politics reportage Politics

Ballot Bullet Stone

What will the coming elections mean for Kashmir?

By SANJAY KAK | 1 September 2014

|ONE |

FOR SPRING THE MIST WAS UNSEASONAL, and visibility low on the highway that runs south from Srinagar. There was little traffic, and only men in uniform seemed able to move through the early-morning haze. In khaki, olive green, and mottled camouflage, heavily armed clusters of police, paramilitary and army personnel were everywhere. Their presence is routine in the Kashmir valley, where more than half a million Indian soldiers are stationed, making it one of the most densely militarised zones in the world

But that April morning was not routine. It was voting day in Anantnag, the constituency that covers Kashmir’s southern countryside. This was the first of three seats in the valley that people were voting for in the most recent elections to the Indian Parliament. The others were to follow at week-long intervals. That is probably the time it takes to reassemble the “security grid” for each constituency, without which the conduct of elections is impossible here. (On the day Anantnag, with its 1.3 million registered voters, held elections, 54 million voters in the southern state of Tamil Nadu cast their ballots for 39 seats.)

Kashmiris know that the members of parliament they are asked to vote for have no bearing on the masla-e-Kashmir, “the Kashmir issue,” whose central question of political self-determination has vexed the region for more than sixty years. Nor can their members of parliament significantly affect citizens’ access to roads, schools, hospitals, or even the all-important neighbourhood electricity transformer. Those are the domain of the state government, and elections for the state assembly are expected only at the end of this year. That’s probably why there were no posters or banners or flags or pennants to inform you of that day’s election. What was less easy to explain were the deserted roads, shuttered wayside shops, and the vague anxiety in the air.

Outside a polling station in the town of Awantipura, a group of reporters I was travelling with slowed down to exchange notes with a posse of waiting photojournalists. At this early hour there were probably more cameras than voters here. The lack of enthusiasm was consistent with the record for this constituency: in the last parliamentary elections, in 2009, the turnout in Anantnag was 27 percent. Which means 73 percent of voters did not turn up. That was an improvement on 2004, when 84 percent of voters stayed away, and on 1999, when nearly nineout of every ten did not vote. How many would turn out today?

In Awantipura, rumours surfaced well ahead of voters. Despite the saturation by government forces, a group of armed militants had been reported at the bus adda in nearby Tral, where they put up posters demanding a boycott of the polls. The masked men even managed a short speech, warning people against collaborating with the election process. Their job done, weapons concealed, they had melted away into a gathering crowd.

A second rumour—that an elected village headman, a sarpanch, had been found with his throat slit—turned out to be untrue. But enough had happened that week to keep people on edge. Three days earlier, on 21 April, a sarpanch and his son were shot dead as they sat at home in Batagund village, waiting for dinner. That same night, another village-level functionary in nearby Amlar village was shot dead as he made his way home in the dark after the last prayers at the local mosque. And late on the night of 17 April, a sarpanch was dragged out of his home in Gulzarpura and shot dead at point-blank range. No organisation had claimed credit for the killings, so in official records the assassins were down simply as “Unknown Gunmen.”

As a late-morning sun broke through the mist, we carried on to Tral, hoping to get a sense of the fierce build-up. We walked through the abnormally silent streets of Afghan Bazaar, and down to a polling station called Tral 56 C, in the bright and airy Muslim Talim-ul Islam High School. No votes had been cast there that morning—zero out of a possible 1,066. Even the polling agents meant to keep watch on behalf of the political parties hadn’t shown up, said a heavily-padded soldier from the Central Reserve Police Force at the gate. Not one voter had come by in the past five hours, not even out of curiosity, a fiercely moustachioed sergeant added as he filled his water bottle at a row of spigots. “We’ve done many elections before, but the atmosphere here—” He interrupted himself: “If these townsfolk could have their way, they’d very soon cut the water supply to these taps.”

In the decrepit Electric Revenue office nearby, Tral 57 D was not doing much better: one vote that morning out of a possible 1,108. One vote at Tral 51 A, in the Government Girls Higher Secondary School—and that from a former member of the legislative assembly. The polling agents were missing here, too. But since the Election Commission had equipped booths with webcams and high-speed internet dongles, perhaps somewhere far away and safe someone had kept tabs on the two voters who had shown up so far at Tral 53 C, the one voter at Tral 54 A (a former minister), and the zero voters at Tral 55 B.

As I stood in the courtyard of the Government Middle School that housed Tral 58 E, a stone arced down to land at my feet—and then another and another. This was an early taste of the high-velocity kani-jang, the stone-throwing wars of the Kashmir street. A grim-faced CRPF man sheltering in the school’s corridor beckoned me in. His invitation was probably against the rules: entry needed credentials from the Election Commission. But since each stone was a sharp-edged projectile the size of a fist, perhaps the soldier simply hadn’t wanted any casualties on his watch.

“Manners are More Important than Laws,” it said on the corridor wall. And below that motto, painted in an elaborate cursive script, “Edmund Burke.”

It had been like that all night, Abdul Rashid Shah, a polling officer inside the school, told us. He looked pale with the stress of keeping his staff safe, most of them teachers and low-level government employees. He was most concerned about two female colleagues, who were sheltering away from the windows, perched on incongruously bright red plastic chairs. One of the women was wearing a full hijab, with only her hands visible among its black folds. They remained splayed out before her, resting in her lap, rigid with stress.

In the narrow sunlit lane outside, it was a different world. A group of chatty young men had materialised, eager for an update. There had been no voters so far in 58 E, we were able to tell them—none out of a possible 1,078. A cheer went up, and a chant that was to grow familiar that week: “Boycott, boycott—election boycott! No election, no selection—boycott, boycott.” Kati gardanon ka paigham, election boycottit’s the message from the slain. Lutee asmaton ka paigham. Ujdee bastiyon ka paigham, election boycott—it’s the message of lost honour, the message of ruined homes.

A young man took me by the arm. “You were not a target for the stones back there,” he said. “That was just a little display put on for the media, just to remind everybody that there was real tension here, too. No one is planning to vote here anyway.” The group walked us to our car, all the while politely but firmly hectoring us about the chronic failures of the press. Several of them made a point of taking our pictures on their cell phones. It was a record, a reminder that we ought to do our duty and tell the truth: Tral was not voting.

The signs for the following week’s poll in Srinagar were ominous. Protesting youth had all but crippled voting in several areas of southern Kashmir, and some of the hundreds of buses carrying polling officials had come under attack. With each phase of voting involving almost a thousand booths, there was an army of officials out there, supervised by a vast bureaucracy of micro-observers, sectoral magistrates, duty magistrates, returning officers and presiding officers. Each booth had significant armed protection—two armed policemen, plus six from the CRPF—but getting the staff home had become particularly fraught.

By day’s end, news arrived that a bus carrying election officials had been fired upon, presumably by militants. Five officials were injured, and Zia-ul Haq, a schoolteacher on election duty, was killed. Later that night, a final turnout of 28 percent was reported for the constituency, “which is slightly up from 27 percent recorded in 2009 polls,” the state’s chief electoral officer pointed out to the press. Some pockets had held out: Pulwama ended the day with 6.3 percent. And the young men that morning had been right: with a turnout of 1.3 percent, Tral had not voted.

IN THE UNNAMED CAPITAL of an unnamed country, on a day of voting lashed mercilessly by rain, the ballot papers are counted. Almost three-quarters of them turn out to be unmarked. A re-poll is ordered for a week later. This time around, the weather is perfect, but the results are worse: 83 percent of voters have left their ballots blank. There are no protests—just the clarity of the ballots. Enraged by this silence, this blankness, the ruling party declares a state of emergency. Secret police are let loose to spy on the citizenry, interrogations are ordered, and a siege ensues. When that yields no answers, the prime minister decides to pull the government out of the capital, leaving people to fend for themselves. A servile media predicts chaos and collapse, but the assumption is belied. Life remains peaceful and orderly. In José Saramago’s native Portuguese, this novel is titled Ensaio sobre a Lucidez, An Essay on Lucidity.

