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Kashmir Sikhs torn over poll boycott

A tiny but influential minority in the disputed region is torn between casting votes and supporting Muslim majority.

Last updated: 07 May 2014 13:52
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Key amalgam of Sikhs that wields a considerable influence is boycotting polls [Wasim Khalid / Al Jazeera]

Baramulla, India-administered Kashmir - Sikhs in India-administered Kashmir are struggling to reconcile the urge to use their voting power as a neglected minority in the disputed region with calls by separatists to boycott the polls.

Angry at state and national governments for ignoring their demands, many are torn between casting their ballots and supporting their neighbours in the Muslim majority region by refusing to vote.

While many Sikhs have adopted a strategy of "wait and see", anger towards India's ruling alliance is reflected in widespread sympathy for opposition candidates.

"How can we go against aspirations of our Muslims brothers? We are one," said Janak Singh Sodhi, chairman of the Gurudwara Prabandhak (Management) Committee – a representative body of Sikhs in north Kashmir.

"We [Sikhs] will vote only if the majority community comes out to vote. If they don't, we won't either."

Conflicting positions

Baldev Singh, 55, sits on a stool outside his chicken shop skimming through an Urdu newspaper as he basks in the spring sunshine at Singhpora village in Baramulla district, north of Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian-administered Kashmir.

He points towards a headline that screams out allegations by the restive region’s chief minister Omar Abdullah against the head of the main opposition People's Democratic Party (PDP).

Baldev Singh can't decide whether to vote [Wasim Khalid / Al Jazeera]

"This time parliamentary elections are being fought in newspapers," Singh says.

He scans a headline about students involved in the local boycott movement that reads: "More than 200 youth and resistance activists arrested".

These conflicting positions confuse potential Sikh voters such as Baldev Singh about whether to cast their ballot in Baramullah where polls are under way.

"This has left me indecisive regarding whether to vote or not," he said.

While making up just 2 percent of the 10 million people within India-administered Kashmir - disputed between India and Pakistan since 1947 - Sikhs form the largest minority community in Kashmir valley, its most contested area.

Over a dozen armed rebel groups seeking independence or a merger of the Himalayan territory with neighbouring Pakistan are fighting a war against half a million Indian soldiers.

Sikhs remain the silent minority - tracing their local heritage to the 16th century when the founder of their religion, Guru Nanak Dev Singh, travelled to Kashmir on a divine journey - and although their votes will have a limited impact, they are significant enough to lure rival candidates.

 

'Wait and see'

More than 1,200 potential voters live in the picturesque village of Singhpora overlooking the Pir Panjal mountains, the largest Sikh community in Baramulla, which is lined by army barracks.

Tara Singh, 61, a retired political science teacher, is busy spraying apple trees with pesticide. "Sikhs are a microscopic minority in Kashmir - but our vote matters," he told Al Jazeera.

"The majority community this time seems to be boycotting polls. But I intend to go and cast my ballot. I would vote for PDP this time."

We can't go against the aspirations of the majority community

Jagmohan Singh Raina, Chairman All Parties Sikh Co-ordination Committee

He points out that Sikhs have lived in harmony with Muslims for centuries.

Others who spoke to Al Jazeera said that they felt caught between voting and calls to boycott the vote, and many Sikhs appear have adopted a strategy of "wait and see".

Sitting in his small office in a Gurdwara in Baramulla town, Janak Singh Sodhi - a former member of the National Conference party - insists Sikhs have not been intimidated by rebel groups or pro-independence political parties.

"We are not under pressure as far as casting vote is concerned," he said. "We are doing it out of our own relations with the majority community."

The Sikhs here maintain that rebel groups never harmed them throughout the most violent years of the Kashmir dispute.

"Sikhs and Muslims have come out together to stand on frozen grounds in the winter chill when the army would lay siege of areas in search for militants," Sodhi said.

"We have received beatings as well. We have suffered equally as they have. But we never left our homes.

Sodhi added, "If they [Muslims] decided to vote, they [Sikhs] will vote for the PDP.

"For the past 50 years, Sikhs have voted for the ruling National Conference. But the party has discriminated against us on many levels."

'Kashmir is home' 

In the past, Sikhs in Kashmir have received threatening letters, although it is likely that pro-independence groups in the region would protect this minority.

Mohan Singh Shant, a retired accountant living in Dangwar village, insists he will never leave.

Tara Singh says Sikhs have lived in harmony with Muslims for centuries [Wasim Khalid / Al Jazeera]

"I was born here and I would live and die in my land," Shant said. "It is my home."

Shant said the Sikh community had not received any attention from the government despite now being the biggest minority in the Kashmir valley since the displacement in 1989 of the Kashmiri Pandits, who are Hindus.

Jagmohan Singh Raina, chairman of the All Parties Sikh Co-ordination Committee (APCC), a coalition of Sikh groups, told Al Jazeera that the community is boycotting the vote for two main reasons.

"One is that the present Congress-NC coalition government has neglected our demands," said Raina. "The other is separatist leader Syed Ali Geelani's call for boycott. We can't go against the aspirations of the majority community."

Along with the rest of my community, I have rejected this [voting] process since the democratic process in Kashmir has been rendered useless

Nanak Singh, Chittisinghpura massacre survivor

Survivor speaks

Sikhs also claim that various governments have failed to probe the Chittisinghpura massacre of 2000, in which 36 Sikhs were killed by unidentified gunmen in the south of the valley.

Soon afterwards, the Indian army claimed to have killed five rebels responsible for the killings, but the Central Bureau of Investigation concluded that they had been innocent local civilians shot dead in a staged gunfights.

Five senior army officers were later charged.

Nanak Singh, a lone survivor of the massacre, insists that Sikhs should not vote because it is "futile".

"I didn't vote during the elections [on April 24] that were conducted in my constituency," Nanak said.

"Along with the rest of my community, I have rejected this process since the democratic process in Kashmir has been rendered useless."

He said both the ruling NC-Congress alliance and the opposition PDP have done nothing for the community and the government’s unwillingness to investigate the massacre had fuelled misgivings.

"Our community believes the government made Sikhs sacrificial lambs for their own political interests."

 Follow Wasim Khalid on Twitter

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Al Jazeera
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