Kashmir: Voting Amid Violence
What a Tiny Spot of Ink Can Mean
Kashmir’s state assembly elections were a bloody affair. New Delhi, intent upon solidifying control of the region, deployed the army to force voters to the polls. Pakistani militants threatened those who complied. Caught in the middle, many Kashmiris question whether they will ever vote on the fate of their contested homeland.
Sept. 16, the first day of the state assembly elections in Kashmir, was a jewel of an early autumn day. Two days of rain had swept the skies clear of dust and the air sparkled. The leaves of the chinar had just begun to turn yellow, and a blush of red had appeared in the maple trees. A ripening paddy crop had covered the fields in a mantle of old gold.
It was a perfect day for voting, but the spell it cast upon us was rudely broken some kilometers north of Srinagar on the outskirts of Pattan, the first of the constituencies where polling was to take place that day. At each village, scores of people stood around in angry-looking groups by the side of the road.
They were all young and all male. “The army is in our village, forcing us to come out and vote. We don’t want to vote. So we have come to the highway to seek refuge.” It was a complaint I was to hear several times that day.
It cast a blemish upon an achievement that has few parallels in the annals of democratic government. On Sept. 16, India’s Election Commission (EC), backed by the central and state governments, held an election that was scrupulously fair in nearly every respect in what is, in effect, a theater of war. It did so in the teeth of a wave of terrorist violence that had left 123 persons dead in the previous month. The killing spree had culminated in the assassination of National Conference minister Mushtaq Lone, who was contesting from the border constituency of Lolab in Kupwara district.
The Indian authorities feared that Pakistan, or Pakistan-backed jihadi organizations, intended to unleash a wave of violence on election day. There had been a sharp increase in infiltration in late July and August. This was attested to by the fact that in the 47 days between July 19 and Sept. 4, there had been no fewer than 23 encounters on the LoC [the Line of Control, which separates India and Pakistan], in which 61 terrorists had been killed. The maximum number of encounters had occurred along the Kupwara border. Srinagar was rife with rumors that there were as many as 5,000 militants concentrated in this sector with the express purpose of frightening the voters into not casting their vote on polling day.
The government thus faced not one but two challenges: It had to ensure a scrupulously honest election, and it had to somehow counter the fear that the killings and the nightly visits by terrorists to the villages had sown in the people. It delegated the first task to the EC and the second to the armed forces. The EC performed its task in an exemplary manner, but the security forces were only partially successful in the second, and that too, as it turned out, at considerable cost.
To ensure a completely honest poll, the EC decided to use electronic voting machines. These had been used for the first time in India in the elections in Punjab and western Uttar Pradesh last December. For the first time ever, the EC received no complaints of rigging from these areas. The commission decided, as early as January or February this year, that it would use these machines in Kashmir as well.
The machines’ magic worked in Kashmir too. Each unit consisted of a vote registration machine and a “monitor.” The first was in a curtained alcove in the booth, the second with the presiding officer. The voter could punch in his vote only after the presiding officer had pressed a button on the monitor. To make sure the staff were doing their job impartially, each candidate had the right to have his agent in the room right through the polling. The monitor was provided with another switch. In case there was an effort to physically capture the booth, the presiding officer had only to press it to disable the machine. This was apparently used to foil an attempt to capture a booth in Mendhar constituency.
To make sure, the EC imported personnel from the rest of India. In all, the 2,300 polling booths required for each phase of the election needed more than 9,000 staff. The EC decided that two of the four persons manning each booth would be from outside Kashmir. These would include the presiding officer. I asked the election agents in over two dozen booths whether they were satisfied with the arrangements and did not receive a single complaint. Nor did the EC. Till 6 p.m. on Sept. 16, there were no complaints of malpractice from any constituency.
To ensure voters’ safety on polling day, the government relied upon the army to throw a security net around the entire area going to the polls. Tens of thousands of soldiers and members of the Border Security Force (BSF) and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) were ferried to northern Kashmir and spread in concentric rings around the villages and polling booths. Their task was made especially difficult by the endless fields of paddy where the waist-high golden crop provided ideal shelter for militants wanting to sneak close to a road or a polling booth. As we lunched under a tree on the Handwara-Kupwara road under forest-shrouded hills where militants were known to be hiding, we saw jawans [members of the armed forces] spread out in a dragnet across the rice fields at 25-meter intervals.
But the government took one additional step to bring out the voters, and it is this step that went sufficiently wrong to arouse anger in the Kashmiri intelligentsia and become the focus of attempts to delegitimize the polls as a whole. The army was asked to go to villages and urban mohallas [residential areas with a homogeneous population that shares an occupation, religion, geographical origin, or caste —WPR] and encourage voters to go to the booths by offering protection en route. The army was given strict instructions not to coerce voters in any way, but the line between encouragement and coercion is thin and often subjective.
There was next to no coercion where people were already intending to vote, and we heard few complaints in such constituencies. For instance, by midday at two out of three polling booths in the center of Handwara township, 640 votes had already been cast out of an electorate of 2,352. Another 200 persons were sitting in lines waiting to vote.
The reason for the high turnout in Handwara was the presence of Ghulam Mohiuddin Sofi on the candidates’ roster. Sofi, a close lieutenant of the late Abdul Ghani Lone, had resigned from the People’s Conference, Lone’s party, to contest the election. But everyone saw in him a representative of Kashmiri nationalism and came out to vote. There were similar high turnouts in the other constituencies in Kupwara, where former members of the People’s Conference had decided to stand.
But in towns like Sopore and Baramulla, and in constituencies where there was no strong candidate to oppose the National Conference, the turnout was very low, and complaints of coercion were far more frequent and vociferous. They reached a peak in Baramulla, where in two polling booths in one part of the town at 3:15 p.m. the count was nil and one!
In several villages and urban mohallas where the turnout was very low, as the day wore on the army frequently crossed the thin line between encouragement and coercion. Increasingly frustrated jawans knocked on doors and entered houses to urge the people to vote. Several instances of manhandling were reported (including one to me in Baramulla), and many complained that the soldiers threatened to “come back later and look at their fingers.”
Had there been no such pressure, the turnout would have been several percentage points lower than the 43 (later raised to 52) recorded by the voting machines. However, the voters who had abstained would have had only one target for their anger—the terrorists. By intervening, the army has given them a second.
But this is a judgment based on hindsight. In the days before the election, the government faced a truly difficult choice. As several voters told me in two villages in separate constituencies, they were not averse to voting but would never have come to the polling booths on their own. The reason was that the indelible ink mark put on the fingernail to indicate that person had voted, which takes several days to rub off and is simply a nuisance in the rest of India, was virtually a passport to death in Kashmir. For it is not only the army that looks at people’s fingers but also the militants.
At Singhpora, as I sat in the booth, a tall, fair young man entered, got himself ink-marked but begged not to be forced to vote. “You’ve come all this way. You might as well vote now,” the presiding officer (from Uttar Pradesh) told him. He hesitated but again refused, saying, “I can’t. It is a matter of life and death for me.” “Let him go,” said the presiding officer. “If he does not wish to vote, it is his choice.” “But how shall I record him?” asked one of the two polling officers, in some consternation. “I have already entered his name in the register.” As the presiding officer struggled for a formulation in English, I suggested, “Why not simply write, ‘Not voted’?”