The valley has its own parables. “How many people in Kashmir are with you, Bakshi sahib?” starts a well-known anecdote from the 1950s about Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed, then the prime minister of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. “Forty lakhs,” Bakshi replies without hesitation. Four million—about the entire population of Kashmir at the time.

“Then how many are with Sheikh sahib?” “Forty lakhs,” is the prompt answer. This was Sheikh Abdullah, Kashmir’s most towering leader, who was “deposed” by the Indian government with Bakshi’s help and thrown into jail, a year after being elected the state’s prime minister, in 1951. “So then how many in Kashmir are with Sadiq?” GM Sadiq was Bakshi’s main rival for the affections of the Indian government. “Forty lakhs,” Bakshi steadily returns.

When told to visitors, this story usually ends with a smile, an open-ended gesture towards the chimeric loyalties of the Kashmiri people. Here everyone goes along with everything, it implies, people submit to whomever seems most powerful. This droll account of servile acquiescence sits uncomfortably with the political struggles that have been waged in Kashmir for more than sixty years—and especially with the last quarter century, which has witnessed an armed resistance and the death of almost seventy thousand Kashmiris.

Politicians in India have long fetishised elections, elevating them from just one procedural element of democracy to being its very core, its principal and often only yardstick. These are the largest, the most diverse and colourful elections in the world, the claim goes—so this must be a successful democracy. Nowhere does this ring more hollow than in Kashmir. In the past 25 years, Kashmiris have seen every single substantive attribute of democracy come under assault: freedom from violence, harassment and unlawful detention; protection of the right to free speech, assembly and travel; and, more insidiously, control over public spaces, water and land. The rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, the pre-eminence of civilian leadership—as each protection dissolves, it’s left to elections to fitfully paper over the cracks.

Kashmir’s last assembly elections were in December 2008. (Jammu and Kashmir typically elects its assembly on an unusual six-year cycle.) They came at the end of a watershed year that saw a huge popular upsurge, much of it centred on Srinagar, where massive demonstrations, often of several hundred thousand people, had marched through the city. What started with a handful of innocuous protests quickly morphed into a critical moment in Kashmir’s contemporary history. But when the ballots were counted at the end of December, the turnout in the valley was an unexpected 45.68 percent. That isolated number became the flagpole upon which Indian television networks hoisted their hyperbole. “A victory for democracy,” one anchor pronounced. Another said, more paradoxically: “A victory for the people of India.” The dark times are over, a third declared—this was the “end of separatism.”

A few months from now, Kashmir will go to the polls again to vote a fresh set of lawmakers into the state legislature. Some Kashmiris will vote of their own free will, and some because they have been induced to, or quietly coerced. They will also do so in the hope that their representatives will help them access the levers of governance, and scarce resources. Many more will keep away as part of a boycott, or perhaps out of fear. And several thousand, most of them young, will battle the massive military apparatus that will be deployed to secure the election. There will inevitably be some killings. Many more will be injured, maimed, or blinded. But what will be picked up, burnished, and then widely circulated, will be the voter turnout, that ultimate barometer of democratic performance.

|TWO |

A DAY AFTER THE POLLING FOR ANANTNAG, we drove to a campaign meeting in Budgam, on the outskirts of Srinagar. The district is part of the Srinagar parliamentary constituency, but most of it is far enough from the big city to belong to the countryside. There were no signs of campaigning in the villages and hamlets we passed through, and it was only when we hit a series of checkpoints manned by soldiers that we knew we were on the right track for Waterhal village and a rally of the National Conference. Farooq Abdullah—Sheikh Abdullah’s son and political heir, and like his late father a former head of the state—was the party’s candidate for the Srinagar seat. He was to address the gathering along with his own son and political heir, Omar Abdullah, who for the past six years has been, like his father and grandfather before him, Jammu and Kashmir’s chief minister.

When we arrived, the rutted lanes of Waterhal were bristling with armed police, paramilitary soldiers, plain-clothes security men, and dozens of SUVs. Both the Abdullahs are rated Z-plus, the highest in the pecking order of security. The venue, approved by the Special Security Group that guards father and son, was an open space between a small local shrine, the asthan of the Sufi saint Syed Hossan Bukhari, and the more imposing structure of the Jamia Masjid Irfan ul Haq. It was Friday, and as people poured out of the mosque after the afternoon namaz they were easily corralled into the space marked off by the security men. From the stage, recitations from the Quran smoothed the transition from prayer to politics, sung in Kashmir’s distinctive naat-e-sharif.

“Look, look! Who comes this way?” As the Abdullahs stepped on stage with their retinue of ministers and supporters and security men, a young man in the front row, his shoulders draped in a huge version of the National Conference’s red flag, began the rallying cry in Urdu. The refrain came back from the crowd: “Sher aya, Sher aya!” The Lion is here. This adulatory slogan was first raised for Sheikh Abdullah almost seventy years ago, and the spirit of Sher-i-Kashmir, the Lion of Kashmir, still floats over the party he helped found. His face looked down on the crowd from a modest vinyl hoarding that read “Marhum Baba-e-Qu’am”—the late Father of the Nation.

“This Kashmir drenched with our blood, that Kashmir belongs to us,” the slogans continued. This, too, comes from 1947, when the casual brutality of Partition ran its blade across the weakening hold of Jammu and Kashmir’s Dogra Hindu ruler. Kashmiris had been struggling against the yoke of Dogra feudalism for several decades, pre-eminently under the Muslim Conference, which was later reconstituted as the National Conference. In 1947, when state-supported irregulars from Pakistan crossed the new border to claim the Muslim-majority province and Indian soldiers landed in Srinagar, Kashmir became a battleground. Kashmiris were suddenly forced to take sides: India or Pakistan—or the then unspoken option of azadi, independence.

THE ACTUAL EXPERIENCE OF DEMOCRACY in Kashmir had a disappointing start. In the first election, in 1951, the National Conference, under the dominating presence of Sheikh Abdullah, stepped in to help India “retain” Kashmir. Only two of the state’s 75 legislative assembly seats were actually contested. In the rest, opposition parties were simply not allowed to file nominations. This happened with the concurrence of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru; with the world looking over his shoulder, he desperately needed to demonstrate the legitimacy of India’s control over Kashmir. Sheikh Abdullah, at that time a personal friend of Nehru, took over as the prime minister of Jammu and Kashmir.

With little trace of self-consciousness, Nehru defended these events because, as he said, politics in Kashmir revolved around personalities. “There is no material for democracy there,” he once said. His views were self-fulfilling: in less than a year, he was already unnerved by Sheikh Abdullah’s occasional public considerations of full independence as an option for Kashmir. Sheikh Abdullah was promptly arrested, and incarcerated for the better part of the next twenty years.

When the next elections came, in 1957, Nehru is said to have written to Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed, Sheikh Abdullah’s successor, suggesting that he generously lose a few seats, so that the image of the world’s largest democracy would not be tarnished. But such niceties cut little ice with the National Conference. It was unstoppable, and won 68 seats. Half of these were uncontested. In 1962, it repeated this strategy, and won seventy seats. Again half were uncontested. By the time the elections of 1967 came by, Nehru was dead, and his daughter, Indira Gandhi, was now the prime minister of India. Things had changed, but not enough. This time it was Bakshi who suddenly found himself out of favour, and in jail. His successor, GM Sadiq, eager to prove his loyalty to Delhi, decided to bury the National Conference as a party, and hurriedly merged its membership with that of Indira Gandhi’s Congress. Tolerating an opposition continued to be little more than a formality. In the 1967 elections, it was now the Congress that won 61 seats. Twenty-two of these were uncontested.

