Six years ago, Puran Chand did not vote in the legislative assembly election in Jammu and Kashmir. Fed up of living under the fear of shelling (from the Pakistan side), Chand, a farmer, had then shifted his family of five from his village near the Indo-Pakistan line-of-control to Rajouri town.
"Constant shelling by the Pakistani army had left us with no choice but to leave our land and homes. Life was drudgery and I saw no point in casting my vote," he says.
On Sunday, however, Chand cast his vote at Darhal constituency in the second phase of the state assembly elections.
"Peace seems to have returned to our lives," he says, referring to the ceasefire declared by India and Pakistan on the LoC in November 2003.
Chand, like hundreds of other farmers, now visits his village and even tends his land. "I cast my vote this time since we need roads, bijli (electricity), paani (water) and all forms of development," he says.
Similar optimism is shared by people in Jammu's border belt, who turned up in large numbers on Sunday to cast their votes. Four constituencies along the LoC -- Rajouri, Darhal, Kalakote and Nowshera -- recorded 67 to 73 per cent voting.
"A peaceful border and end of militancy have changed our lives. We want the candidates to develop this backward belt," says Ghulam Hassan, a bakerwal tribesman, who sells milk in Kalakote town.
As six constituencies recorded 66 per cent voting in the second phase of the elections, sceptics once again have been proved wrong. This unprecedented level of polling has come amid freezing temperatures and a boycott call by the separatists, who, till only a few months back, were riding the crest of a popularity wave during the agitation on the Amarnath land row.
"Amarnath agitation was an aberration and not a trend," explains MY Tarigami, leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), whose party has fielded 10 candidates in the election. He claims, "Sunday's higher turnout was consistent with the general mood seeking peace and normalcy that was conspicuously prevailing all over the Valley before the agitation".
In Delhi, Election Commission officials have admitted that 66 per cent polling was "much beyond their expectations and was indeed a pleasant surprise".
"Although the percentage of polling does not matter technically, higher voter turnout gives more legitimacy to the exercise," a senior EC official said.
"It's an expression of people's desire for peace and prosperity and a choice against turmoil created by the militancy."
The voter turnout has surpassed all the previous records. The Ganderbal constituency, from where National Conference leader Omar Abdullah is contesting to avenge his defeat last time, recorded 51.75 per cent turnout as against 35.01 per cent in the 2002 election. Ironically, Omar had to face angry demonstrators on the day he filed his nomination papers.
Rasheed Bhatt, a government employee who cast his vote in Ganderbal, said: "I cast my vote for my favourite candidate so that tomorrow I can go to him with my problems."
Kangan in north Kashmir, a constituency dominated by Gujjar tribesmen, which had previously recorded much higher polling than the rest of the state, saw 59.30 per cent polling as against 52 per cent last time.
For Mufti Sayeed, former chief minister and a senior leader of the Peoples' Democratic Party, who was against holding the election in November on the plea that people may not turn up to vote, it has been a learning experience.
"The impressive polling figure shows that peoples' faith in the electoral process had become stronger. Already after the free and fair polls of 2002 people have started believing that this assembly and its representatives can facilitate a resolution of the Kashmir issue and this election has reaffirmed this," he said.
However, separatist outfit Hurriyat Conference is unmoved by "rebuff" to its boycott call by the voters on Sunday.
"An election has no relevance to the resolution of the Kashmir issue," a spokesman of the Hurriyat Conference told Business Standard over the phone from Srinagar.
He claimed that the government had arrested all the leaders of the conglomerate to prevent them from campaigning against the election.