March 2004 News

Along The LoC, Villagers Will Vote For Peace

27 March 2004
The Hindu

New Delhi: The ceasefire matters more to the residents along the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir than the elections, writes Shujaat Bukhari For the thousands of voters along the Line of Control (LoC), the permanence of the ceasefire between the two armies is of greater significance than the election. For one thing, they have never been against the electoral process, even during the height of militancy; but it is the ceasefire on the LoC that has changed their lives for the first time in 13 years. Many of them were dislocated from their respective villages and lost their close relatives in the continuing skirmishes between India and Pakistan. Five elections could not bring them any relief, but the ceasefire did. Mohammad Hussain, a 58- year-old villager from Silikot wants only one thing: that the ceasefire should continue. 'In the past decade, we lost all interest in life because of the constant threat of shells from across the border,' he says, but adds that after both countries agreed to stop fighting, life is different. 'We can vote freely now.' He claims that the people along the LoC were never against elections and the area did not observe a single strike even as Kashmir witnessed frequent protests. 'We only want peace,' he says. The ceasefire should continue in the larger interest of people and only then can the electoral process ensure prosperity and development, Mukhtar Ahmed, a youth from Garkot says. The elections, residents say, are not irrelevant but the ceasefire is more important for them. So much so, that you can see the visible change in every face here. The hustle and bustle is back and people are busy shopping in the main market. 'We are no longer in the grip of fear,' says Jameela Begum, an elderly woman from Hathlanga village, close to the LoC. In more than 25 villages near the LoC in Uri facing Chakothi in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK), people have a plethora of complaints against the politicians. That is why they are indifferent towards elections. Why do they vote then? 'It is not possible for us to boycott the elections,' explains Bashir Ahmed, a government employee, adding 'we cannot afford to be branded as anti-India.' 'The people here have been living under threat for years but no political leader has bothered to visit them. They only come at the time of elections,' says another villager. It was only the Congress leader Taj Mohiuddin who took the initiative and started visiting them in early 1995. Now a minister in the coalition government, he defeated the long time MLA and National Conference stalwart Mohammad Shafi in the 2002 Assembly elections. But he too faces an anti-incumbency mood ahead of the elections. Citing examples of government apathy, villagers point out how the administration has delayed finalisation of relief in favour of the parents of two young girls who died due to shelling in Sultandaki village in September 2003. The village used to witness shelling from across the border on a daily basis as they (the Pakistanis) used to target the local Army headquarters, but the shells would miss their target and land in the village, residents say. The voter turnout is expected to be high this time, given that the Uri segment has always seen the highest number of voters turning up on polling day. As the people have resumed their normal activities in the fields, the atmosphere is calm and those who had migrated have returned home, the participation in the elections should be high. 'We will vote for strengthening peace,' says Irfan Ahmed, a young man who will vote for the first time in life. Three families have returned from POK and are settled in the Soura village, which witnessed a lot of migration in the early 1990s. Silikot, the village closest to the LoC, has seen its school open. Among the worst affected villages are Silikot, Hathlanga, Udoosa, Gwalta, Isham, Kamalkot and Sultandaki. And the smallest with 99 voters is Azad Bara on Salambad-Uri road. The Uri segment, which forms part of the Baramulla parliamentary constituency, has nearly 60,000 voters and recorded the highest turnout of 70 percent in the last Assembly election. This is likely to increase this time. The LoC residents are clear why they are voting. 'We will vote to strengthen the peace process initiated by Prime Minister A B Vajpayee and Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf'.


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