Wasim Khalid/ Ishfaq Reshi
Beerwah/Budgam: The central district of Budgam, known for its high voter turnouts, threw a surprise on Sunday when an unprecedented poll boycott, marred with violent protests, defied the entire election machinery and the elaborate security arrangements made for it.
Areas that traditionally saw enthusiastic voting in both the assembly and parliamentary elections this time completely boycotted the polls. The home constituency of former chief minister Omar Abdullah, Beerwah, saw a poll boycott during which pro-freedom protests and stone-pelting forced the authorities to withdraw polling staff from two polling stations.
When this correspondent reached Beerwah after crossing checkpoints erected on the Magam-Aripanthan road, the area looked like a military garrison, with a huge number of troops guarding roads and the polling station. Stones and bricks lay littered on the road. The silence on the streets was only broken when stones occasionally rained on the roof of the higher secondary school, used as the polling station, in the main town.
There was no voter inside the polling station. A few polling agents mulled around, idly. At about 11am, polling booth 70 (A) had recorded 34 votes of its total 1,033 registered voters. In polling booth 71 (B), 29 votes were cast of the 772 voters on the rolls.
“People are fed up with the elections in Kashmir,” said a polling agent, Tanvir Mir. “People have lost interest. They do not like the Indian state.”
Another polling agent, Farooq Ahmad, present inside the polling station, said that voters were not coming because the pro-Indian politicians had lost credibility among people.
“The 2016 turmoil exposed them. Mehbooba Mufti said she will end suffering, but when she came to power, she doubled it. The NC was in power in 2008 and 2010; they did the same thing. How can people trust them now?” Ahmad said.
“That is why people have not come to cast vote. I have never seen such a boycott. Traditionally people have voted in this town but this time, it is not so,” he said.
Outside the polling station, the people of the town, sitting in groups on shop fronts, were keeping an eye on those who went inside the polling station.
“We boycotted polls because the bloody memories of 2016 are still alive,” Muzaffar Shah, an elderly man, said. “How can you expect us to vote when our children were blinded and maimed?”
A youth, Abu Talha, said that “Azadi (independence) was the only solution to Kashmir.”
“We do not believe in Indian politics. It is all about legalising the oppression here. We just want our basic right to self determination,” Talha said.
IThe situation turned tense when two polling booths located in Girls Higher Secondary School Beerwah were locked down by locals after being heavily pelted with stones, forcing the polling staff and security troops to leave. After they left, scores of youngsters came out and pelted stones on the convoy of vehicles carrying the staff and the government forces.
“We were kept hostage there. The security officials guarding us also came inside the school due to heavy stone-pelting. The crowd wanted us to leave,” a polling official who was posted at the school said. “We had no option but to leave under the security cover,” he said.
In Budgam’s Dooru Sebdan area, where voting in all kinds of elections has been a tradition, it was not so on Sunday. Inhabited by members of both Shia and Sunni sects, this election segment registered only one vote.
A large group of youths standing outside the polling station here had given an ultimatum to the polling staff to wind up operations or face consequences.
“We will not vote. We can’t sell the sacrifices of our brothers for petty votes. We want freedom,” Aijaz Hussain, one of the youths, said. “The poll boycott in this village has happened for the first time.”
The polling staff and the paramilitary CRPF men, confined to the rooms of the multi-storey school at Sebdan, told Kashmir Reader that only one vote was cast in the polling station at the school. “That vote was cast by a polling agent. He came early morning and then left,” a polling official said.
The polling staff said they were winding up work at 1:51pm as the villagers did not like their presence here.
Just a few kilometers ahead, in Budgam town, people were standing in small queues to cast their vote.
Sameer Ahmad, a 25-year-old standing in a queue, told Kashmir Reader that he was voting because development had taken place in his area in the past few years.
“The 2016 unrest produced zero result. We have been struggling for the past seven decades, but it has borne no fruit. I think we should vote and look to develop our areas,” Ahmad said.
When asked if the poll boycott campaign was sensible or not, he said, “We are suffering oppression. By voting, it does not mean we vote for India. We vote for our neighbours and for development,” he said.
At 2pm, Budgam polling station (D) had recorded 238 votes of its 549 registered voters. Budgam (C) polling station had recorded 259 out of 794 and Budgam (E) had recorded 248 out of 638 votes.
Kashmir Reader could not reach other parts of Budgam due to blockades and stone-pelting on the streets.
“We have to choose between freedom and election,” a young boy said at Ichgam.