Until 1967, in many constituencies considered politically sensitive today—Anantnag, Ganderbal, Kangan, Karnah, Lolab, Pulwama—the electorate didn’t get a chance to actually vote at all. Some had to wait till the elections of 1977. Voter turnout during this quarter century was consistently low, never more than 25 percent. The lack of enthusiasm was hardly surprising. Whether you voted or not, the conclusions were usually foregone. For all forty lakh Kashmiris.

Today, the National Conference continues to put itself forward as the guardian of Kashmiri identity, and the sole arbiter in the fraught relationship between Kashmiris and India. That mantle is now visibly fraying, and snapping at the heels of the party in this election is its rival for the past decade and a half, the People’s Democratic Party, led by the veteran former Congressman, Mufti Muhammad Sayeed.

AT THE RALLY, the imam of the Waterhal mosque, Sheikh Abdul Ghani Bhat, was the master of ceremonies. He began with a resounding call, “Naarae takbeer, Allah-o-akbar.” In the oneness of God, Allah is great. But the speech that followed was a list of secular, everyday demands. Waterhal should become a tehsil headquarters, and an assembly constituency, he said. It needed a degree college, a dispensary with a compounder, and a hospital. It needed roads, electricity and clean water.

Overhead, on cords running between the shrine and the mosque, were hundreds of small party flags. In the middle of each “nationalee” flag, picked out in white, stood the distinct Kashmiri plough, a potent symbol of the party’s anti-feudal roots. The red ground of the flag was a reminder of the party’s brief dalliance with socialism, in the 1940s, when the National Conference devised arguably the most successful land redistribution programme in the subcontinent. Land to the tiller, and land to the landless—this was as revolutionary an idea then as it is now. The reforms were implemented in the early 1950s by a government under Sheikh Abdullah. The enormous release of productive capacity created by that transformation in agriculture continues to draw many of the older generation to the party.

These material considerations were absent from the lectern that day. The party’s powerful finance minister, Rahim Rather, told the audience that the real issue before them was the prospect of Narendra Modi leading the Bharatiya Janata Party to victory. This would lead to the dilution of the special status accorded to Jammu and Kashmir in the Indian constitution, and would interfere with Muslim personal law through the imposition of a uniform civil code. “This is an attack on us,” he told the crowd. When Omar Abdullah spoke, he too followed that line. People need to vote for the National Conference or else the PDP might win, he told the crowd. If that happens, he insinuated, the PDP is likely to form an alliance with the BJP; then your vote becomes one for Modi, and the conspiracy to wipe out the very existence of Muslims—“hum musalmanon ka wajood mitaney ke liye.”

Through the rally, fairly narrow appeals to the audience’s Muslim identity played like a constant thrum. This has been part of the National Conference’s platform since the 1930s. Sheikh Abdullah would start every public meeting with a recitation from the Quran, and the party has always tethered itself to particular mosques in Srinagar. In the mid 1960s, long after the anti-feudal struggle had ebbed, when the gains of the land reforms were beginning to fade from memory, the party launched its most successful mobilisation, which centred on the rebuilding of the Hazratbal mosque. Cannily asking for just one rupee from every Kashmiri for the construction of a grand marble dome to house the revered Moi-e-muqaddas, a holy relic containing a hair of the Prophet Muhammad, Sheikh Abdullah was able to transform Kashmiris’ deep spiritual feelings into substantial political capital. The party still draws from that dwindling reservoir.

Even at 77, Farooq Abdullah has a reputation for unpredictability that tends to attract crowds. Just a few weeks before the election, armed men attacked National Conference workers in the village of Khrew. Four people were killed, including the two militants alleged to be responsible for the assault. At a public meeting, Farooq told the press that his PDP rival, Mufti Muhammad Sayeed, had a track record of using “bombs, bullets and guns,” and that Sayeed’s party had carried out the attack because “they have already sensed defeat in the polls for Srinagar-Budgam constituency.” But that day at Waterhal the normally ebullient Farooq looked tired and, unusually, spoke while seated on a sofa. There would be a storm of development work, he told the gathering—but not now, later, after this election. Right now the nation must be saved. He used the word watan, so it was unclear whether he meant India or Kashmir. He added that Muslims are in bad shape in Egypt, Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan—“but Allah is with us.”

That the “pro-India” political parties in Kashmir often stand on quicksand became starkly clear at one point in the election, when an overheated Farooq declared that in the eventuality of a BJP victory India would become communal, and then Kashmir could not remain part of the country. These were somewhat empty words. In 1998, the National Conference was very much a part of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government. Though inexperienced and only 29 years old, Omar Abdullah became the government’s poster boy, holding important portfolios, first as Minister of State for Commerce and Industry, and then Minister of State for External Affairs. As a Muslim and a Kashmiri, he was the perfect foil for the BJP, which could not shake off charges of prejudice. When anti-Muslim pogroms gripped Gujarat in February 2002, and more than a thousand Muslims were killed, the BJP was in power both at the centre and in Gujarat state. Through all of it, Omar Abdullah maintained a studied silence about the carnage, and held on to his ministerial appointment. He resigned only at the very end of that year, saying merely that he wanted to devote himself to party work.

In his speech in Waterhal, Omar Abdullah had only casually raised issues of development and governance: “We’ll do what we can. But every vehicle needs fuel, and right now, what the NC needs is for you to fill up our tank. Press the button with the symbol of the Plough on it. Make us win.” But there was no word about the Kashmir issue, which raged everywhere around, or about the militancy, which continues to take the lives of several young men every week. No one spoke about the valley’s endemic militarisation, or its crippling effects on people here. Even the widespread calls for an election boycott were not addressed. As speaker after speaker skirted issues of consequence, the only moments when the audience seemed to connect with the speeches were when the name of the Prophet was taken, or there was some other religious reference. Then you felt a visceral response, a simultaneous, heaving sigh.

At one point, perhaps sensing the crowd’s restiveness, Farooq Abdullah suddenly signalled that the rally was over. “Wake up early on election day,” he reminded everyone as they rose. “Do your morning namaz, and then show up to vote for us.”

The crowd poured out of the ground, and amid the hubbub of a few hundred voices we were swept past the serried ranks of the Special Security Group’s black SUVs, with their extraordinarily long, sloping antennae and tinted windows. Jammers carried by these cars had blocked cell-phone service; with no signal, improvised explosive devices could not be triggered. Stumbling around without a working phone, trying to find the car that would take us back to the city, we suddenly found ourselves in a quiet lane that led to another Sufi asthan. The shrine was also the home of Waterhal’s Mazar-e-shohhada, a martyrs’ graveyard like those that have sprouted in every Kashmir village in the last quarter century of bloodshed.

In the midst of this undulating patch of ground, punctuated by clumps of purple iris, one gravestone, embellished with elaborate calligraphy, drew my attention. Huv-wal baqi,said the customary inscription. Only He Remains. Below that, a couplet in Urdu read, “It’s evident to the world, we’re flower and we’re sword, too. Either we’ll make fragrant the garden of life, or bathe in blood before we rest.”Then the details of the deceased: “Abdul Latif Dar, alias Rashid, r/o Waterhal Budgam. 22/09/03.” It was a reminder that no one—militant or collaborator, activist or fence-sitter—is a bystander in Kashmir. Whether you were jailed, tortured, crippled, injured, disappeared, psychologically damaged, made a migrant or made homeless, or lost a family member—no matter where you stood, or what happened to you—everyone had been transformed by the tehreek, the movement.

Crammed below the dead man’s name was a second couplet: Socha hai Kafeel, abh kuch bhi ho, har haal mein apna haqq lengey;izzat sey jiye, toh jee lengey, ya jaam-e-shahadat pee lengey. Whatever happens, we’ll take our rights, says Kafeel. If a life of dignity it is, then we’ll live, else we drink the elixir of martyrdom.

Dignity, rights, resistance: the tired politics on the stage that day clearly had no way of dealing with this.


