Lok Sabha elections: As parts of J&K go to polls, voters say articles 35A, 370 on top of their minds

Lok Sabha elections: As parts of J&K go to polls, voters say articles 35A, 370 on top of their minds

Lok Sabha elections: As parts of J&K go to polls, voters say articles 35A, 370 on top of their minds

Early Thursday morning 60-year-old Ghulam Qadir left home to cast his vote at the polling station in Handwara town, in north Kashmir’s Kupwara district. The road leading to the town was strewn with flags of unionist parties, largely those of the National Conference and the Jammu and Kashmir People’s Conference. Qadir has long been a voter of the National Conference, but this time it was about more than party loyalty. “It was necessary to vote for someone who can protect article 35A,” he said. “All we want is to live freely, and with dignity.”

The Valley’s northern parliamentary seat Baramulla went to the polls today, albeit quietly. The Baramulla parliamentary constituency comprises three districts — Baramulla, Kupwara, and Bandipora — and fifteen Assembly constituencies with more than thirteen lakh voters. It recorded a turnout of 32.41 percent at the close of polling. Thursday’s poll percentage was a significant increase from the dismally low polling  recorded during the 2017 Srinagar bypolls (7.14 percent), the lowest since the eruption of the separatist violence in the late 1980s, when violence led to the deaths of eight civilians in clashes with security forces.

 Lok Sabha elections: As parts of J&K go to polls, voters say articles 35A, 370 on top of their minds

Voters go to polls in Kashmir. PTI

Even as the festivities were largely absent on the first day of polls, so was the fear of trouble that elections bring. This, despite Hizbul Mujahideen commander Riyaz Naikoo warning voters in the Valley not to participate just days before the polls opened. Naikoo reprimanded Kashmiris for participating in both the funerals of jihadists and rallies of unionist politicians, and chanting slogans equating both with lions. “This is either a problem in your eyesight that you see everyone as a lion or there is a problem in your faith that sways with time,” Naikoo said. He further termed every voter a “traitor” and said “we have been at war with them before and will be even now, we will do with them what we have been doing so far.”

Threats from jihadists have been a routine feature of elections in the Valley. Now,  a growing consensus to elect leaders to represent the Valley is being shaped by the victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the local body elections last year, leading to fears of abrogation of the laws granting the state a special status, and "heavy-handed" security measures in the absence of an elected government.

Outside the polling station where Qadir cast his vote, others shared his concern. “Ever since the articles were made a target, people haven’t been able to think clearly,” remarked a resident of the town who did not wish to be named. This local said he has seen the rise and fall of bunkers in Kashmir, a metaphor for the cycle of violence and calm, but has never witnessed an uncertainty has set in “after the PDP joined hands with the BJP”.

The repeated mention of abrogation of the special status laws by the BJP has also made the party’s former partner in the government, the Peoples Democratic Party, suspect in the eyes of many, despite their statements in support of the special status laws. “Mehbooba Mufti did nothing more than save her own chair,” said the resident. “Only the NC can protect it. During the decades of NC rule, there was never a threat to articles 35A or 370.”

The National Conference has become a strong contender in Handwara, considered to be the stronghold of the former separatist turned unionist People's Conference chief Sajad Lone, who is struggling to shake off the baggage of his association with the BJP. Party members, however, are confident of taking the lead in five constituencies owing to a reduced electoral participation.

Additionally, Abdul Rashid, the Valley’s maverick former legislator from Langate constituency, is also in the fray as an Independent candidate. “His candidature has boosted our confidence as we think he is more likely to cut into the NC’s vote and not ours,” claimed a People's Conference worker. In Rashid’s constituency, polling officials sat idle at a  station at the Langate main market area, the classroom turned polling booth was painted with graffiti naming jihadist militants. Polling stations outside the main market area reported greater participation.

At the nearby Madagam village, more than 400 of the around 2,000 voters cast their ballots. Some voted for the People's Conference, others for the NC, and still others for Rashid. Some children pretended to cast their vote, although their demand was real: A ground good enough to play cricket.

Aijaz Ahmad Wani, professor of political science who recently published a book on governance and politics in the Valley, said it would not be surprising if the voter turnout would be at par with previous elections. “The current situation is going to push the public to rethink electoral politics,” he Aijaz said. He added that a “choking situation” would eventually shape a consensus that some form of local governance is needed because at the end of the day, it would be “local parties who are answerable to locals”.

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