September 17, 2002
1113 IST


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All that Kashmiris want is peace

Josy Joseph in Baramulla district

Considering that the assembly polls in Jammu and Kashmir are being held under the shadow of gun, some questions arise about the free and fair nature of the exercise.

Under the circumstances, should the security forces be aggressive upholders of democracy or, in other words, 'persuade' people to vote? Or should the voters be allowed to decide if they want to exercise their democratic right?

Do Kashmiris still dream of freedom through an armed struggle? Do they put that dream above all else, including a clean government, jobs, electricity and water?

Questions are too many, answers varied.

Crowds for election meetings in Kashmir are often orchestrated to impress the media. A few hundred slogan-shouting people may not reflect the mood of the populace.

But on Monday, the scenes outside polling booths were indicative of the way Kashmir is headed.

These are some of the scenes from the first phase of polling in Kashmir.

Pattan is the first prominent town on the Srinagar-Baramulla highway.

"The army forced us out of our homes at 07.30 am. They have told us to vote and said they will check on us when we get back to the village," said Tariq Ahmed (22). He claimed he did not have a vote.

Another youth added, "If we came voluntarily, do you think the womenfolk would not have accompanied us?" There was not a single woman in the crowd, at the polling booth or anywhere in the vicinity.

An officer of the Rashtriya Rifles, the paramilitary force comprising army soldiers, admitted that his men had paid a visit to villages early in the morning. "But only to assure them that they could come out and vote freely. That they don't need to fear the militants," he insisted.

The initial enthusiasm among the voters vanished after some high-profile militant attacks, especially the assassination of state law minister Mushtaq Ahmad Lone.

"They [the army] want to show the media that there is a high turnout," said another villager. "First they forced us to make the voter's identity cards, now they are forcing us to vote. In fact, some of us have not even received our voter I-cards," he added.

When television cameras were switched on, some people gathered and began to shout slogans "we want azadi".

But once the cameras were switched off, they complained about lack of development, high unemployment and other day-to-day problems.

The people didn't expect much from elections. The general refrain was: "Even if we want to vote, whom do we vote for? There are no good candidates..."

They were referring to the sitting National Conference legislator who had joined the Congress.

They insisted that they wouldn't vote. When asked what they would do if the army came to check in the evening, one of the locals showed his finger. It had an ink mark that looked quite similar to the one that one gets after voting.

A few kilometres ahead, a group of youngsters were shouting pro-freedom slogans. They said only the "old will vote, we will not". They wanted a referendum to be held.

"If we don't vote, the army will harass us. If we vote, the militants would kill us," said Mushtaq Ahmed Malik.

A couple of days back, the Lashkar-e-Tayiba had put up posters at the local mosque threatening with dire consequences anyone who participated in the polls.

Pointing towards the ink mark on his finger he said, "If the militants see it, they will just shoot me."

Malik, however, was not angry with the security forces, but with the political leaders. "They make their houses, what do we get?"

Abdul Jabbar (65), too, had cast his vote. "I will tell the militants that I was forced to vote and pray that they will spare my life," he said.

At booth number 55 nearby, only three of the 1222 registered voters had exercised their franchise till 1230 hours. There was a crowd outside, but no one was going to vote. They just shouted slogans every time a media vehicle passed by.

Inside the polling booth, Mohammed Islam, an Uttar Pradesh government employee, was sitting wearing a bulletproof jacket. Around him, the local officials assisting him did not have any such protection. "Everything is free and fair," Islam asserted.

Within minutes Ghulam Mohammed Shah, the Janata Dal-United candidate, arrived to meet the officials. When asked if it was right for a candidate to enter the voting centre so casually, Shah retorted: "Do you want the Kashmir valley to be peaceful?"

Inside a serpentine alley of the district centre, some Sikhs were getting ready to cast their votes.

Standing nearby, one G H Khundroo said, "There is no militant threat, but we will not vote." Not even the maharajas of yore lived the luxurious life that the Abdullah family is leading today, he explained.

A few hundred metres away in the Khundroo household, his brother Basheer, general secretary of the Baramulla Traders' Association, said: "We traders are the worst affected. Every other day we are forced to shut down our shops...," he rued.

The town is considered a stronghold of militants.

Mohammed Abdullah Shah said his family would not vote. Reason? Shah's son-in-law Abdul Rahman Geelani, a lecturer in Delhi, was arrested last year for allegedly being involved in the attack on Parliament.

Whenever Geelani was shown on television surrounded by policemen, "women and children here begin to cry", he said.

The family was collecting signatures from Baramulla residents to submit to the authorities seeking a fair hearing for Geelani.

If militancy ever had a headquarter, then it must be Sopore.

Till a few years ago, several parts of the city and surrounding areas were inaccessible to security forces.

Several militants, including former Hizbul Mujahideen commander Abdul Majid Dar, belong to Sopore. Kashmir's most virulent anti-India voice, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, belongs to this town.

Till 1400 IST, only two votes were cast at polling centre number 65. With no voters to deal with, the election officers were getting bored.

At polling centre number 66, a total of six out of 509 registered voters had exercised their franchise. The first one to walk into the booth was Abdul Aziz Sheikh (65), who said he had voted because "I am just fed up of this tension".

Sopore looked like a ghost town. The only people seen on the streets were security forces. At the end of the day, Sopore recorded the lowest polling percentage.

A low turnout was expected in towns, which were believed to be the strongholds of militants. The rural areas were expected to present a different picture. So we turned towards the road to Bandipora.

Near Tarkopora village, one Ghulam Mohammed Dar was coming after casting his vote. He said he did not want the Nation Conference to come back to power. "My son is a graduate, but he catches fish from Wular for a living. There is no job, no life here," he said.

Four ex-militants -- Javed Shah of the National Conference, Abdul Majid Mir, Usman Abdul Majid and Mohammed Amin Khan -- were among the six candidates from Bandipora.

At Wonagam village of Bandipora constituency, there were announcements in local mosques asking locals to cast their votes. The village's booth number 19 had a sizeable crowd outside, but not many were willing to cast their vote.

Forced out of their homes by security forces, the villagers were in a predicament.

"There are no good candidates. Look at our roads, our transformer burnt down two years back, it is yet to be replaced. Our MLA only made money for himself," said Mohammed Ami Sofi, 34. On ex-militants fighting elections, he said, "If surrendered militants are to be given tickets, then we will also become militants."

"We have nothing to do with Pakistan or India," a youth said. "Our work must be done," others join in chorus.

The youngsters added, "We are not with militants, we want good leaders."

At Wonagam's booth there were 869 votes, of which 110 had been cast by 1530 hours. In a pattern visible all over the Valley, the number of women who had cast their vote (8) was miniscule compared to that of men (102).

Fakir Mohammed, who belonged to Dobban village, said surrendered militants had forced him to come. "What can I do if they come with their guns and ask me to come down to vote?"

The town was nearly shut, with security forces patrolling every nook and corner.

At polling booth number 50A, of the total of 1435 votes, 326 had been cast.

Firdaus Bhatt, a student of the Kashmir University, and his friends said they only wanted development and peace. They admitted that they were not forced by security forces to vote. "Unfortunately, we don't have a good candidate, but still we cast our votes," Bhatt said.

Jammu and Kashmir Elections 2002: The complete coverage

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