WHEN KASHMIR GOES TO THE POLLS again in a few months, the task of those who resist the elections will be refigured. People may no longer have to deal with the one-sided walkovers that characterised elections in the 1950s and 1960s, or the thuggery and bogus voting which marred elections from the 1970s to the 1990s. Instead, recent elections have seen carefully calibrated inducements to vote. In 2002, there was outright coercion. In 2008, the elections came on the back of ferocious political repression, even while politicians insisted that the vote was about people’s need for governance.

“What do you think?” a young Kashmiri policeman unexpectedly asked me at baggage screening. He didn’t wait for an answer: “Kashmiris don’t deserve azadi.” I was in the Srinagar airport on the day after the 2008 assembly elections. On previous exits, this fresh-faced inspector had never offered more than a polite nod, but that morning he could not stop. “After all that happened this year, all the protests, and sixty people martyred, remember—look at the way they went out and voted,” he said. His voice was low, steady, angry. It was “shaheed,” martyr, for those killed in that year’s clashes, but “they” for the voters. His outburst continued, peppered with the word sharm—shame. In the departure lounge, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s words were crawling across a television ticker: “Large turnout is a vote for democracy, a vote for national integration.” Even an Opposition spokesman had to agree with him: “Indian democracy has won.”

On the streets of Kashmir, however, “sharm” had cropped up with an unfamiliar frequency in the last days of the election, an unlikely echo of the months just past. For the massive protests of the summer of 2008 had almost wrested public spaces back from Indian security forces, and the numbers on the streets had suggested that the desire for azadi, after years of looking worn out, was set to recapture the public imagination.

The trouble began modestly enough—as small, localised demonstrations over the transfer of a hundred acres of public land to a state-run body that oversees the Amarnath yatra, a Hindu pilgrimage to a natural cave high up in the mountains of south-west Kashmir. For a few weeks every year, usually in July, an ice lingam materialises in the cave. Believers consider it to be an incarnation of Shiva. The disputed land was an alpine pasture already used as a camping ground by pilgrims making their way up to the shrine. But in Kashmir tens of thousands of acres of agricultural, orchard and forest land had already been taken over by army and paramilitary forces to house their cantonments, vast logistics bases and dreaded detention camps. (One recent estimate suggests that the more than 650 security-force installations in the valley occupy a staggering 125,000 acres.) The formal acquisition of yet another piece of public land was incendiary.

When the crisis erupted, the Shree Amarnath Shrine Board was under the direct charge of the governor of Jammu and Kashmir, SK Sinha, a doughty 83-year-old retired lieutenant general of the Indian Army. Sinha had spent much of his tenure as governor preoccupied with using the pilgrimage to spearhead Kashmir’s integration into the “national mainstream.” For several months every year, districts along the route became almost paralysed, as everyone in government was drawn into the pilgrimage’s logistics—including doctors, veterinarians, school-teachers, policemen and, of course, the army. Somewhat surprisingly, the number of pilgrims visiting the cave had grown exponentially through the years of armed conflict in Kashmir—from around thirty thousand in 1990 to roughly 530,000 in 2008. These figures were closely monitored and widely publicised. Twinned with declining estimates of the number of militants operating in the valley, they were a vital component of the official weather report, and part of the matrix through which Kashmir’s “normalcy” could be described to the world.

The protests over the Amarnath land boiled over in May and June 2008. Soon, there emerged a struggle for a much larger—and more abstract—territory: the streets, meeting grounds and public spaces of Kashmir. Since the mid 1990s, public meetings had required the approval of the authorities—a privilege given only to political parties who swore by the Indian constitution. The overwhelming control of the Indian security forces defined life here. Now, suddenly, there were days when more than two hundred thousand people were out on the streets, unarmed and defiant. The security forces seemed diminished. A familiar slogan returned to ask an old question, Hum kya chahtey—what do we want? The full-throated answer was plain: Azadi, azadi!

THE LAST TIME KASHMIR had seen such energetic, quicksilver mobilisations was in 1987. In that year’s state elections, the ruling National Conference, under Farooq Abdullah, was forced into a pre-poll alliance with the Congress, a party that Sheikh Abdullah had bitterly contested against for most of the previous forty years. The space for representing Kashmiri identity had opened up, and was quickly filled by new political forces. A range of organisations rallied around the green flag of the Muslim United Front, most notably the Jamaat-i-Islami Jammu Kashmir.

When the emergent MUF decided to fight elections, under the symbol of a pen and an inkpot, the response was beyond anyone’s expectations. The Kashmiri writer PG Rasool told me about a now legendary MUF rally he attended in Srinagar’s Iqbal Park that March. There was an electric moment when a young radical in the massive crowd held up an Indian flag and set it on fire. Still, the MUF represented the last constitutionally bound opposition that India would encounter in Kashmir in the coming decade of armed struggle. “The thrust of the speeches was, you must vote, you must defeat the National Conference,” Rasool recalled. “Not so much pro-independence, as anti-NC.”

The response of the National Conference government was predictable. Hundreds of MUF campaign workers were arrested on flimsy charges, brutally beaten and humiliated in prison. While there, three disenchanted electoral workers—Hamid Sheikh, Ashfaq Majid Wani, and Yasin Malik—met up with Javed Mir. After their release, the now legendary HAJY group—an acronym of their initials—crossed into Pakistan for weapons training. They returned as the first armed guerrillas of the avowedly nationalist Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, which had been founded by the charismatic Maqbool Butt ten years earlier.

But the quintessential story of that election is about Mohammed Yusuf Shah, the MUF candidate from Amirakadal, in downtown Srinagar. As the results started coming in, Yusuf Shah was brazenly arrested from the counting hall, presumably for taking the lead over his well-connected rival, the National Conference candidate Ghulam Mohiuddin Shah. Yusuf Shah eventually lost, and spent nine months in prison. Then he, too, crossed over into Pakistan, where he became a founding member of the militant Hizb-ul Mujahideen. Today, he is the group’s amir, or military commander, and is widely known by his nom de guerre, Syed Salahuddin.

If the rigging and malfeasance of the 1987 polls deepened Kashmiris’ disenchantment with India, and created the immediate conditions for the years of armed struggle that followed, the massive demonstrations of 2008 seemed to send a very different signal to the militants. For the first time in more than two decades, it seemed that the initiative of the resistance was back in the hands of the people on the streets.

Throughout that tumultuous summer, the state government—a precarious coalition between the PDP and the Congress—made itself almost invisible. The alliance came to power in the 2002 elections under an unusual arrangement: the PDP’s Mufti Muhammad Sayeed was to be chief minister for three years, followed by Ghulam Nabi Azad of the Congress for an equal term. In the middle of the 2008 crisis, with the fractious coalition headed towards its last six months, the PDP opportunistically withdrew its support, and brought down the government, thereby distancing itself from the consequences of the Amarnath land dispute.

This was just the sort of nimble footwork that had enabled the meteoric rise of the PDP. Founded in 1999, during a period when the National Conference appeared to have completely exhausted its goodwill with its constituency, the PDP had easily slipped into the garb of representing Kashmiris in their protracted face-off with India. Although he was a former union home minister, and a rock-solid “pro-India” politician, Mufti Sayeed managed to obscure this taint, and launched his new party with a well-timed slogan, “the healing touch.” Wracked by a decade of bloodshed, many Kashmiris desperately wanted to believe in the possibility of restoration. What had harmed Kashmiri society most grievously in the preceding decade was the Ikhwan, a paramilitary force of surrendered militants raised by the security establishment in the mid 1990s. Ikhwanis developed a reputation for abduction, extortion, torture and robbery. They also carried out assassinations, random killings and rapes, all with impunity. But by 2002, with the army and the security grid confident of their control, the government began to officially disassociate itself from the Ikhwanis’ depredations. As the PDP braced itself for state elections later that year, Mufti Sayeed was quick to suggest that the Ikhwanis were the creation of the National Conference, and made it a campaign promise to end their violence.

