Srinagar: At 9:30pm on Friday, the government forces manning an election booth at SP higher secondary school in the heart of Srinagar’s Lal Chowk were extra vigilant, patrolling the area and keeping watch on passersby. The alertness was prompted by the protests in Nishat area after a vehicle carrying CRPF soldiers for election duty hit a private car and killed one person.
“We have to be extra cautious because of the threat of atankwadi. This security bandobast is meant to ensure that polls are held peacefully,” said one of the soldiers posted a few yards away from the well-known government school.
The soldier was part of 250 extra companies of paramilitary forces deployed in two parliamentary constituencies – Srinagar and Anantnag – as heightened security for the upcoming by-polls. Srinagar goes to polls on Sunday amid a huge deployment at more than 1,559 polling booths majority of which have been classified as “hyper-sensitive”.
On Saturday, the booths resembled camps of security forces, with hundreds of troopers deployed at colleges and schools where voting will be held. Scores of private transport buses have been hired to ferry the troopers.
Outside the government degree college at Bemina, a policeman regulating the polling vehicles to avoid a traffic blockade on the busy road, looked bemused. “I am tired and want to rest now. Be gouvus pagal wan. My head aches because of today’s cumbersome job,” he said in the afternoon when yet another bus from Jammu carrying armed personnel arrived and blocked the college entrance.
“Park your vehicle outside the college but don’t block the traffic on the road,” he told the driver sternly, pointing out to him a vacant space nearby along the road. The troops disembarking from the bus carried their beddings, plastic buckets, and water bottles in one hand while clutching rifles in the other, as they made their way into the booth.
Inside the vehicles, especially those bearing Jammu registration numbers, soldiers sat alert behind anti-riot polycarbonate shields. The buses bearing Kashmir registration numbers had their windowpanes protected with tin sheets.
A Kashmiri driver of a Tata 407, a vehicle hired for election purpose, said he had kept his vehicle inside the college as conditions outside were “unsafe”. “Youth can throw stones anytime. It is risky to carry the military in my vehicle, but it will fetch money. I have to pay monthly instalments for my car,” he said while buying oranges from a vendor.
The vendor said he normally sells fruit at Batamaloo market but the number of troops here prompted him to sell outside the booth. “The canteen is far from the booth,” he said while making quick bucks.
A group of soldiers buying his fruit asked the vendor when the polls in Kashmir will be over? “Kal Srinagar main vote dalna hai. Abhi aap ko doosre jagah bhi polling duty pe jana hai,” the vendor told them.
Not just this heavily militarised booth in the Bemina college but almost all the polling booths in Srinagar present similar scenes. To do election duty, employees from civil departments were brought a day ahead of the polls to these polling booths. Majority of them stayed inside the booths in hush-hush manner in the wake of the threat and boycott call issued by Hurriyat. But the cold weather prompted many to rush out to get warm bedding from their houses or acquaintances. “My colleague is here. He is feeling cold,” said an employee while carrying a blanket on his motorbike.
An employee of power department who was on polling duty lamented why former PDP parliamentarian Tariq Hamid Karra had vacated the Srinagar seat last year.
“We would not have to be here amid this huge military presence and cold weather if Tariq Karra had not resigned,” he said, claiming his family was after him to not do election duty. “I am a government employee. I have to follow orders. The families don’t understand this. They are concerned about safety because the threat has risen after 2016,” said the employee, a resident of Pampore.
An employee of the revenue department, who came from Soura, said he felt relaxed that he was posted in a city booth. “But I am feeling worried after entering the booth,” he said, “seeing this huge presence of security men. It makes us vulnerable. Otherwise, nobody would harm us.”
His concerns were echoed by a CRPF man buying a cigarette from a shopkeeper in Nowpora area. “Yahan bahut muskhil hain chunaav. Itna fauj laye hain,” he said.