Poll Boycott, Electoral Loyalty Go Hand In Hand In J&K's Anantnag

24 April 2014
Times of India
Sameer Arshad

Anantnag: 'Where are you going?' a police officer asked before offering an unsolicited advice. 'There is no point going there, everything is closed,' he added, referring to a bandh called in support of separatist election boycott call in south Kashmir's Anantnag constituency, which went to the polls on Thursday. The cop's warning made sense as Pampore town, a little ahead, wore a deserted look. Dozens of soldiers carrying automatic rifles patrolled empty streets. Shops were shuttered and few vehicles plied on the lifeline Jammu-Srinagar highway that passes through the town, famous for its saffron production. Two polling booths were deserted in the town and were awaiting their first voters around noon when a government employee turned out to vote. 'I am a government servant. The government feeds me. I voted due to my loyalty for it,' he said. The voter's response may be unusual, but voting percentage in Kashmir has for years been seen as a measure of legitimacy of the political status quo. As a result, either sides on Kashmir's political divide - separatists and unionists - have been competing to ensure their influence on voting reinforces their position on the state's political future. Poll boycott calls have greater resonance in urban areas like Srinagar and areas contiguous to it like Pampore. The polling percentage was slightly better in Pulwama district's Awantipora, a few kilometres away. There 26 out of 872 voters had been polled till noon. Pulwama, where three people were killed in the run up to Thursday's voting, recorded the lowest turnout among the four districts under Anantnag Lok Sabha constituency with just over six percent voting. Militant presence in the district along with the violence and poll boycott calls are being blamed for the low turnout in Pulwama. The polling percentage appeared to better in the interiors of Anantnag. Dozens of women - young and old - had lined up to vote at Sethar near People's Democratic Party (PDP) leader Mehbooba Mufti's hometown of Bijbehara. Raja Begum, a 70-year-old voter, explained the enthusiasm for voting in Sethar, saying it was their way of repaying the debt of National Conference (NC) leader and chief minister Omar Abdullah's grandfather, Sheikh Abdullah, who passed away three decades back. 'I have food to eat because of Sheikh Sahib. We have been voting for him for generations,' she said referring to his radical land reforms after the independence that gave tillers ownership over land and made the Sheikh messiah of the rural masses. Begum's sentiments seemed to confirm PDP's fears about lesser balloting due to poll boycott. Lower turnout has traditionally helped the NC, which has a dedicated cadre base that votes irrespective of boycott calls. Most towns en route to south Kashmir tourist resort of Pahalgam were deserted due to the bandh call. Mattan seemed to be an exception, where an enthusiastic group of voters chatted outside a polling booth about the secular- communal divide. 'The BJP wants to send Modi critics to Pakistan. We have voted against Modi because of this. We want Hindu-Muslim-Sikh unity,' said Manzoor Ahmad Misgar, a resident of Mattan, where he said the three communities - including 100 Sikh and 60 Kashmiri Pandit families - live in harmony in the area, famous for Martand sun temple. Another Mattan voter, Karnail Singh, echoed Misgar, saying he had voted for secularism. The NC conference has aggressively campaigned in the area about Modi's 'anti-Muslim policies' and PDP's 'secret alliance with the BJP' to corner the PDP on its home turf.