As its election symbol, his fledgling party chose the pen and inkpot, and a green flag—exactly what the Muslim United Front had campaigned under in 1987. Mehbooba Mufti, the PDP president, now travelled fearlessly in south Kashmir, entering areas where militants held sway, and where her rivals from the National Conference would not dare to campaign. An eyewitness who was a young police officer at the time told me recently, “Even the army was reluctant to patrol those areas after dusk. But she would usually wear a green headscarf or a green cloak, and tell her audiences that the pen and inkpot had been given to their party by Brother Syed Salahuddin.” In a rash of militant attacks that broke out around the 2002 elections, almost eighty political workers were killed. The National Conference bore the brunt, losing 32 workers, while the PDP was relatively unscathed.Eventually the PDP won 16 seats, most of them from south Kashmir, where the militancy was at its strongest.

AT THE END OF JUNE 2008, SK Sinha finished his term as governor, his vision for the Amarnath pilgrimage in some disarray. As his successor, the Indian government brought in the former bureaucrat NN Vohra, who had long been its interlocutor on Kashmir. A few weeks later, as the PDP brought down the government and Kashmir returned to Governor’s Rule, the rage and resentment accumulated over the years poured over into the streets of Srinagar, and of smaller towns such as Achabal, Ganderbal, Sopore, and Shopian. Even in garrison towns such as Baramulla and Trehgam, where the army had dominated life for more than fifty years, soldiers were taken aback by the numbers of protestors on the streets—and by their unexpected non-violence. As young girls in crisp school uniforms, their heads demurely covered, marched past heavily armed sentry posts—singing in Urdu, “O tyrants, O murderers, just leave our Kashmir!”—there was little even the army could do except wait and watch. For the first time in its two-decade face-off with the people, the security establishment had blinked. And everyone had noticed.

Although every shade of pro-freedom opposition had by then been put away by the government—the “hard-line” of Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the “moderate” voices of Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Shabir Shah, and the JKLF’s Yasin Malik—a loosely organised “coordination committee” had materialised. After several weeks of strikes, the committee gave a sudden call for “MuzaffarabadChalo!

Muzaffarabad Chalo! was to be a march to the first town on the other side of the hated Line of Control, the de facto border between Indian-held and Pakistani-held Kashmir. It was a reaction to a blockade of the essential highway that passes through Jammu to Kashmir by Hindu chauvinist organisations staging counter-protests. The symbolism was clear: if some people in India were going to try and demoralise the valley by choking off its supplies, then Kashmiris would use their last breath to break through the LOC and reach out to the other side. The march began on the morning of 11 August, with thousands setting off from Srinagar in a procession of buses, cars and motorcycles. At Patan, Sopore and Baramulla, more and more people joined, until the number of those headed for the border ran into the tens of thousands.

The march might only have been symbolic, but at Boniyar, near the Uri military garrison, a massive deployment of police, backed up by units of the army, had set up a barricade. As the protestors approached, they were led by Sheikh Abdul Aziz, a former militant turned moderate political leader. Tear gas canisters and warning shots were fired. Then a single bullet dropped Aziz. His cold-blooded killing was a clear signal that the Indian government had become impatient with the new confidence being displayed on the streets. At his funeral the next day, the coordination committee called for Pampore Chalo!—a march to his home town, on the outskirts of Srinagar. Tens of thousands gathered there for a prayer meeting on 16 August. Buoyed, the committee promptly called for Idgah Chalo!—a march to the vast prayer ground in the heart of Srinagar. Hundreds of thousands of Kashmiris responded.

A formal statement soon appeared from the United Jehad Council, an amalgam of 13 militant groups based in Muzaffarabad and headed by Syed Salahuddin. Salahuddin announced, “We have decided that no active militant will display weapons in public. We have directed the militants not to carry out any military activity in the places where freedom marches and demonstrations will take place.” This was to deny Indian security forces any excuse to fire on unarmed protestors, he added.

On 24 August, there was a call for Lal Chowk Chalo!a march on Srinagar’s business district, the traditional stage for protests in Kashmir. Jawaharlal Nehru and Sheikh Abdullah stood there as equals in 1947, as India promised deliverance to the Kashmiris. Nehru also stood there when he promised the people of Kashmir a referendum on the future of the state. Delirious crowds received Sheikh Abdullah here in 1975, at the end of a two-decade incarceration. In January 1991, with Kashmir in the thick of an armed uprising, the BJP president, Murli Manohar Joshi, decided to travel to Srinagar with supporters on India’s Republic Day, to patriotically hoist the Indian flag at Lal Chowk. The march had to be given up when Joshi’s heavily protected entourage came under rocket attack from militants. Eventually, the Border Security Force raised the flag there, where it had flown ever since—under constant guard and protected by a bunker. In the summer of 2008, faced with tens of thousands of protestors, the security forces had to pull back, and suffer the ignominy of watching young men clamber up Lal Chowk’s clock tower and fly a green flag from the roof.

In a matter of months—after twenty years of gruelling conflict, and just when the Indian government seemed ready to announce victory over Kashmiri separatism—the Indian position had begun to appear untenable. When the coordination committee called for Lal Chowk Chalo! the administration panicked. It declared a complete curfew in Srinagar, and began to barricade the square. For nine days the city was shut down, and every arterial road to the centre was blocked off with row upon row of concertina wire. Sealed off by ten-foot-tall sheets of corrugated metal, the clock tower stood deserted, bearing its forlorn tricolour. It was a startling image of India’s crisis of credibility in Kashmir. At such a moment, nothing could have seemed more preposterous than a call for elections.


“WE HAVE TAKEN A RISK, India’s chief election commissioner, N Gopalaswami, admitted in mid October 2008, with voting for the Jammu and Kashmir assembly a bare four weeks away. A quiet semaphore of press leaks in the preceding month had suggested that it had not been an easy decision for the government to make.

The immediate pressure to hold elections had come from a constitutional twist. With the collapse of its government, Jammu and Kashmir was headed for an extended spell of Governor’s Rule. This would reignite the charge that democracy was severely strained in Kashmir, and expose the delicately constructed official Indian position that all was well in the valley, and that a process of “normalisation” was almost complete. It would also weaken the argument that the separatists had lost popular support over the years.

It was an odd time to schedule a vote in Kashmir, with the valley headed into chilla-i-kallan, the coldest part of the year. But more than the impending winter, there was a general apprehension that, in the aftermath of the summer’s protests, a resentful population might simply not vote. “Let us restore the confidence of the people first,” the PDP president, Mehbooba Mufti, had said. Forced onto the campaign trail, the National Conference threw up a defensive smokescreen. This election was not going to be about the masla-e-Kashmir at all, it said repeatedly. Voters were asked to separate the Kashmir issue from the everyday desire for bijli, sadak, pani—electricity, roads and water.

But voters were not easily distracted. When Omar Abdullah came to file his nomination papers in Ganderbal, a constituency his family had nurtured for three generations, the entire town observed a shutdown. Omar had to literally fight his way into what was regarded as a pocket borough. Despite a massive deployment of police and paramilitary troops, people gathered to raise pro-freedom slogans, and security forces had to fire tear-gas shells to chase them away. In Pulwama, a crowd shouting anti-election slogans waylaid Mehbooba Mufti’s cavalcade as she came to file her nomination as the PDP candidate from Wachi constituency.

Well before the elections were formally announced, it had become clear that it was not going to be left to the political parties to mobilise voters. Kashmir’s ruthless security apparatus had started cranking up older, more ominous forms of persuasion. The first step was to stem opposition to the election. The leaders of the Hurriyat Conference—Kashmir’s prominent alliance of political, social and religious organisations committed to achieving political self-determination—had already been incarcerated. As the summer began to fade, video recordings of the recent protests were analysed, police station by police station. Local intelligence units and Special Branch forces were tasked with identifying faces—the significant slogan shouters, the daredevil stone throwers, and particularly anyone who seemed able to arouse a crowd, or keep its morale up. They were picked up, first ten, then fifty, till the number ran into several hundreds. The very young were called in with their parents, threatened, and warned of the dire future that awaited troublemakers. The more recalcitrant were thrashed, and sent back humiliated. It seemed like every young man who had ideas about opposing the election was now carrying weals across his back and the threat of a formal arrest in his head.

