x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

People's hopes for Christmas poll gift

Voter turnout heavy as hardline separatist calls for boycott and public opinion on key issue of independence continues to divide region.

A security man stands guard as voters wait to cast their votes at a polling station in Chanderkot, 140 kilometres north-eat of Jammu, India.
A security man stands guard as voters wait to cast their votes at a polling station in Chanderkot, 140 kilometres north-eat of Jammu, India.

Srinigar // Waiting for Santa Claus will be particularly excruciating for Kashmiris this year. After Wednesday's vote, Kashmir has gone to the polls six times since mid-November, and six times they have turned out impressively. The seventh and final vote - on Christmas Eve here in the state's winter capital - will put a new state government in place, bring an unsettled populace into focus and perhaps put an end to a virulent yet non-violent, pro-freedom movement that seemed to trouble New Delhi more than militancy.

Since a bloody insurgency against Indian rule began in 1989, more than 60,000 have died in this landlocked and predominantly Muslim region of Jammu and Kashmir state. Violence has slowed in recent years as more than half a million Indian troops have imposed New Delhi's will. Yet when blockaded roads threatened local traders during a land row late last summer, hundreds of thousands of Kashmiris thronged the streets in a furious mass catharsis - releasing almost two decades of frustration and rage with chanting, dancing and the crying of pro-freedom slogans.

The central government banned the marches, beefed up security and called for snap elections. Although separatists say voting strengthens New Delhi's hand, turnout in the early phases of polling hit nearly 70 per cent in some districts and has remained high despite daytime curfews, occasional police clashes and ubiquitous checkpoints on polling days. The ground has shifted in Kashmir, but exactly how remains unclear.

"Everything has changed," said Malik Sajad, 21, a student and political cartoonist for the valley's leading daily newspaper. "That time you had people on the road. Now there are troops, and people are either inside or getting beat - I feel my childhood days are returned." Some of the 1990s danger has returned - security forces killed two commanders of militant group Hizb-ul-Mujihadeen in a shoot-out on Wednesday - even as voters went to the polls. In embracing Indian democracy and turning against what so many demanded so vocally so recently, have Kashmiris betrayed themselves?

"People going back and forth, protesting and voting, is not unprecedented in Kashmir," said Zarief Ahmad Shah, a political analyst and retired government servant, citing historical antecedents in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Pointing to the continued presence of hundreds of thousands of Indian troops and the poor strategies of the separatist leaders, he said: "People are confused, not sure of what they want."

Individuals seemed sure during Wednesday's polling, as south Kashmir's hilly Anantnag district saw 57 per cent turnout in a chilly drizzle. Kashmiris as a group, however, did not. "We don't have schools, good roads or a hospital, and there is unemployment," said Khaleda Sheikh, a 37-year-old mother of two, while waiting to vote in the riverside village of Kashiteng Zarpara. "The government will help us."

At a polling place a few kilometres away in the village of Kanalwan, a group of men had another perspective. "We are voting so that they solve the Kashmir issue," 58-year-old farmer Haji Mohammed Abdullah Shah said to murmurs of approval. "All this other stuff - roads, education, jobs - that's nothing. This is about solving Kashmir." Queueing to vote nearby, Ghulam Nabi Karchoo explained. "There are several types of azaadi," said the 45-year-old father of four, using the local word for independence. "There's complete independence, but there's also the ability to move freely, to cross borders and not deal with so much security."

Others believe the quest for azaadi must remain pure. Outside a polling station in Anantnag, the district capital, several dozen men gathered to protest the elections. "People in the government are puppets, and the strings are in Delhi," said Mohammed Asim, 26, a computer engineer sporting sunglasses, a long beard and a black, leather jacket. He was surrounded by a group of agitated men. Some had voted, but they broke into anti-India chants at the slightest urging.

"These people who are voting - they don't realise what they are doing," said Mr Asim, a supporter of hard-line separatist leader Mohammed Ali Shah Geelani. "Voting gives India the power to say we are with them." The accuracy of that stance will be tested with the final vote in Srinagar, which represents a fifth of the valley's five million population. Mirwaiz Omar Farooq, a key separatist politician and religious leader, has called for a boycott and pro-freedom march.

Shops will be shut, streets will be silent and security forces will patrol the city. Turn out is expected to be low, between 15 per cent and 30 per cent. "The results of these elections don't mean anything," said Mr. Shah, the political analyst. Their apparent success, however, "is a big blow for separatists", he said. "If people lose heart, India has won." The city's urbane youth are aware of greater international scrutiny post-Mumbai; familiar with popular YouTube videos such as "Bleeding India", which depicts the deaths of several young Kashmiris at the hands of security forces; and frustrated by restrictive government dictates, such as a ban on text messaging, ongoing since July.

They were also at the head of the nonviolent campaign for self-determination this year. "I don't think I will vote because there is nobody who can represent us," said Mr Sajad, the cartoonist. "I don't think the protests are over. They will be over only when the government starts listening." For many, such meaningful dialogue is a long way off. "The protests sent the message that we will accept nothing less than independence," said Mr Asim, the Anantnag computer engineer.

"Are we willing to embrace violence again? We don't want to, but if that's the only way." Mr Asim raised his eyebrows. The men around him began nodding their heads. dlepeska@thenational.ae