Sumbal, Bandipora: Amid army soldiers in olive green brandishing automatic rifles and razor wires fencing open spaces, a large number of pheran-clad villagers came out to vote in panchayat elections held in Sumbal area of Bandipora on Tuesday.
In Rakh-e-Asham village of Nowgam area of Sumbal, dominated by two-hundred households of Shia Muslims and, according to villagers, recently registered as a Panchayat Halqa due to efforts of a young man, Shabir Hyder, who is contesting for the Sarpanch seat, polling booths were set up at the ground of a revered shrine of a Sufi saint, that has a graveyard and an Imam Barah adjacent to it. Several shamiyana tents were erected by the authorities at the ground where voters thronged in to cast their vote.
With scores of youth, children and women gathered around the polling booths, a young woman walked out from one of the tents holding the hand of a 90-year-old woman, Saja. A toothless smile appeared on the old woman’s face as the woman accompanying her hurried past the security personnel, pulling her along. As she struggled with her walking stick, she said, “I am old, maybe in the 90s or more, but I have cast my vote and that’s why I am happy.”
A young man, Altaf, who after casting his vote early in the morning sat like many others in the open to bask in the afternoon sun, was watching the events with all enthusiasm. He said that the reason he voted is to see this holy shrine acquire a boundary wall.
“It is open and vulnerable,” Altaf said of the shrine. “The young man (Hyder) has promised to build a wall around it.”
Another youth chipped in his own praise of Hyder: “He is young and gave this village recognition. We hope he will take the work of development seriously. We don’t know if he, too, will keep filling his own pockets after promising us so much. We have the example of our MLA in front of us.”
Some kilometres past this area is Zalpora village, where a cavalcade of bullet-proof vehicles has halted on the main road. The army commandos frisk every vehicle which passes by and ask where they are headed. To the right of the main road, near the village entrance, a polling booth at the government school has been set up. The voters here are all praise for a young contestant, Anwar, who has studied till Class 11. But his opponent, Ibrahim, who has previously served as Sarpanch of the village, is a strong rival. Villagers here said, “Ibrahim worked for development, but the MLA forgot us.”
Ibrahim seemed not so confident about his win. “Nobody knows who will win. God has his own ways of doing things,” he said.
As the rush of voters here decreased past noon, a blind and old man, supported by a young kid, walked out of a polling booth. As he came out, he was met with hugs. He said his name was Mohammad Ibrahim Bafanda, his age in the eighties.
“I was 12 years old in 1947; from that you can guess my age,” Bafanda said. “Eight years ago I lost my vision. Despite going to every office, no one came forward to help. I wasn’t even given disability status. In 2014, the floods wreaked havoc on my house. After that I waded from place to place for help, but got nothing.”
Why, then, is he casting his vote? “I had to cast the vote,” he said, sounding helpless and confused. Then a lady came, took his hand, and whisked him away.