You didn’t have to do too much to be detained. The police in Kashmir could choose to apply an array of draconian statutes—the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, the Disturbed Areas Act, and the omnibus Public Safety Act. To simply be associated with a separatist group—even an “overground” one—allowed the police to detain you for upwards of six months. The rubric was generous: to prevent people from “acting in any matter prejudicial to the security of the state, and the maintenance of public order.” To justify an arrest under the PSA, the police only needed a district magistrate to sign off on a one-page “order.” This allowed people to be detained for up to two years, without legal recourse. (Between 2008 and 2010, nearly one thousand Kashmiris were detained under the PSA.) Those unfortunate enough to have had their names, faces and personal histories recorded by the intelligence services in Kashmir know that an arrest is in itself a kind of life sentence, a roller-coaster that no one ever really gets off.

By the middle of September, the first chill of the coming winter had carried onto the streets. From south Kashmir came reports that the Ikhwanis had reappeared. In Islamabad town, they had been called in to help enforce a week-long curfew imposed on 24 August, and they were still around a month later, when the elections were announced, milling about their camps, and patrolling in their dreaded white bulletproof Gypsy jeeps, brandishing weapons. A picture of one of their camps appeared in a Delhi newspaper, with an explicit reminder of the Ikhwanis’ mandate: “Get them by their balls, hearts and minds will follow,” it said in green lettering on the side of a building. Just in case there was any confusion about their long-term goals, the rest of the slogan was completed in saffron paint: “We are proud of being Indian.” In some key constituencies, important Ikhwanis even announced that they would stand for elections.

The advantage of the Ikhwanis’ presence went to the PDP: a whisper diffused that a vote for the National Conference would revive the darkest period of the 1990s, the Ikhwani daur. This fed on the memory that the dreaded Special Operations Group was first unleashed—perhaps coincidentally—just before Farooq Abdullah came back to power in 1996. The rumour was particularly productive in south Kashmir, where it rattled Jamaat-i-Islami cadres. Although officially the Jamaat took no position on the elections, its extremely disciplined and influential members mobilised significant blocs of voters to stop the National Conference.

WITH THE STREETS CLEARED of anyone who could organise a poll boycott, the schedule for the 2008 election was announced. It was to roll out over an unprecedented seven phases, with the voting stretched over five weeks. It had become almost conventional for the Election Commission to begin the polls in the areas of least resistance—in the more remote parts of the countryside, where people are more isolated and vulnerable, and therefore less likely to be able to choose not to vote. The often inaccessible Gurez valley, for example, went to the polls in the first phase. Gurez had the feel of an army encampment, with some sixty thousand soldiers and a scattered population of thirty thousand civilians. With only half of that population eligible to vote, each voter could literally have been assigned four armed minders.

Now every part of the Kashmir valley was flooded with troops. To supplement over half a million soldiers deployed as part of the permanent security grid, additional paramilitary forces were flown in from all over India—452 companies of a hundred men each. With about a thousand polling stations in each phase of voting, almost fifty soldiers were available to oversee every single booth. If this was not enough pressure on voters, the final tightening of the tourniquet was provided by a curfew: each round of voting was preceded by an unprecedented week-long lockdown.

When the voting concluded, the initial turnout surprised no one. The heavily militarised Bandipora reported a 64 percent turnout. Gurez racked up 10 percentage points more. A week later, Ganderbal, which was Omar Abdullah’s constituency, had a 52 percent turnout. Kupwara returned 62 percent.

As the voting moved towards more volatile assembly constituencies, all eyes remained fixed on the numbers. Days before voting in Baramulla, violent protests tore through the town and two young men were shot dead. Yet the turnout was 33 percent, an increase of almost ten percentage points over the previous election. Sopore moved from 8 percent to 20, Tral from 12 percent to 49, and Bijbehara from 17 percent to a whopping 61. In 2002, all eight constituencies of Srinagar city polled a total of just over thirty thousand votes—a 5 percent turnout. Now that figure touched 22 percent. Suddenly, nothing seemed to stem the Kashmiris’ need to vote, not even their own protests.

There were important answers buried in the footnotes. As detailed data was released, it became clear that the number of candidates had doubled since the last election. With 1,354 candidates for 87 assembly districts, there were sometimes an unheard of twenty hopefuls for each seat. More than five hundred were independents, first time candidates, or political unknowns. This proliferation of candidates was also supported by a rash of Indian political parties, of which a record-breaking 43 entered the fray.

Almost every one of the “Independents & Others” forfeited their deposits. In seven seats, the vote was so fractured that all the losing candidates lost their fees. Still, each one picked up a few votes—from family, relatives, neighbours friends, colleagues, employees, or any networks they could call upon. What mattered was that they got people to the polls, and succeeded in pushing up turnout. In some assembly seats notorious for their resistance to voting, the collective impact of this flood of candidates was startling. In Tral, where the turnout went up by 37 percent, independents accounted for more than half of the increase. In both Pampore and Pulwama, it went up by nearly a quarter; independents supplied 65 percent and 80 percent of the respective boosts.

Even on the back of the tumultuous summer of protests, voting had inexplicably gone up across most of Kashmir. That’s where the shock, and perhaps the shame, of the turnout came from. People had voted because they wanted to protect themselves in uncertain times.


A TRADER FROM SRINAGAR called it Arf-e-jamhuriyat,playing on the irony of the word Arfa, the solemn day that precedes Eid celebrations. That would make the next day, when Srinagar went to the polls, Eid-e-jamhuriyat, the festival of democracy. His spice shop stood in the old part of the city, where negotiating the traffic on either day was usually impossible. But as Srinagar constituency inched towards its polling day in the general elections this April, the roads had gradually emptied, and very few people were about. Caught off guard by the low turnout in the Anantnag constituency, and with some sense of the resistance young people were likely to put up in Srinagar, the authorities were taking no chances. Preventive arrests had been mounting; unofficial estimates put the number at more than five hundred. Those who had been detained before the previous week’s polling were still being held. Humhama jail, on the outskirts of Srinagar, was bursting at the seams. Anyone who had spoken publicly about boycotting the elections was locked up. This included every single person with a leadership role in the resistance, including many—such as Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Shabir Shah and Yasin Malik—who had been jailed during the entire summer of 2008.

On election day, the only guaranteed turnout seemed to be for cricket, which drew what seemed like every young man and boy in Srinagar onto the streets. In an otherwise deserted city, you frequently ran into improvised stumps smack in the middle of the street. There was a rhythm to these encounters: as you approached each pitch, you had to slow down to negotiate the stones scattered on the road. The fielders then airily waved your car past, pointing out the best passage.

That day, the riot squads of the Jammu and Kashmir police wore cricket pads too, as if they, too, were waiting to be called to the crease. Their pads were the exact same shade of khaki as their uniforms, which were the same shade as their padded vests. Cushioned from the ankle to the chin, and topped off with helmets, the police were ready for any stone-throwers.

By late afternoon, as voting wound down, the stumps were drawn. It was only then, with the stones now piled diligently on roadsides, that it became apparent that the cricket was merely a prelude. At dusk, voting machines and election officials had to be safely escorted out of the polling stations, and only after this could the dense security cover be withdrawn. It was a tense, vulnerable hour, and, as we drove deeper into the heart of the old city, the paramilitary’s Quick Reaction Teams appeared more frequently. Near the Jamia Masjid, several hundred Central Reserve Police Force men had massed. None of the sporting charm of khaki cricket pads here—just menacing all-black riot gear. “Darth Vader in cheap black plastic,” a young friend had called them. Even in the gloaming, the signals were clear. The day may have belonged to the security forces, but at dusk the two sides were more evenly matched. Everybody in the middle, the press included, had better move out of the way.

