After Srinagar by-polls proved costly in terms of human loss and manifestation of anger the question remains what will happen in south on May 25. Aakash Hassan tries to find out
Saleem felt relaxed the moment he stepped out of plane at the Srinagar airport. Back after spending seven months in Delhi, Saleem began cherishing the fresh spring air as his cab travelled through saffron fields of Pampore town.
This 25-year-old Islamabad resident is a well settled handicrafts business man in India’s capital.
Once home, Saleem relished his favorite nun-chai when suddenly his younger brother came in and said, ‘police is in our lawn’.
As Saleem and his mother came out an elderly policeman began enquiring about him. He told Saleem to come to the police station with them.
Everyone was puzzled including Saleem who was put behind bars without informing him the reason.
It was only after hours of his detention that police told his father that you son has posted some “wrong stuff on the internet.”
He was arrested for uploading messages on internet calling for the boycott of elections. He was released next day after his father managed a call from a minister to the SHO.
After his release Saleem’s house was frequented by villages and sympathizers.
“I was surprised to see such a response from people,” said Saleem. “Earlier when police would arrest someone of my age people would distance themselves from such a person. But now trend has changed.”
People not only stood by Saleem but also encouraged him for taking a “bold step.” Saleem attributes this change of approach to the changed situation in southern part of valley.
Settled in Delhi since last four years Saleem visits home once or twice a year. His annual visits have, however, enabled him to feel the changes on ground like an outsider.
“I accept NC made some mistakes but what PDP did is unforgiveable.”
In 2014, Saleem’s village saw almost 60 per cent voter turnout, but when he came home two months after Burhan Wani’s death, he saw his village completely changed.
Saleem realized youngsters of his village now talk about Aazadi while chatting with each other on the shop fronts.
This changed Saleem too who was otherwise interested in his business and not in finding the political situation of Kashmir.
“When I saw huge pro-freedom rallies organized almost every other day, it aroused in me sentiments,” he says.
On April 9, the polling day for Srinagar parliamentary seat, everyone in his village was glued to their television screens. “Everyone was feeling restless,” recalls Saleem.
In fact, Saleem and his friends held special prayers in the morning so that voting percentage remains low.
When news of almost negligible polling reached Saleem’s village, everybody was smiling. But soon smiles turned into sorrows when CRPF personnels shot dead a 12-year-old boy in Dalwan village.
As hours passed news of more killings began reaching people in southern parts of the valley. Instantly, roads and otherwise busy marketplaces wore desolate look.
Eight civilian killings in otherwise ‘peaceful’ Budgam district of Kashmir made political workers restive in entire south Kashmir. And why not, Islamabad was scheduled to go for polls two days later.
As anger overtook frustration Fayyaz Ahmad, a PDP worker since past six years and chief polling agent of his area, decided to boycott polls.
“I couldn’t control my emotions after I watched news,” said Fayyaz, who threw TV remote in anger. “After all it pains us all equally whenever a civilian is killed.”
As day ended with eight killings and hundreds injured in Budgam, the first line of voters and political activists were skeptical about their future.
“I received more than fifty calls from our polling agents who were asking for security,” said in-charge of a party for Kulgam district. “What happened in Budgam, set a precedence for already tense south Kashmir.”
The situation in southern part of valley was already tense after 2016 mass uprising in valley, triggered by the killing of Burhan Muzaffar Wani. No political party was able to hold any big rally or was able to move inside the villages for campaigning.
“Wounds of 2016 are yet to heal,” says Abdul Majeed Larmi, National Conference MLA from Homeshalibugh constituency of Kulgam. Representing one of the worst hit militancy areas Larmi says that “if the situation continues to be like this my conscious will not allow me to contest next elections.”
Larmi says that what happened in Budgam is because of Kashmir’s disputed nature.
“Kashmiris are looking for alternatives all along. Perhaps that is why they shuffle between NC and PDP,” said Larmi.
“I accept NC made some mistakes but what PDP did is unforgiveable.”
Larmi feels what happened in Budgam has set precedence for future elections in Kashmir.
In Saleem’s village, a day after bloody elections in Srinagar, boys went door-to-door to collect Rs 100 from each household.
This was done for a peculiar reason—to reward the person who will cast his vote first.
There were apprehensions that southern Kashmir would witness very less poll percentage. However, a few analysts believed that some far-flung pockets in south would vote.
“The boycott word looked impractical on the ground till Budgam proved everyone wrong,” said an Islamabad based journalist.
But to everyone’s relief the election commission postponed Islamabad polls till May 25.
“It would have been a bloodshed in Islamabad had polls not been postponed,” said Riyaz, a political activist who was locked inside his room by his wife. “She feared even my presence in the streets will anger youth.”
But one question that nobody is able to answer so far is what will happen on May 25?
“It will be impossible to conduct polls,” said Altaf Kaloo, National Conference MLA from Pahalgam constituency.
Kaloo’s constituency is among areas where medium turnout was expected. “But now I don’t think people really want to engage with election system.”
A Srinagar based journalist fears ‘if the anger is not addressed quickly, Kashmir will soon witness home grown suicide bombers’.
“In 2016 unrest not a single village in southern Kashmir remained immune to state sponsored violence. There are pellet blinds in every corner of the valley. How can anyone expect these people will vote,” said the journo. “In fact the anger has manifested because of arrests and raids.”
As space for youngsters is shrinking and they are continuously harassed by the government forces, joining militancy seems only safe exit, feels another Srinagar based journalist.
“When a picture of a local boy holding an AK47 goes viral on social media, it leaves an impact on his immediate friends and acquaintances,” said the journo. “That is why these people are ready to risk their lives while attempting to save militants in an encounter.”
Kaloo believes it will take at least two years of continuous engagement with youth to create an atmosphere for election in Kashmir. “But Delhi is adding fuel to the fire by bringing up issues like Babri Masjid, beef and Muslim identity,” feels Kaloo. “Besides, people feel cheated by the PDP as they helped a communal party like BJP to enter Kashmir.”
However, Rao Farman Ali, who has authored books on Kashmir issue, feels that one has to go back to 2010 and 2016 to understand current situation. “The youngsters who led 2008 agitation were third generation of Kashmiris since 1947. At that time the fourth generation (between 12-16 years) were observing and learning.”
Rao believes that killing of more than 120 youth especially children in 2010 worsened the situation and further alienated people. “Absence of structural youth outreach policy made situation bad to worse.”
The changed situation on the ground has left ruling party sleepless.
Aijaz Mir, PDP legislator from Wachi area of Shopian, believes that the situation on ground is indeed alarming.
“We have to start engagements on ground,” says Mir. “However I am confident that by-polls in Islamabad will be peacefully on May 25.”
However, people who are in the knowhow of the situation feel otherwise. “It is not possible that the situation will change in just one month,” says a prominent businessman from south Kashmir. “If situations turn bad it will directly affect the tourism sector which is already suffering huge losses.”
Even NC’s Larmi feels conducting election on May 25, is both suicidal and impractical.
Rao believes that for peace, “administrative wrinkles in police department need to be removed or fasten by discouraging rowdy elements.”
Also, “peace in Kashmir should not be construed as surrender which Delhi is accustomed to.”
For people like Saleem and Fayyaz, as of now nothing seems to be changing on the ground. “The way government is using iron hand to deal with unarmed protestors, I am sure worst days are ahead of us,” said a journalist.
Director General of the police, SP Vaid while commenting on the situation in south Kashmir said, “I wish peace prevails and Halaat (situation) remain fine.”
“Taking in view the current situation, we were apprehensive of the by-polls in south Kashmir. It is certainly going to be challenging.”