In J&K, An Encore In Second Phase

23 November 2008
The Indian Express

Srinagar: Voters in Jammu and Kashmir carried on from where they had paused last Monday, ignoring the boycott call by separatists and turning out in huge numbers in the six constituencies that went to polls in the second phase today. The Election Commission put the turnout at 64.66 per cent, subject to minor revision as details of polling came in from remote areas. Voter turnouts were up everywhere from 2002 - the increase ranging between 8 per cent and 40 per cent for the six seats. In 2002, the aggregate turnout at these six seats had been 53 per cent. In the bellwether constituency of Ganderbal, where National Conference chief Omar Abdullah is a candidate, 51.24 per cent cast their votes - a substantially higher turnout than the 35.21 per cent of 2002. In Kangan, 59.34 per cent voted, up from the 52.03 per cent last time. A whopping 73 per cent voted in Darhal and Kalakote, 70 per cent in Nowshera, and 67 per cent in Rajouri. In 2002, 27 per cent had voted in Rajouri, 47 per cent in Darhal. At Ganderbal, where a tight security blanket was in place, entire families braved the fog and freezing cold to come out early. At the Bambloora polling station, young women in pherans and colourful scarves waited for the gate of the school building to open. Inside, polling staff scrambled to set up the electronic voting machines. “It is going to be a hectic day,” presiding officer Bashir Ahmad Zargar said. “We have to hurry. Otherwise the crowd will get restive”. Men and women stood in separate snaking queues, as children skipped around. “This election is very important,” said Asmat Khursheed, a B.A. student. “This is my first vote. And I think it is important to choose a candidate who will help solve our problems. We need jobs. We need power. Like everyone else, we have a right to a better life”. For Asmat, who had come with a group of friends, the vote had turned into a girls’ day out. Another girl, Saiqa said she had never seen the entire village gathered at one place before today. “Not even at a wedding,” she said. For Asmat, Saiqa and their friends, the separatists’ boycott call had little meaning. “What boycott? Why will we boycott?” they said. “We listened to them (separatists) and didn’t come to vote earlier. But we gained nothing from that. We are not going to stay home and waste our vote. Boycott means nothing. We need to choose a good candidate, who we know and trust,” said Jozia Ahsan (26), a college student. “Voting is our right and aazadi our dream. They (separatists) know only boycott and marches. They need to think. They need to understand that people are tired of their senseless calls,” she added. It was a sentiment that was echoed by the men’s queue alongside. “This village is not illiterate. We know what is happening around us. We are not against the separatists. But we will not support their foolish decisions,” said Fayaz Ahmad. “We have been suffering for 20 years and what did we get? Nothing. These elections have nothing to do with aazadi.” In Ganderbal clearly, the issue was the rivetting election battle. For Omar Abdullah, defeated at his family seat in 2002, winning is critical. It had been the National Conference’s first defeat at the seat since 1957, and had been accompanied by the party’s ouster from power. At Shalbug village, a group of men argued with policemen at the entrance of the polling booth. “We will not leave till we vote,” said Tariq Ahmad Khanday (28). “Polling staff are saying our names are not in the (voters) list. This is unfair. We live here. Everyone knows us. You can ask the (poll) agents. We don’t want to waste our vote”. Abdul Ahad Khanday (55) complained the army had taken away his voter identity card. “I had gone to Hajin and the army took it from me at a checkpoint. Now I am not being allowed to vote.” Shalbug had been at the forefront of the massive separatist protests that seared the Valley two months ago. A young man from the village, Farooq Ahmad Mir, was badly wounded after a teargas shell hit his knee. Today, his father, Ghulam Mohammad Mir, explained why his entire family had gone to cast their votes. “My son has been in hospital for two months,” he said. “He went through a 14-hour surgery. I spent Rs 2.75 lakh. We still need another Rs 1.5 lakh. My son has become a wreck... But no separatist leader came to me with even a word of sympathy. They are interested only in their calls for strikes and marches. Whether we die or are injured, they give a damn.” At the village chowk, Sajjad Hussain Khanday, a consultant with Asian Development Bank, explained why the educated youth were eager to vote. “We know what this means. We are here to choose between evils and we have decided to vote for the lesser evil. We are voting to choose a friendly administration,” he said. “If we have a say in the local government, it will subsequently help in the resolution of Kashmir’s bigger problem as well”. His neighbour Rizwan-uz-Zaman agreed. “There were heated arguments over whether we should vote. Finally the village decided to vote.” At Rabitar village, the polling booth looked like the site of village fair. At 11 am, security personnel were having a tough time controlling the enthusiasm. Said a bemused CRPF man: “Just what has happened to them? In 1996, we had to bring them out from their homes. Today they are restless to vote.” Like everywhere else, the issues in Rabitar were the day-to-day lives of the people-¿ and the desire to improve their situation. Mubeena said she had walked all the way from Gund Roshan village with her four-year-old daughter, Bilqees to vote. She returned to her parents’ home after her husband died recently. “My husband Mohamamd Yusuf Bhat died in Srinagar. He had gone with the procession,” she says. “I don’t know what that procession was about. I have no idea.” So why was she voting? “Because Omar Abdullah has promised to build a road in our village,” she said. Like elsewhere in the country, in the Valley too, the issues are bijli, sadak, paani.