We had barely escaped the pressure cooker of downtown Srinagar when reports reached us that a stone had cracked open the skull of a polling official. This turned out to be no more than a rumour—but in Kashmir such diversions usually arrive just ahead of information that someone wants masked. The bad news arrived like clockwork: Bashir Ahmed Bhat, a 24-year-old artisan, freshly bathed after a day’s labour, had stepped out onto the street to see what was happening. A hyper-tense paramilitary force, cautiously withdrawing from the area, opened fire. Bhat died before he could be taken to the casualty ward. From local hospitals, there was news of more bullet wounds: a young girl named Haleema and a teenager named Nazir Ahmed Kaloo had been shot.

Meanwhile, the all-important turnout figures for the Srinagar constituency were coming in: 26.64 percent, a one-point increase over the 2009 general elections. But the neighbourhoods of the old town had reasserted their tradition of boycotts. Amirakadal reported 7.7 percent turnout, Batmaloo 13, Eidgah 10.8, Habbakadal 4.3, Hazratbal 17.9, Khanyar 10.2, and Zadibal 5.6.

The next morning, I looked for news of Haleema and Nazir Ahmed, but their names didn’t make it into the papers. It seemed that Nazir Ahmed had simply gotten up from his hospital bed and walked off. After that, nothing more was known. Perhaps he knew that in the aftermath of protest in Kashmir, only the dead can bear scrutiny. For the living, injured or not, it is best to stay out of the record books.

A WEEK LATER, I was in Trehgam town in north Kashmir’s Kupwara district. At 7.45 am, the large, well-protected campus of the Government Girls Middle School, Bonpora, already had a buzz about it. Baramulla constituency, which covers all of north Kashmir, was to elect its member of parliament in this last phase of the election. Long lines of men and women clutching their voter identity cards had formed. “We have 4,761 voters here, sir,” a polling agent informed me. He seemed surprised to see the press so early in the morning. I was surprised to see a polling agent. “Inshallah, we’ll have a grand turnout here today.” In Kashmir, it’s always the turnout.

The ubiquitous use of “sir” in this area is a marker of just how overwhelming the military presence is. From young boys to grizzled old men, everyone always uses the term for outsiders—soldier or civilian—irrespective of age and status. Situated close to the border with Pakistan, Trehgam has housed a brigade of the Indian Army since 1947. With hundreds of thousands of soldiers deployed in the region, all of Kupwara feels like a garrison. Units of the army’s Rashtriya Rifles, a specialised counter-insurgency force created in 1990 to battle militancy in Kashmir, occupy all the important features in this landscape. Towns have boards displaying the name and cell-phone number of the “Town Commander,” usually an army major, for citizens to contact. Massive barriers strictly regulate access to two of Kupwara’s most important valleys, the Lolab and Rajwar. Once the gates shut at sundown, nothing can persuade the soldiers to lift them again—not the need for a doctor, or the urgency of a woman in labour.

A local schoolteacher, known as Masterji, had walked me through some curious sums the previous evening. In the harsh winter, every four soldiers get to share a bukhari, a coal-fired heater, he said. “For 300,000 soldiers, that would be 75,000 bukharisrunning through the winter. That’s just the coal to keep them warm. Think now of the thousands of trucks that move on Kupwara’s roads everyday to keep them provisioned. These endless convoys have already affected our apple crop, and orchards that line convoy routes have shown a significant drop in productivity.” Without control over the landscape, villages have slowly lost access to grazing pastures for their animals, and to the forest that was once their source of firewood and timber. Even local streams first serve the army camps, which are invariably on higher ground. In particularly obstinate villages, security forces can choke off the water at will—a threat no peasant can stand up to.

“When a soldier does not abuse, and just orders us about, we feel happy, sir, very much happy,” Masterji said. “If a soldier teases one of the women here, we don’t think that abnormal. When we stop noticing the abuses, sir, then we are normal.

“You know that Kunan-Poshpora is not far from here,” he added, referring to twin villages where soldiers committed an infamous mass rape in 1991. “Dardpora, the village of widows, is also a short distance away.” It has lost hundreds of men to the armed militancy. “And Maqbool Butt, our hero, his mother still lives in this town, sir. Yet we have more than 85 percent voting. That is what you have to understand.”

TO COME AWAY FROM KUPWARA is to return after a peep into the abyss. In the last 25 years, thousands of civilians have been killed in this district. Their graves dot the mountains. For the living, what autonomy remains is disciplined by the relentless frequency of checking and frisking, several times a day, every single day. To just survive this regime, some form of identification is mandatory. For anyone over 18, a voter-identity card issued by the government has become the only proof acceptable to soldiers. Register to become a voter, and that becomes your identity. “Vote for whoever you want,” an army brigadier once told a friend of mine in Trehgam, “but vote you must. Voh hee toh aapki pehchan hai”—that alone is your identity.

In this remote corner of Kashmir, “turnout” did not reflect an attempt to plug into a system that might bring water to taps, replace a burned-out electrical transformer, or put tarmac on badly rutted roads. People in this district voted to keep at bay questions about life and liberty. Was there no way to contest this fear, I asked Masterji, perhaps naively. My question triggered a list of names: “Habibullah Wani, teacher from Trehgam; Saifuddin Sheikh, lecturer from Aloosa; Ali Mohammad Mir, teacher from Dardpura Payeen; Altaf Hussain Khan, teacher from Hyhama”—all from what he described as the danishmand tabqa, the class of wise people. They’re all dead, killed in various unexplained encounters.

In the urban areas of Baramulla constituency, however, people had nevertheless resisted on the final day of elections. That morning, the stone-pelting in Sopore town was so severe that officials had to hurriedly relocate 18 polling stations, shepherding their equipment and staff into the more secure premises of the Government Degree College. By early afternoon, only six votes had been cast at these 18 booths. In Palhallan, the day had begun with a small IED exploding outside a polling booth. There were no injuries. By the end of the day, the village of six thousand voters had confirmed its reputation as a centre of resistance: not a single vote had been cast.

On the outskirts of Baramulla town, we were slowed down by some boys playing cricket on the road outside a Rashtriya Rifles camp. The Sikh soldiers of this battalion had a fierce reputation, and there seemed little chance that this particular game would morph into stone-pelting. A few kilometres later, we were stopped by a section of soldiers from the camp. They appeared to be waiting for something, their attention focused on some nearby lanes. Automatic weapons were slung across their backs, and they carried clear acrylic shields—a reminder, if any was needed, that after almost two decades of battling armed militant groups what the Rashtriya Rifles are now up against in Kashmir are armies of young sang-bazan, stone throwers, and the prospect of prolonged civic strife.

Periodically, a few stones came the way of the watchful soldiers. At one point, an officer peeled off from the group and ordered us to turn back. He was young, perhaps 25, not much older than the boys he was looking for. Suddenly, he dashed over to a pile of rocks on the road, grabbed a handful and, hitching up his shield, ran off in the direction of the stone throwers. “Aa raha hun bhenchod. Aa raha hun bhenchod,” he yelled, over and over again, as he sprinted away. I’m coming, you sister-fuckers. His men, some of them weathered veterans of the counter-insurgency, looked stunned, but only for an instant. Then they did exactly what the sahib had done. They all picked up stones and raced after him.

As our car backed away, the lane hiding the stone throwers briefly slid into view. They were only a handful, at the end of the alley, dressed like the young people you would find loitering in the market, or playing cricket. Most of them hadn’t even bothered to cover their faces. They stood there unmoving, goading the charging riflemen on with gestures, until the soldiers got close enough. Then the rocks came out from behind their backs, and you heard the crack of stone hitting shield. So ferocious was the assault that it stopped the soldiers dead in their tracks. There was a brief pause, then a new batch of boys emerged, their hands full. As the soldiers slowly retreated under a fresh fusillade, our driver announced that it was time to get out. “Nothing more dangerous than a humiliated army man,” he said, reversing at some speed. “I don’t want my windshield smashed for nothing.”

