Sumbal: While Srinagar – where urban local body (ULB) elections were held on Wednesday in 18 wards – witnessed only 2% voter turnout, 25 kilometres away, hundreds turned up to vote in a village called Inderkoot.
Located in Sumbal region of north Kashmir’s Bandipora district, Inderkoot was filled with voters, and by 3 pm, Bandipora had seen the highest turnout – 32%. The final voter turnout for Sumbal stood at 35%.
While Sopore and Handwara area – also in north Kashmir – saw 5.2% and 3.2% turnout respectively, only 1% of the registered voters went to polling stations in south Kashmir’s Anantnag – a hotbed of militancy.
Back in Inderkoot, people didn’t show much hesitation when coming to vote, their problem, however, started after they had cast their votes.
Several individuals at ward numbers 9, 10 and 11 of Inderkoot village were having an unusual discussing – on how to remove the ink applied by polling agents after they had cast their vote.
“We requested them (polling agents) not to put the ink but they said it was required by law,” said Aijaz Hussain, who works at a honey manufacturing unit in south Kashmir’s Pulwama area.
Hussain’s friend Irfan had similar concerns. “I thought voting was enough, what is the need for applying ink?” Irfan told The Wire.
The reason for this, they said, was the fear that they would be “judged” by others for voting.
“Of course our village did vote and nothing is hidden from anyone here but we also travel to other parts (of Kashmir) and we don’t want to be judged,” added Irfan.
During the conversation, another individual, also a resident of the same village, offered a “solution”. “I have heard formic acid removes the stain,” the individual said, declining to be named. Meanwhile, Hussain intervened, stating, “No, it doesn’t help”.
Similar conversations were taking place between others at the polling station with some suggesting traditional solutions for removing the ink while others proposing putting a Band-Aid to conceal the mark. “No, it will attract attention,” pointed another man.
Zulfikar, who refused to give out his full name, meanwhile seemed to be relaxed. When asked what he plans to do about the ink mark, he responded: “I am not here to vote. I just came to watch the melee.” Zulfikar added that he had decided to boycott the polls.
Finally, Shabir Ahmed Rather, an independent candidate fighting from ward number 9, pacified the voters, saying: “Nothing will happen”.
“Life and death are in the hands of Allah,” he said to the group.
Discussions surrounding the “election meel (ink)” come in the backdrop of a highly politicised local body election which has been marred by multiple controversies ever since its announcement last month.
Last month, Jammu and Kashmir’s two powerful regional parties – the National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party – announced that they would be boycotting the urban local body and panchayat polls. Both parties wanted the BJP-led Central government to make its stand clear on Article 35A, whose validity is being challenged in the Supreme Court.
Subsequently, separatist group Joint Resistance Leadership, supported by the J&K High Court Association, gave a boycott call reiterating their stance on elections, terming them a “farce”. Adding to the political complexities surrounding the ULB, militant group Hizbul Mujahideen also issued a threat to kill anyone participating in the elections. In a statement, operational commander Riyaz Naikoo said those who had decided to vote should “bring their shrouds along” with panchayat poll forms.
While the Valley saw a low turnout in the first phase of ULB polls, the second phase wasn’t that different – barring the exception of Inderkoot, a former bastion of pro-government militia.
While some villagers, speaking to The Wire, said that they were voting for better living conditions in Inderkoot, most of them said they were voting to bring Rather in power. Rather has the image of a good samaritan. He has taken part in social work – such as blood donation drives – and has come to the rescue of civilians whenever they were in need, The Wire was informed by many voters.
Fear of militant reprisals, social boycott and stigma attached to voting, despite boycott calls, has greatly affected the polling exercise.
Inderkoot, however, had become like a picnic spot during the day with children playing around the polling station and some villagers taking pictures of the station. For reporters covering the election, the scenes were somewhat like a treat as most of the polling stations in Srinagar and Budgam wore a deserted look in both phase one and phase two of the ULB polls.
However, after protests by voters asking authorities to remove the cameras, most of the television news channels backed off. A similar pattern where voters have protested over the presence of cameras around the polling station was recently reported by The Wire.
In fact, former chief minister Omar Abdullah had tweeted Tuesday night, “Why are polling booths opening at 6AM? If I believed conspiracy theories I’d believe it’s because journalists won’t be around to verify the genuineness of voters at that very early hour.”
Why are polling booths opening at 6AM? If I believed conspiracy theories I’d believe it’s because journalists won’t be around to verify the genuineness of voters at that very early hour. https://t.co/mLP6n4PJWM
— Omar Abdullah (@OmarAbdullah) October 9, 2018
A senior police officer posted at Inderkoot said, “The people wanted to come early, vote and return back home. Clearly, this did not happen but I am glad everything has gone peacefully so far.”
Shaleen Kabra, chief electoral officer (CEO), J&K, said that overall, 30% polling was witnessed in the second phase of municipal polls across the state today.
Kabra said that in Jammu division, 76% polling was witnessed in 214 wards that went to polls today while Kashmir division witnessed an average 3% polling in 49 wards with Bandipora recording the highest polling percentage of 36.
In Jammu division, highest polling percentage of 84.6% was recorded in Reasi, the CEO said.
He added that the cumulative polling percentage till date is 46.7% with 67.3% voting recorded in Jammu division and 8.34% in Kashmir division in phase one and two.
The CEO said that 544 polling stations were designated across the state for second phase with 270 polling stations in Kashmir division and 274 in Jammu division.
All images by Azaan Javaid.
Azaan Javaid in a Kashmir-based journalist and has previously reported from New Delhi for Hindustan Times, DNA, Deccan Herald, Statesman and Caravan magazine. He has covered Ministry of Home Affairs, Central Bureau of Investigation, National Investigation Agency, Enforcement Directorate and major crimes in North India.