he ''could not think of anything but how to save my own life.'' He, too, had taken shelter behind a wall. ''Apart from me, there were about a dozen polling staff and polling agents present here at this booth but no voters,'' he said. At 8 am, when polling resumed, he was surprised to see an old man being frisked by a CRPF jawan before entering the polling booth. There were about 10 more voters behind him waiting for their turn. A local policeman, Fareed Ahmed Butt, told me he would have retaliated against the fidayeen attack but was without a weapon. He, however, helped one of his injured colleagues withdraw from the scene before it was too late. As I was leaving the Town Hall, state DGP Ashok Kumar Suri arrived. ''I’m proud of you, my boys,'' he told the security men but added, ''One of the fidayeen has succeeded in fleeing and may again strike.'' Mr Suri asked two young policemen standing in front of him to wear their nameplates. ''Otherwise how can you people make out who is a genuine policeman and who is a terrorist, because they also come out wearing police uniforms,'' he said. A furlong away from the Town Hall, the slain militant‘s corpse lay in the compound of the District Police Lines. Four live hand grenades, an assault rifle with six detached magazines and 150 rounds, a (shaving) blade, Rs 400 in Indian currency and a note in Urdu written on the mujahideen Lashkar-e- Tayyaba letterhead found on him were on display there. The note talked about the ''farce'' of elections being held in Jammu and Kashmir to ''strengthen Indian imperialistic rule in the state'' and to ''hoodwink the international community.'' It refers to the ''sacrifices'' of the ''mujahideen'' and the ''atrocities and excesses'' committed by the Indian security forces in their tough campaign to curb the ''freedom struggle.'' It ends by calling minister of state for home Khalid Najeeb Suharwardhy and nine of his supporting activists ''traitors'' and pledging to teach them a lesson. Mr Khalid, however, shrugged off the threat. ''I know we are on their hitlist but it is Allah who is the great protector of all of us,'' he told this correspondent later at his residence. However, Mr Suri agreed that the security cover for the others on the Lashkar letter might have to be beefed up. Earlier, at Kishtwar, the historic township 60 km northeast of Doda town, Congress nominee Gulam Haider Sheikh charged the ruling National Conference with preparing to fly ''goons'' into the hills by a private helicopter to capture booths. There was apparently no truth in his complaint. One saw long queues at each polling station in Kishtwar. At 8.05 am, 76 of 1,855 votes had already been polled at booth number A 5. A CRPF official said he had tightened security at and around polling stations in the area after he heard about the fidayeen attack at Doda. Shops in Kishtwar and other neighbouring townships were shut. A local Jamaat-e-Islami leader, Gulam Nabi Gundana, suggested that this correspondent should visit far-off places like Singpora ''to see with your own eyes how the security forces are coercing the people into voting.'' He insisted that the people of Doda ally themselves with the people of the Kashmir Valley in their struggle. Chaos prevailed at a polling station set up exclusively for women at Kishtwar’s Islamia Feridiya Educational and Research Institute as each one of 50 to 60 voters struggled to enter the room and exercise her franchise. The policewomen had a tough time dealing with the crowd. However, the scene was different at a nearby polling station for men where 123 of 1,820 votes had been cast by 9 am and the people standing in queues outside seemed orderly. Driving back to Doda, this correspondent found moderate polling underway at each of nine polling stations visited. A young voter at Thathri said that if the nomadic Gujjar voters used their brains nobody could stop BJP nominee Salamuddin, a Gujjar, from winning the Inderwal seat. Otherwise, the Congress’s Gulam Mohammed is pitted against Salamuddin and seven others. There were no Gujjar voters at the main polling station in Thathri township, a place widely affected by militant violence in the past few years. Back in Doda town, I wanted to go into the localities to learn the views of the residents on elections and related issues. But a middle-aged man said, ''It’s better you avoid these alleys.'' I could smell the danger and agreed to return. At suburb Ghat, brisk polling was underway although some residents complained of election aberrations and wrongdoing and held presiding officer Hemraj responsible. A young attorney, Aasim Hashmi, was watching the activity from a distance. Asked if he had voted, or would vote, Aasim pointed to the ''martyrs’ cemetery''. ''Look at the graves of these 13 young men who laid down their lives for a cause. And all of them were educated and came from well-off families,'' he said and added that he could not betray the blood shed in and outside Doda. His neighbours, apparently, did not agree. More than half of the 1,400-plus Ghat electorate exercised their franchise, official statistics said.


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