‘This is downtown, no one votes here’

SRINAGAR: The political affiliations were on open display in old Srinagar on Wednesday when all eyes were set on this staunch pro-resistance quarter of Kashmir to look for any signs of change in the people’s political behaviour.
Since early in the morning, lines had been drawn between sympathisers of pro-India politicians in fray for Lok Sabha berths and the pro-freedom population forming majority in the densely-populated downtown. The former appeared eager to vote while the latter was determined “not to betray the blood of martyrs”.
Around two dozen men of police and paramilitary Sashastra Suraksha Bal (SSB) stood guard at multiple polling booths housed in a three-storey government building at Nowhatta—one of the most volatile areas in old Srinagar. Located close to the police station, the building was further watched over by gun-wielding troopers deployed in strength at every nook and corner.
Inside, 17 of 793 votes were polled in the Tujgari Mohalla booth, and around 20 of 1008 votes were polled in Syedpora booth by around 8 am, just one hour after the start of polling. More ardent voters were waiting in queues for their turn to vote.
Agents of National Conference (NC) had arrived in the wee hours to guide the voters, but were reluctant to reveal their identities to media.
“I have come to vote for People’s Democratic Party (PDP),” Fayaz Ahmad, an NC agent who was still yawning while at the booth, said when Kashmir Reader team approached him.
Later, as he became more comfortable, the agent revealed his identity and that of the voters in the queue. “I am an NC agent. I am the second one at this booth and my job is to assist the main agent.”
“This is downtown,” he added, with a nervous smile. “No one votes here. These people you see are from the Sheikh Colony. They are the only ones who come to vote.”
At Sheikh Colony, the residence of slum-dwelling sweepers and cobblers located at a stone’s throw from the polling station, the pro-freedom and pro-election loyalties were apparent.
Men, women, young, and elderly from the colony were freely moving towards the polling booths. And the inhabitants of adjoining Razgari Mohalla were whispering abuses while watching them from a distance.
“Why shall we vote? Why shall we disregard the blood of martyrs? It is just the people of Sheikh mohalla who vote, we and other people of Nowhatta don’t vote,” a group of youth standing close to Malkhah graveyard said.
The rivalry, however, didn’t appear ugly as members from either side were cracking jokes about the voters.
Rest of the Nowhatta and most other old city areas wore a deserted look with civilian movement down to nil.
Police and paramilitary CRPF men, in riot gear, were dotting the roads, supported by the mobile staff that was patrolling the roads. Saraf Kadal appeared like a garrison with queues of forces’ gypsies and trucks stationed at the main road. The forces had partially blocked several main roads, like at Hawal, with their vehicles and concertina wires.
And at the polling booths, election boycott was the only picture visible.
At Malik Sahab booth, none of 568 votes had been polled after about two hours of polling. In its adjoining Jabgaripora booth, only four of 627 votes had been cast at the same time. In three polling booths located in Islamia High School at Rajouri Kadal, not a single voter had turned up by 10:30 am.
Tengpora, Mirjanpora, Tanghbagh, Dangerpora, and most other polling booths of the old city presented similar figures till late in the forenoon.
“It is like an off day for us,” a polling official at Yachpora told Kashmir Reader.
The fear among the polling staff was deep and evident. At many booths in Eidgah, Rajouri Kadal, Bohri Kadal, and Saraf Kadal areas, the staff was kept on its toes by the occasional hurling of stones from the locals.
At Qamaganpora booth located in a school, the staff had placed blackboard at the windows to keep out the stones being thrown occasionally. “We did it deliberately to protect ourselves from stones,” the staff explained.
In the interiors of Eidgah, youths had gathered outside the polling stations to keep an eye on anyone entering the booth. They followed every vehicle moving in the area suspecting it to be a mobile-voter carrier and enquired about the poll percentage from every media person who entered the booth.
“It is a pro-freedom area. No one will vote here,” said a group of them, almost confirming the scene inside the booth.
None of 994 votes at the booth had been polled till around 11 am.
Even the polling agents of various were missing from booths. In almost all polling stations located in deep interiors of downtown, only NC agents were present at the booths, and they too were not locals but had come from other areas. But there was no one to represent PDP, the other main party contesting the polls from Srinagar.
“Perhaps the agents are afraid to be at the booths,” said Zahoor Ahmad, a rare PDP face at a polling booth. Zahoor had travelled from Saidapora to represent his party at the Arampora booth.
The loyalists of pro-India parties, however, didn’t disappoint their parties.
An 80-year-old staunch supporter of NC Ali Mohammad Ahangar had arrived at Roshangar Mohalla polling station to cast his vote. The frail bachelor couldn’t walk without his stick but he stayed put at the station after finding his name missing from the voter list, almost in protest.
“I have come to vote but they (officials) tell me that I am not registered to vote. I want to vote for Farooq Abdullah,” Ahangar said. “I walked all the way from home. I live alone. I have no family.”
Shia-dominated Zadibal was among the few areas displaying some poll fever. In three closely-located polling booths in the interiors of Zadibal, 199 out of 1247, 129 of 550, and 55 of 600 votes had been polled by 11:30 am.
The booths were surrounded by a crowd of young and old who had either voted or were waiting to vote. “This year voting is not as brisk as it is used to be,” Raja Shahnawaz, a young man standing in a group of people outside the booth said.
“Previously, there used to be a long queue of voters at the booths. The main reason for us to vote has been the religious affiliations, but this year most of us are against polling. And if we vote, we will vote against NC,” he said.
A 90-year-old Ghulam Ahmad Bhat was brought to the polling booth by his son on a motorcycle. The elderly voter was bleeding from his nose due to his sickness, and even unable to mount on the bike his son was riding.
“He was eager to vote so I brought him here,” his son said. Bhat, before fleeing from the scene, said, “I have always voted. Voting brings success.”
Zadibal was the only area where Kashmir Reader team met a BJP agent inside a polling booth located in Shaheen Public High School.
Salman Sagar, NC member and son of the party’s senior leader Ali Mohammad Sagar, was roaming in his official vehicle to check the poll percentage at various booths. When the staff at Qamangarpora booth informed him that only one of 726 votes had been polled, his prompt remark summed up the expectations pro-India politicians have from voters of downtown.
“The man (who voted) shall be given Bharat Ratna,” Salman commented.