Saturday, May 25, 2024

Ballots over Bullets: Kashmir’s Srinagar Records Highest Turnout Since 1996

Immigration News

Men queue up to cast their ballots at a polling station during the fourth phase of voting in India’s general election, in Ganderbal on May 13, 2024. (Photo by TAUSEEF MUSTAFA / AFP)

When 62-year-old Ghulam Qadir Wani went to vote in his Srinagar constituency in India’s national elections, what he had uppermost in his mind was hope. A hope for the future in a region which only witnessed despair, violence, stone-pelting, and negativism for decades.

“This is not a vote in protest against our past; it is a vote of umeed (hope), of the hope of a better future,” Wani told the Indian Express correspondent as he cast his vote at Dara.

As he inked his finger for the vote, the sexagenarian made a bold statement for democracy and the rule of law in a region once roiled by protests, insurgency, and anti-government sentiments that found expression in the boycott of elections.

Cut back to the polling this May in Jammu and Kashmir, the call to boycott the elections is a thing of the past. Once a common tactic of political parties, especially regional parties and separatist groups, Kashmir no longer speaks in the same language as it did before the abrogation of Article 370 in August 2019.

Earlier, the Kashmir Valley witnessed many elections, including local body polls, amid boycotts called by either regional parties or separatist groups, or by both, leading to abysmally low voter turnouts.

Conducting the 2024 Lok Sabha polls in Kashmir in a free, fair, peaceful, and participatory manner was a significant challenge for the Election Commission of India (ECI) as the valley was going to polls for the first time since the abrogation of Article 370 and the enactment of the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act, 2019.

Polling was held in the Kashmir Valley in the fourth phase on Monday (May 13), and voters turned out in large numbers as there was no boycott call from any side this time.

According to Jammu and Kashmir’s Department of Information and Public Relations (DIPR), elections were concluded in the Kashmir Valley peacefully on Monday with a remarkable 37.99 percent voting in the districts of Srinagar, Ganderbal, Pulwama, Budgam, and partly in Shopian.

ECI data shows Kashmir recorded a 14.43 percent voter turnout in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

Quoting the state’s Chief Election Officer (CEO) Pandurang K Pole, the DIPR said, “This time, there was no boycott and no polling station recorded zero percent or nil voting which speaks of people’s firm trust in the democratic system as imperative for their overall welfare.”

The ECI also shared data about the gross voter turnout recorded in past Lok Sabha polls in the Srinagar PC, and the valley recorded the highest ever voter turnout in the 1996 general elections — 40.94 percent.

Not only has voter turnout increased, but data from the Press Information Bureau (PIB) also shows the number of candidates contesting in the polls has risen.

There were 24 candidates in the fray compared to 12 in the 2019 general election.

The J&K CEO attributed the success behind this significantly increased polling percentage to improved security and law and order in the last 4-5 years, mobilization by 24 candidates and political parties, election awareness, and more importantly, voters’ strong belief that it is the ballot which can lead to sustainable development.

‘Boycott poll’ no longer a ‘trend’ in Kashmir

Five years ago, in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the administration in Shopian, barely 52 km from Srinagar, had to press an army helicopter to drop election personnel and polling material to a polling station in Zainapora subdivision, which is just a 35-minute drive from district headquarters, as there was a huge security concern amid the ‘boycott poll’ call by separatists.

According to reports, the area was hit by militant activity, ignited by the influence of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani, who was shot dead by security forces in 2016, spurring a wave of violent protests across the Kashmir Valley.

Kashmir also witnessed the incident of a human shield in the 2017 Srinagar Lok Sabha by-election — a 26-year-old man captured by the Indian Army was tied as a human shield to the front of an army jeep as a column of Indian troops moved through a locality amidst violence.

During the elections, candidates and their supporters almost steered clear of campaigning, with militants and separatists issuing boycott poll calls.

Since 1990, elections in the region have been overshadowed by terrorist activities, leading to widespread election boycotts. The persistent threat of violence and calls for boycott by separatists and terrorist groups have historically deterred voter turnout.

However, these incidents are now relegated to the past. The scenario is changing in Jammu and Kashmir as the valley chooses ballots over boycotts.

According to a report by the Kashmir Observer, experts now observe a shift in the situation in Jammu and Kashmir, marked by a cessation of separatist activities and a decline in incidents like stone-pelting.

With intensified crackdowns on terrorist organizations and separatist parties, there has been a notable absence of calls for election boycotts. This newfound peace has fostered a conducive atmosphere for increased voter participation, reported Kashmir Observer.

According to an opinion piece titled “Poll Boycott Now a History in Kashmir” published in Brighter Kashmir, there has been a discernible change and improvement in the ground situation in Jammu and Kashmir, and today the poll boycotts are conspicuous by their absence.

“Those bad days of poll boycott and calls for bandhs are over, and the common people are feeling much relieved. There is peace, normalcy, and tranquillity seen everywhere from North to South and East to West in Kashmir, and people are actively participating in the elections as there is no fear now of gun-tottering mercenaries as the brokers of militancy no longer give calls of poll boycott,” the opinion piece read.

“It is for the first time in the history of militancy that there are no calls and enforcement of poll boycotts, and the people are in favour of peace, prosperity, and development,” it added.

Kashmir wrote a new chapter on May 13 when Srinagar recorded about 38 percent voter turnout. Whoever wins, terrorism and anarchy lost in Kashmir as people peacefully pressed the buttons in the EV machines.

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