Srinagar Votes, Stunned Hawk Geelani Admits: Unthinkable

24 December 2008
The Indian Express

Srinagar: Policemen sit idle at the entrance, the gates are open, there are no visitors. This is Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s home, the citadel for Kashmir’s hardline separatists who announced a poll boycott from their rooftops only to see it come crashing down in the long lines outside polling booths across the Valley. In the last phase of polls today, Srinagar, too, has decided to vote. This city was Ground Zero of the anti-poll campaign but it saw a peaceful four-fold increase in turnout: from 5.06% in 2002 to 20% today. This took the overall turnout in the J&K polls to 61.5%, a massive jump from 43% in 2002. No wonder then that inside Geelani’s house, all you can hear is the sound of silence and his stunned disbelief. “Our people have shown a weak resolve and this voting has pushed us far back in our struggle for freedom,” says Geelani. “I had never thought that the people would turn out to vote like this.” He’s wearing his embroidered gown, his signature when he would appear from the top window of the house to pacify thousands of pro-freedom protestors barely weeks ago. Today, that window is shut, its curtains drawn. So surprised is he by the turnout that he even speculates whether non-violence was a factor. “The gun is also an important factor of the (freedom) movement and if this factor falls silent, the movement suffers and it has suffered,” he says. So was the call for a poll boycott a political blunder? “No,” he insists, “we have always asked our people to refrain from participating in elections and they did so in 1996 and 2002. Today, we have to consider the fact that scores of local candidates were made to contest from everywhere in the Valley. Their relatives and neighbours are enough to raise the voter turnout percentage.” But doesn’t that mean the boycott didn’t work? Pushed, Geelani admits: “It (the boycott) is an act which has displayed our immaturity.” After such an honest admission, he leans back and smiles when told about people lining up at polling booths in the city. “The Indian intelligentsia and intellectuals who supported our just cause for self-determination a few months ago have also become irrelevant by this high voter turnout.” The mainstream political parties have also toed a “soft separatist” line to woo voters, he thinks, and people fell to this “dirty trick” that included promises of “self rule” and “autonomy.” Doesn’t the turnout signal a disconnect between the voter and the separatists, including the Hurriyat? “We have a fairly strong base but we cannot be compared with the Hamas or the Hezbollah which is often the case,” Geelani says. “They have an area under control where they do as they wish. They are the Government there but here we are in an even harder struggle where we are stopped from even opening a Baitul-maal (community godown to store goods for charity) in a village”. In short, if the separatist leadership had not been put under arrest, Geelani says, there would have been a poll boycott. But just three months ago, there were massive pro-azadi protests during the Amarnath Yatra agitation, and Geelani was one of the star speakers. And today many of the same people had come out to vote. “Times change and with it the situation changes as well. This situation will also change and people will ask for freedom again,” Geelani says. And then he quotes a verse from the Koran to emphasize that despair is sin and he will never lose hope. “We will continue our struggle tirelessly and people will rise again.” Not far away, a wide lane leads to Hurriyat Chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq’s house guarded by security forces and unending spools of concertina. Only few houses away, a government school is also guarded by vigilant security personnel - this is the Nigeen polling station 83 at Chak-e-Sadrabal. But Mirwaiz’s appeal for poll boycott doesn’t seem to have been heard here. Two short separate queues of men and women are waiting to cast their vote. It is 12 noon and 205 of the 551 registered voters have already cast their votes. Ask them why and you hear the familiar refrain. “We have our own problems. There should be someone to resolve them,” says 22-year-old Afroza Akhter after casting her vote. “Azadi is a truth but there are other problems also. Water and electricity are needed by everyone. Then there remains Azadi and we will fight for it till the end”. As the hours slip by, women in coloured scarves, some of them veiled in black, start to pour in and the line of voters begins to form again. Voter turnout in Phase 7 of election: 55% Total voter turnout in 2008 Assembly polls: 61.5% 7 civilians killed during 2008 Assembly polls (26 were killed in 2002) Poll percentage comparison for Srinagar city Constituency 2008 2002 Hazratbal 26.50 7.12 Zadibal 16.60 4.78 Idgah 13.50 4.75 Khanyaar 16.54 4.22 Habbakadal 11.28 3.21 Amirakadal 13.50 3.06 Sonwar 33.64 9.96 Batamaloo 18.06 4.00