Srinagar, India-administered Kashmir – Four politicians dressed in crisp white khadi tunics and caps hold ballot boxes with the words “vote for me” – but they have only one shadow, a towering gun-toting soldier with a malicious smile.
“This is why Kashmiris don’t vote,” said Mir Suhail, 24, a political cartoonist, who created the image to sum up the mood of detachment towards the ongoing parliamentary elections in India-administered Kashmir.
Suhail said his memories are punctuated with gory images of rifles, blood, barbed wire and army boots. “People are in a limbo. Elections don’t change anything,” he declared, sipping tea along the Jhelum River.
His cartoons reflect the sour temper in the region, which has been claimed by both India and Pakistan since 1947. He painted the ballot box as an army boot with a lock; another image shows a giant hen labouring hard, only to deliver a tiny egg with the word “turnout”.
So far, the election turnout has been low, while some areas such as Soyimoh and Bhatgund in south Kashmir have even recorded zero turnout.
Unlike other states in India that are gripped with election fever, streets here remain devoid of large gatherings, posters and graffiti, and political rallies attract few people. Voter apathy is palpable, and calls for boycotting the election are common. “Why vote?” and “who is worth electing?” are recurring questions for many.
Poll boycott threat
Voting is being conducted in five phases in India-administered Kashmir, which will send six members to the 543-seat parliament. Three female and more than 70 male candidates are in the fray in the disputed region of 12.5 million people.
Are we allowed to vote on our own collective future, about the army outside every house against our will? It is like being put in prison and asked to choose only the path that leads there.
One reason for the low turnout has been threats by rebels – who are fighting Indian soldiers for independence or for merging the territory with neighbouring Pakistan – to stay away from polling stations. Anti-India demonstrations and violent clashes in Kashmir valley are other factors.
“We have learnt the lessons from the attacks in southern Kashmir and have tightened security, so people can vote safely,” said Abdul Gani Mir, inspector general of police in Kashmir.
A polling officer was killed on April 24 in Shopian district, while two soldiers and three rebels were killed in a gun battle after a polling threat in Manloo village. Only 28 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the Anantnag constituency, which is home to an electorate of 1.3 million.
Despite the threats, some people such as Aijaz Ahmed said they would vote anyway. “If you want change or solution, you have to vote, select your leaders. If you sit at home, you should not complain,” he said.
But for many youth who have shunned the polls, the demand for a solution of the Kashmir issue trumps development. To them, issues like the hanging of former rebel Afzal Guru; Article 370, which gives special status to the region; and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, a controversial law that grants broad powers to soldiers, are more crucial than pocketbook issues like inflation.
“Are we allowed to vote on our own collective future, about the army outside every house against our will? It is like being put in prison and asked to choose only the path that leads there,” said Mahum Shabir, a 26-year-old crafts entrepreneur.
She was amused that Narendra Modi, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate, has made the economy the buzzword for this election – wondering how it could be an antidote for communalism or a panacea for conflict in Kashmir.
She said there is no “Modi wave” in Kashmir, referring to the term as propaganda, not media hype. “Previously clothed hatred is now expressed openly and with pride in mainstream politics. Modi won’t come to Kashmir for campaigning. He won’t find any support here,” she added.
The clamour for boycotting the polls has been rising as Srinagar, the regional capital, prepares to go to the polls on April 30.
Pro-independence and pro-plebiscite parties such as the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) and both factions of the Hurriyat Conference have issued sermons, speeches, pamphlets, posters, and have launched door-to-door campaigns against the holding of elections.
United Jihad Council (UJC), an amalgam of more than a dozen rebel groups based in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, has also supported the boycott.
Syed Ali Geelani, chairman of the Huriyat Conference (G), told Al Jazeera: “I am relieved that people have listened to our appeal and very few voted in southern Kashmir.” Geelani, 83, has spent most of his time under house arrest for the past four years. “Emissaries of Modi visited me, asking me to talk with him directly or indirectly to get a commitment from him on the Kashmir issue, but I refused to speak to a man who killed 3,000 Muslims in Gujarat,” he said.
Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, chairman of the Hurriyat Conference and chief cleric of Kashmir, said he rejects the polls. “Election is the soul of any democratic process, but in a place where basic human and religious rights are trampled by the boots of the 650,000 occupational forces, it is a complete irrelevant process.”
Farooq is critical of the current Congress-led government but hails the BJP, especially former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. “That was the only time when we saw some sort of out-of-the-box approach in solving Kashmir problem,” he told Al Jazeera.
However, the National Conference, which runs the regional government, said it aims to counter voter apathy by advocating “reintegration with the mainstream”. “There is an undeniable level of isolation, somewhere at the ground, and an economic package or a good government cannot take care of that,” said Junaid Matoo, a spokesperson for the party.
Pro-independence groups often accuse pro-India parties of seeking votes by linking the resolution of the Kashmir dispute to elections.
But Nayeem Akhtar, leader of the pro-India Peoples Democratic Party, argues that elections are a way of carving out a path to solve the Kashmir issue. “There is a strong sentiment towards poll boycott, but it is not strong enough to keep everybody away, because there are lots of people who can segregate the elections from the overall Kashmir problem.”
Lack of development
About 18 kilometres away from Srinagar is Ganderbal, the constituency of Chief Minister Omar Abdullah. The road to Ganderbal is dotted with people working in mustard fields. Big houses are under construction, with snow-capped mountains in the distance.
“This used to be the bastion of the Abdullahs, but now their demigod status has started eroding,” said Rouf Amar Dagha while eating breakfast at the centre of the town, adding that complaints about lack of development and high unemployment have been piling up.
Further ahead, at Kachan village, Rafiqa Begum lamented the failures of the ruling state government. “The Abdullahs come only during elections,” she claimed. Begum added that her son, though a graduate, is jobless – and that there are no skills training programmes or handicrafts centres for women.
In Tulla Mulla, which has traditionally seen high voter turnout, a group of men sat in front of the Khir Bhawani Mandir, a tourist attraction, and argued about politics. Habibullah, who refused to give his full name, said, “Only Islamic rule can solve Kashmir’s problem”.
Many here are very excited about the “NOTA” or “none of the above” option, which has for the first time been introduced on voting machines. Bilal Ahmed said NOTA “accurately reflects” the mood in Kashmir.
He added that the Congress party has kept Kashmir’s fate suspended.
Ahmed does not like Modi but he said he would pray that Modi wins. “Aar ya paar, is bar Modi Sarkar [this side or that, this time Modi rule]. At least Modi has the guts to do something, good or bad. We will know what is our fate; this darkness will end.”