Kashmir’s low voter turnout signals anti-India mood

A militant call to boycott elections resulted in empty polling booths in Kashmir, a clear warning to Delhi and pro-India political parties in the state that the people want change.

The fifth phase of ongoing Indian parliamentary polls on 6 May saw the enthusiastic participation of electorates across India, barring the disputed northern state of Jammu and Kashmir, which recorded its worst voter attendance in more than two decades.

The dismal electoral involvement is being understood as a sign of “disillusionment” in the Indian political system and a referendum of sorts on Delhi’s iron-fist rule in the restive Himalayan valley.

With more than 80% of people in the Kashmir region boycotting the elections, the valley’s resenting population has indicated that it is no longer interested in India’s idea of “strengthening the democratic process” in the state. This has now set the tone for the upcoming Assembly elections in the state that has been under the direct rule of Delhi for the past year.

The voting process for six parliamentary seats in Jammu and Kashmir was conducted in five phases because of the volatile security situation that prevails in the state. During the five phases of polling, the valley’s three parliamentary constituencies of Anantnag (South Kashmir), Baramulla (North Kashmir) and Srinagar (Central Kashmir) recorded a cumulative voter turnout of merely 19%, the lowest figure since the 1996 elections.

The militant hotbed of Anantnag, where elections were conducted in three phases because of security concerns, registered a turnout of just 8.76%. The Baramulla and Srinagar constituencies saw about 35% and 14%, respectively. The South Kashmir’s Shopian and Pulwama segments registered a mere 2.81% voter turnout, one of the lowest in the state’s electoral history. A low electoral turnout was expected in these districts, which are at the centre of militancy in the region.

On the evening of the polls, three militants, including top commander Muhammad Lateef Dar, known as Lateef “Tiger”, were killed in an encounter in the Shopian district. This heightened anti-India and anti-election sentiment. 

According to Election Commission of India data, as many as 19 Assembly segments in Kashmir saw more than 90% of voters boycotting the polls. Segments with the highest level of boycotting included:

  • Pulwama 99.2%
  • Tral 98.9%
  • Homshalibugh 98.8%
  • Rajpora 98.3%
  • Wachi 98.3%
  • Kulgam 98.2%
  • Bijbehara 97.9%
  • Anantnag 96.5%
  • Shopian 96%
  • Pampore 94.7%

In all, the valley witnessed zero polling in as many as 172 polling stations across the three parliamentary constituencies, with 17 polling stations in Baramulla, 90 in Srinagar and 65 in Anantnag recording no votes.

Sign of disillusionment

Political observers say the indifference of Kashmiri people towards the electoral process is a clear warning for Delhi and pro-India political parties in Kashmir that the people in the Himalayan state want a solution to the impending political dispute, and of their resentment against continued state repression.

“Rage with the Indian state has surged dangerously in recent years as the [Prime Minister] Narendra Modi government has leaned heavily on the use of coercive force to quell the unrest in the valley,” read an editorial with the headline “Kashmir poll turnout worrying” in Indian national daily newspaper the Deccan Herald.

“India has long held up the participation of Kashmiri voters in the democratic process as proof of their support for, and desire to stay with, India. That evidence is weakening,” it said.

High electoral participation in Kashmir has often been cited as “proof” by Delhi’s ruling dispensation and the Indian media as a sign of normalcy and a vote “in favour of India” and against Pakistan. Delhi has constantly maintained that it no longer regards Kashmir as a “dispute”, as the people of the valley have reinforced their faith in the Indian system through active participation in its electoral process.

Former state chief minister and National Conference party vice-president Omar Abdullah pinned the blame for the low voter turnout on Delhi, saying it was a message to all politicians that people do not like opportunistic politics. “There is anger and resentment among the people and that is the reason that there was no voting in some areas,” he said.

Senior Kashmiri politician and Communist Party of India (Marxist) state secretary Mohammad Yousuf Tarigami said the low voter turnout was a prompt for introspection by Delhi. “The muscular and security-oriented policy has added to complexities and ended all political outreach,” said the former state legislator.

Srinagar-based political analyst and professor of international law Dr Sheikh Showkat Hussain echoed Tarigami’s views. He said it was time for Delhi to revisit its “muscular” approach towards Kashmir and that the election boycott was unanimous despite a massive crackdown on separatist leaders, most of whom are incarcerated in jails outside of the state.