“NOT EVERYBODY RESISTS, sir,” Masterji had said in Kupwara. “There are advantages to giving in. Did you see those bright, new red roofs sticking out in every village as you drove through the countryside, those big houses that are being built? Who are they? Those are the people who benefit from collaborating. They are contractors of coal and wood and supplies in Kupwara. They are the sarpanches that they have made recently.

“But in our village there is one thing about voting,” he concluded. “It’s a sin, sir. Boycott is the only option.”

Masterji had picked up on the new ingredient the government is adding to its mix of inducements and coercions. The panchayat elections of 2011 laid some of the ground for this, with more than thirty thousand people elected into the local government. Many of them were educated, well-to-do, respectable, even influential men and women at the village level, attracted by the promise of funds that were to come directly from Delhi. Across Kashmir, the turnout in those panchayat elections was 82 percent. Money has also been quietly pouring in under the Border Area Development Programme, the National Agriculture Development Scheme, the National Saffron Mission and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Generation Act—and the list is growing. Even with a modest share in this largesse, thirty thousand people spread across the villages and towns of the valley are a valuable cohort to the apparatus of elections.

A few months after the general elections, I visited the home of Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the man who today most embodies the argument for boycotting elections. He heads the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat, the Movement for Freedom, usually described as the “hard-line” faction in the larger amalgam of the Hurriyat Conference. At the time, Geelani had been under house arrest in Srinagar for more than three months. Eighty-six this year, fragile, and with multiple medical problems, he lives under constant police guard, with all his visitors screened and monitored. I asked Geelani whether the politics of resistance could withstand personal, material interest. For an instant, the question seemed to take him aback. When he answered, it was by quoting the poet Iqbal, which he does often: “Maut hai ek sakht tar, jis ka ghulami hai naam, Makar-o-Fan-e-Khawajgi kash samajhta ghulam.” Harder than death is that which you call slavery,wouldst that slaves understood the master’s tricks. “Ghulami, slavery, alters the conscience of people, their codes of conduct, their character, even their faith,” Geelani told me gently as our meeting came to an end.

|SIX |

FROM SHOPIAN, a friend brought me another parable: on election morning, the village mott walked in bright and early to the Government Middle School, and voted. At its simplest, “mott” translates as lunatic, akin to the village idiot of tradition. But the Kashmiri word suggests much more, so that the insane, as well as a range of those with learning disabilities or even extreme eccentricities of behaviour, are included. At all times they are treated with kindness and affection in the Kashmir countryside, for in their very difference they are seen to be in a heightened state of spiritual connectedness, even a window to the divine.

Returning to the village, his right index finger marked with an indelible purple stain confirming his status as a voter, the mott walks over to a group of young men and helps himself to a cigarette. They have been up early, this group, sitting on the bench outside a shop, ensuring that most people don’t vote. There are howls of outrage when they see that the mott, whom they cannot hurt, has betrayed them. No more smokes for you, one says, snatching the cigarette from the mott’s lips. No one is going to feed you anymore, they all agree. We’ll steal your shoes, a particularly furious teenager says, so you’ll spend the whole winter barefoot. And the shaheed who lie in the martyrs’ graveyard—do you think they will ever let you sleep?

This does it for the mott, who turns around and walks right back to the polling booth, past the armed guards at the gate, past the men checking the voter lists, to the polling officer. I want my vote back, he says. The impossibility of retrieving a vote from the electronic machine does not matter to him, so he harangues the officer for several hours. Eventually, the exasperated officer passes him on to the police. For several more hours, the mott pesters the sub-inspector in charge, asking that his vote be returned. It cannot be done, he’s told, first politely, then abrasively, finally angrily. But he will not be put off. I’d much rather deal with kani-jang than this fellow, the policeman says, nodding towards the young men perched by the shopfront. Eventually, the sub-inspector passes him onto the nearby army patrol.

The mott now harangues a young captain, asking for his vote to be returned. The captain is taken aback by the request, and tells him that it’s impossible to fulfil. This is no answer for the mott. Eventually, because the captain does not know about the respect due to a mott, he orders the soldiers to pick the mott up and carry him far beyond the barbed-wire perimeter of the army camp. There he sits, his focus undiminished.

At the end of day, the voting machines are brought out by the polling officer, and loaded into a van. The machines are shadowed at every step by the police, who in turn are discreetly watched over, from a distance, by the army patrol. At dusk, they all leave. His pheran flapping in the breeze, the mott runs after their little convoy. Sitting outside the shop, the young men can hear him shouting, over and over again.

I want my vote back.


|ONE |

FOR SPRING THE MIST WAS UNSEASONAL, and visibility low on the highway that runs south from Srinagar. There was little traffic, and only men in uniform seemed able to move through the early-morning haze. In khaki, olive green, and mottled camouflage, heavily armed clusters of police, paramilitary and army personnel were everywhere. Their presence is routine in the Kashmir valley, where more than half a million Indian soldiers are stationed, making it one of the most densely militarised zones in the world

But that April morning was not routine. It was voting day in Anantnag, the constituency that covers Kashmir’s southern countryside. This was the first of three seats in the valley that people were voting for in the most recent elections to the Indian Parliament. The others were to follow at week-long intervals. That is probably the time it takes to reassemble the “security grid” for each constituency, without which the conduct of elections is impossible here. (On the day Anantnag, with its 1.3 million registered voters, held elections, 54 million voters in the southern state of Tamil Nadu cast their ballots for 39 seats.)

Kashmiris know that the members of parliament they are asked to vote for have no bearing on the masla-e-Kashmir, “the Kashmir issue,” whose central question of political self-determination has vexed the region for more than sixty years. Nor can their members of parliament significantly affect citizens’ access to roads, schools, hospitals, or even the all-important neighbourhood electricity transformer. Those are the domain of the state government, and elections for the state assembly are expected only at the end of this year. That’s probably why there were no posters or banners or flags or pennants to inform you of that day’s election. What was less easy to explain were the deserted roads, shuttered wayside shops, and the vague anxiety in the air.

Outside a polling station in the town of Awantipura, a group of reporters I was travelling with slowed down to exchange notes with a posse of waiting photojournalists. At this early hour there were probably more cameras than voters here. The lack of enthusiasm was consistent with the record for this constituency: in the last parliamentary elections, in 2009, the turnout in Anantnag was 27 percent. Which means 73 percent of voters did not turn up. That was an improvement on 2004, when 84 percent of voters stayed away, and on 1999, when nearly nineout of every ten did not vote. How many would turn out today?

In Awantipura, rumours surfaced well ahead of voters. Despite the saturation by government forces, a group of armed militants had been reported at the bus adda in nearby Tral, where they put up posters demanding a boycott of the polls. The masked men even managed a short speech, warning people against collaborating with the election process. Their job done, weapons concealed, they had melted away into a gathering crowd.

A second rumour—that an elected village headman, a sarpanch, had been found with his throat slit—turned out to be untrue. But enough had happened that week to keep people on edge. Three days earlier, on 21 April, a sarpanch and his son were shot dead as they sat at home in Batagund village, waiting for dinner. That same night, another village-level functionary in nearby Amlar village was shot dead as he made his way home in the dark after the last prayers at the local mosque. And late on the night of 17 April, a sarpanch was dragged out of his home in Gulzarpura and shot dead at point-blank range. No organisation had claimed credit for the killings, so in official records the assassins were down simply as “Unknown Gunmen.”

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Sanjay Kak is a film-maker and occasional writer, whose recent work includes the documentary Jashn-e-AzadiHow we celebrate freedom (2007) about the conflict in Kashmir. He is the editor of the anthology Until My Freedom Has ComeThe New Intifada in Kashmir (Penguin India 2011).


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