Kashmir election turn-out in single figures amid protests, boycotts

Kashmir election turn-out in single figures as protests and boycotts undermine vote integrity
7 min read
09 November, 2018
Local elections should probably not have been held in this political and military climate, Kashmiris tell Aamir Ali Bhat.
One of many deserted polling stations in Kashmir [Getty]
On October 21, when officials declared the result of municipal elections held over four phases in Indian-administered Kashmir, the enthusiastic contestants of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Congress and others celebrated their win. 

They danced, beat drums and burst firecrackers outside their offices. Some winners posed for photographs, sticking up their two fingers in a V-shape as a sign of victory.

But in reality, the whole election process turned out to be histrionic, as a major chunk of the population abstained from voting.

In some areas, the contestants were elected unopposed, and in others, there was no contestant at all. And in many areas where polling took place, the overall turn-out percentage remained in single digits.

According to the official data, Kashmir has 598 wards spread over 40 municipal bodies. Polling was conducted in 186 wards only. Among the remaining wards, 181 did not witness polling because nobody filed a nomination, and 281 candidates won uncontested.

Only in 31 percent of wards did polling took place.

Independent candidates won in 178 wards, with Congress taking 157, BJP with 100, and four others. Of the 100 seats BJP won in Kashmir, 76 were uncontested.

Before the polls got underway, the authorities failed to announce the whole election process publicly. Many things like the identity of participants and location of polling-booths were kept secret to the last minute. Election campaigning on the ground was also rare.

Scores of contestants cancelled their nominations during the election process. In a number of videos doing the rounds on social media, would-be candidates were seen apologising and announcing the withdraw of their nominations.

The election process was easy for polling staff as the polling-booths took on a deserted look on the voting days. People not only rejected the election but made jokes of it and posted them on social media.

One of the BJP's contestants, Arif Majeed Pampori, who contested the civic body elections from Nawakadal area of Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian-administered Kashmir, was declared a winner after getting 27 votes out of a total of 47 polled. There are 5,372 voters registered for this ward.
Here in Kashmir, elections seem a kind of formality. It doesn't reflect the essence of democracy
Another BJP participant, Bashir Ahmad Mir, who contested the Bagh-e-Mehtab area of Srinagar - with 5,118 voters registered - was declared the winner when he got eight out of nine votes polled.

"The essence of the election is to ensure that equal participation should happen and the true democracy means people should express themselves and decide on issues," Dr Noor Ahmad Baba, professor of politics and governance at the Central University of Kashmir told The New Arab. 

"But here in Kashmir elections seem a kind of formality. It doesn't reflect the essence of democracy. People are highly alienated in Kashmir, despite that elections are happening here. It is highly understood why they force to conduct elections."

Despite the lowest-ever turn-out - around four percent - in the first municipal elections held here in 13 years, and complete disinterest shown by the general public, the governor-led government in Kashmir is all set to hold the Panchayat elections (the poll for rural local bodies), beginning on November 17.

In 34,096 Panchayats, polling will be held in nine phases on November 17, 20, 24, 27 and 29, and December 1, 4, 8 and 11. The entire election process will end on December 17.

To encourage the contestants for the forthcoming Panchayat elections, the State Administrative Council (SAC) has increased the honorarium paid to the Sarpanchs (the elected head of the village through Panchayat elections) and Panchs (other members of Panchayat).

Now the Sarpanchs will be paid a monthly stipend of 2,500 rupees ($34) and Panchs will receive 1,000 ($14).

Hoping to infuse "enthusiasm among the elected Panchayat members", the officials said in statement, "to compensate Sarpanchs and Panchs for the onerous responsibilities to be discharged by them under the new Panchayati Raj System being put in place in the state, the SAC decided to pay them an honorarium as a token of encouragement."

Meanwhile, Muneer Ahmad Khan, the additional director-general of police, revealed the Panchayat elections would be more difficult for law enforcement officials.

"The Panchayat elections will be more challenging because the spread is too much as compared to the municipal elections," he said. "But we are prepared for that."

The Panchayat elections were last held in Kashmir in 2011, after a gap of four decades. With the swift change in Kashmir's situation during the past few years, scores of Panchayat members have been targeted by unknown gunmen. At least 16 Panchayat members have been killed since 2011 and a further 30 have sustained injuries.

When the Chief Electoral Officer announced the dates of ongoing local polls, several Panchayat buildings were set on fire in South and Central Kashmir by a mob.

In September, the mainstream political parties including the National Conference, People's Democratic Party and the Communist Party announced they would not participate in local elections unless New Delhi took affirmative steps to protect Article 35A - a consututional law that guarantees special status for the state of Jammu and Kashmir and decrees that only Kashmiris have rights to inherit and own property here.

It bars non-residents from permanent settlement in the state and from acquiring immovable property, government jobs, scholarships and aid.

As ever, separatist leaders and armed rebels have asked people to boycott the local elections. In an audio message from armed rebel commander Riyaz Naikoo, he threatened candidates of dire consequences if they took part.

"People in Kashmir are intelligent enough to differentiate between what is wrong and what is right," Adil Hameed, a student, told The New Arab. "The rejection of municipal elections by the general public was a unanimous protest against New Delhi."

Unlike in Kashmir, the other two divisions of the state, Jammu and Ladakh, have seen a good level of participation in municipal elections. In Hindu-majority Jammu, the BJP emerged as the largest party, while in Ladakh, Congress won the majority of wards.
Instead of standing in a long queue and waiting for their turn to cast a vote, angry youths were seen vandalising polling-booths
This is not the first time that people here show little interest in elections. In April 2017, when the government conducted the by-election for the Lok Sabha constituency seat, spread across the three districts of Srinagar, Budgam and Ganderbal, a widespread protest broke out on the day of polling.

Eight youth aging from 15 to 25 were shot dead, and more than 150 were injured. Turn-out was recorded at seven percent.

Instead of standing in a long queue and waiting for their turn to cast a vote, angry youths were seen vandalising polling-booths, chanting pro-freedom slogans and pelting stones at government forces.

The situation forced the election authorities to cancel the May 2017 by-election scheduled for the vacant Islamabad Assembly seat.

The continuing small turn-out in the past few elections has drawn strong ire and raised many questions over governance here. Many experts believe the situation in Kashmir is not conducive to elections and said the government's decision to hold polls was hasty.

"In 2014 people somehow took part in elections but during the by-elections in 2017 very less number of people participated and even in recently held civic polls participation was highly negligible," Baba reiterated. "These things speak about the high degree of alienation among people."

"Besides," Baba said, "these elections don't reflect the ground reality. If we keep the situation into consideration, then elections should have been cancelled. As you know, the new governor has taken charge. He wants to prove that he has done something."

The world's most militarised zone continues to be one of the longest-running unresolved conflicts between two neighbouring countries, India and Pakistan. Both nuclear states claim the region in full but only control parts.

Since the armed insurgency that erupted against Indian rule in the late 1980s, the region has been restive, with
India deploying tens of thousands of troops, and giving legal immunity to soldiers to kill anyone only on the basis of suspicion of involvement in militant activity.

India has for decades have been engaged in crushing all kinds of dissent in Kashmir.

Aamir Ali Bhat is a Kashmir-based freelance journalist who reports on human rights abuses, culture and the environment. He writes for The New Arab, Kashmir Ink and Free Press Kashmir.

Follow him on Twitter: @Aamirbhatt3