“It also points to the growing irrelevance of mainstream [pro-India] political parties in the valley,” said academic and author Siddiq Wahid, adding that the low voter turnout underlined “the complete lack of confidence in the [Indian] system”.

Unabated violence and political turmoil

According to data compiled by valley-based civil rights body the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, the escalation of violence in 2018 left 267 militants, 159 Indian armed personnel and 160 civilians dead, making it the bloodiest year in a decade.

Delhi-based think-tank South Asia Terrorism Portal had registered at least 57 incidents of killing in the state as of 4 May, leading to the deaths of 14 civilians, 59 armed forces personnel and 75 militants.

The security situation has been exceptionally grim, especially in South Kashmir, where the parliamentary seat has been vacant since June 2016. The election commission has failed to conduct bypolls (known as special or by-elections elsewhere) in the constituency on three separate occasions – in April, May and November in 2017 – because of unrest.

Likewise, Srinagar saw a 7% voter turnout for bypolls in 2017, with eight people killed in widespread demonstrations on the day. When repolling was held in 38 booths four days later, only 2% of voters turned up. 

In December 2014, the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly elections saw a good voter turnout of 65% that threw up a complex, fractured result. The Kashmir-centric Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) dominated in the valley while the central ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) dominated the Hindu-majority Jammu region. The PDP, which advocates dialogue with pro-independence and pro-Pakistan groups and campaigned on a human rights agenda, had campaigned for the election with an anti-BJP stance, seeking a political mandate to stop the Modi juggernaut.

However, PDP patron Mufti Mohammad Sayeed went against public sentiment and formed a coalition government in alliance with the BJP, which sought to revoke the special status of Kashmir and completely merge the state with India, and held a Hindu nationalist perspective on Kashmir.

The security situation soon deteriorated in the state, with the public mood turning against the ruling dispensation that launched a massive military crackdown on militants and civilians, leading to clashes that left dozens killed and hundreds in jail.

In July 2016, when Indian forces killed popular rebel Burhan Wani, a 22-year-old Hizbul Mujahideen commander, the security and political situation in the state deteriorated. The killing had the most impact in South Kashmir as Hizbul Mujahideen, the region’s largest militant outfit, drew most of its cadres from the area.

The valley started witnessing greater public participation in the funerals of slain militants, including those of foreign insurgents, with more and more civilians rushing to encounter sites to rescue militants trapped by Indian armed forces.

In 2017, the Indian army launched Operation All-Out, during which it established new security camps and carried out “cordon and search operations” on a daily basis in the villages and towns of the valley. Since then, night raids and arrests have become the norm, intensifying the anti-Delhi sentiment.

In 2018, the BJP quit the ruling coalition in the state, citing a worsening security situation in the valley and claiming that the state government had failed to curb radicalisation or guarantee civilian rights in the volatile territory. Subsequently, India’s federal government in Delhi took direct control of the state.

Symbolism of electoral turnout

Low voter participation marks yet another phase in Kashmir’s violent political history, which may have an immediate bearing on the state’s insurgency and political landscape.

Although the Lok Sabha or lower house elections were relatively free of violence, a different outcome could be expected in the impending Assembly elections, which are likely to be held at the end of this year.

There has been a relentless crackdown on dissenting voices in the valley, with the draconian Public Safety Act increasingly being used to punish those who speak out against the state. The act allows for the preventive detention of people who have not committed any recognised criminal offence.

There is a strong consensus among locals that unabated state violence must stop and a political space for dissenting voices must be allowed. But it will take more than symbolic platitudes and promises to ensure greater participation in the forthcoming elections.

If a higher voter turnout symbolises the “willingness” of people in Kashmir to engage with India’s democratic institutions, the lack thereof signals a rejection of the idea of India.

With pro-India parties such as the National Conference and PDP now discredited, the political wedge between Delhi and Kashmir is at its greatest in recent history. It would take more than symbolic practices to regain trust among the Kashmiri population.

If the ultra-right BJP retains power in Delhi, the outcome may have significant bearing on Kashmir’s future, one in which more and more of the youth may join insurgent groups.

The Modi government’s hawkish approach to Kashmir has only made India’s task to win over the hearts and minds of the people more challenging.

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