8 dead, 6.5% turnout in Srinagar poll: Did pellet trump ballot in Kashmir?
When polling began at the Srinagar parliamentary constituency on Sunday, one expected to see long queues outside polling stations, if not in urban areas, then certainly in the outlying areas.
People cynically joked about it: Every extended Azadi unrest with its mortifying loss of lives and blindings is followed by an overwhelming participation in elections. This had happened following the violent unrests of 2008 and 2010, which led to a loss of around 180 lives between them.
More than 60 percent people had voted in the Assembly election following 2008 ferment and around 80 percent had exercised their franchise in the Panchayat poll after the 2010 turmoil.
But not this time. As the polling ended on Sunday, just 6.5 percent of the electorate had cast their votes, the lowest in three decades of turmoil. What is more, eight people lost their lives resisting the election, the highest toll ever in the state on a polling day in a single constituency.
All these deaths took place as the security personnel at the polling booths tried to fend off the advancing mobs of protesters. Two civilians were killed at Charar-e-Sharif, two at Chadoora, one each at Rathsun village, Kawoosa, Beerwah and Baroosa during massive clashes near polling stations. Around twenty youth were hit by pellets at village Soibugh.
At Galwanpora again a Budgam village, protesters took round a dozen CRPF personnel hostage inside a state-run school where the polling booth was located. The polling staff was asked to leave. The personnel were rescued after five hours of captivity.
The reports of clashes between the protesters and security forces poured in from all around. In Srinagar city, groups of youth kept watch at the people who ventured out to vote, sending them back after shaming them “for the betrayal of Kashmir cause”.
“How can these shameless people vote after the killings and blindings last year,” said a gangling youth at downtown Nowhatta with a stick in hand. “Youth lay down their lives for Azadi and they sell it off”.
One youth Abid Ahmad, was critically injured after being hit by a bullet during protests in the area.
People also protested outside Soura polling, another Srinagar city constituency.
The protesters also locked down polling stations at Beerwah, Kolhama, Daharmuna, Soibugh, Paymus, Sozeith and many other villages. Unafraid, the mobs of youth attacked the booths with stones forcing the security personnel and polling staff to escape.
“We expected people in far-flung areas to vote. Even that hasn’t happened,” said a senior police officer. “The youth have ensured that only fewer people end up voting”.
However, columnist Naseer Ahmad says that the anti-election protests were only to be expected.
“At a time when you can’t conduct an encounter with militants without having protesters breathing down your neck, holding a poll was going to be a very very tricky exercise,” Ahmad said. “And this is what has happened. An unprepared government has resorted to killings”.
Eight more civilian killings, following the three recent killings at an encounter in Chadoora, have brought Kashmir on the brink of yet another turmoil. And that too just at a time the Valley was looking forward to a new tourist season after losing the last year to the unrest following the killing of militant commander Burhan Wani.
April is the month when the temperature in Valley starts rising following almost five months of cold climate. Peace, therefore, is critical to attract and sustain the tourist season in the six warm months ahead. Now uncertainty reigns supreme once again.
Hurriyat has already called for shutdown on Monday and Tuesday. On Wednesday, there is already a hartal in view of the voting for the Anantnag parliamentary bypoll in South Kashmir. The seat had fallen vacant after its occupant, Mehbooba Mufti moved back to the Valley to take over as Chief Minister following her father Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s death in January last year.
Similarly, the Srinagar seat fell vacant following the resignation of Tariq Hameed Karra during the unrest last year.
Now with the Srinagar bypoll being marred by the killings and a dismal turnout, the signs aren't good for the Anantnag by-election. In recent years, South Kashmir has emerged as the hub of the Valley’s resurgent separatism. The area was also at the forefront of the unrest last year. Two-third of the killings and blindings in the six-month turmoil took place in the South Kashmir districts of Kulgam, Shopian, Pulwama and Anantnag. What is more, the trend of massive militant funerals followed by the attempts to disrupt encounter sites originated from the South.
On the contrary, central Kashmir’s Budgam district where seven of today’s eight killings took place has been Valley’s zero-militancy area over past around 15 years. Besides, the district has been one of the calmest in years. However, these areas also didn't remain untouched last year's protests.
This has raised a big question mark over the by-poll in Anantnag.
“If Budgam can be so violent on a polling day, what about the South Kashmir,” asks Ahmad who foresees the situation taking a turn for worse if the government doesn’t stop killing civilians. “It is time the governments in the state and centre recognise that they can’t kill their way of the deepening quagmire in Kashmir”.