On the Jammu-Srinagar national highway that snakes through the Valley, a curve near Awantipora town in South Kashmir, leads to the mountainous Tral sub-district.
Once known as fertile ground for top militant commanders – Burhan Wani, Sabzar Bhat and Zakir Musa – Tral, now, has only a few active militants. But despite these (improved) circumstances, the elections have taken place in the same old manner, with the majority of people boycotting the polls.
On 1 December, the elections were held with mostly Sikhs and people from the Gujjar community participating in the polls.
Before the elections in Tral, 40 kilometres from Srinagar city, there were no threats from militants, nor were there ‘poll boycott’ posters anywhere – but still, the majority chose to stay away from the elections.
The 2020 District Development Council (DDC) polls are the first elections in Jammu and Kashmir since it was reorganised as a union territory in 2019, after the abrogation of Article 370, and it is being held along with by polls to panchayats.
‘To Vote Would Be To Forget Our Martyrs’
This time, there was no rush outside the polling booths. A senior official told The Quint that in 13 polling stations of Tral, not a single vote was cast.
“What have these mainstream politicians done for the people of Kashmir, apart from selling us for their petty gains,” said a local, who didn’t want to be identified, in Rathsuna village of Tral.
Rathsuna is the native village of late Hizbul Mujahideen Commander Sabzar Bhat, also a close aide of Burhan Wani. Sabzar was killed in a gunfight with security forces in Tral in May 2017.
Those who chose to not participate in the polls said: “Voting is like forgetting our martyrs, and we cannot do this and forget their sacrifices.” “I am 35-years-old, and in my lifetime, I have never cast my vote because I firmly believe that participating in polls is against our religion.”
Even in Sikh-dominated areas of Tral, few voters were observed; youngsters were mostly seen playing cricket on the roads during the day.
South Kashmir’s Pulwama, Shopian, Anantnag and Kulgam districts have witnessed a huge rise in militancy after the death of Hizbul Commander Burhan Wani. People living in these districts – particularly the youth – have alleged that maltreatment by the security forces in this area has made their lives ‘hell’.
Why The Volatile Tral Region Earned The Name ‘Land Of Martyrs’
Increasing gunfights and civilian killings in these areas have further alienated the youth from the government.
Pulwama – the site of the 14 February 2019 attack on a CRPF convoy that made international headlines – has seen only 6.7 percent voting so far in the ongoing DDC elections, the lowest in the Valley. Anantnag and Shopian saw a turnout of 16.09 and 17.28 percent, respectively.
In 2019, the cumulative voter turnout during the parliamentary elections was a mere 19 percent in J&K, the lowest figure since the 1996 elections. The Shopian and Pulwama segments of the South Kashmir Parliamentary seat registered a mere 2.81 percent voter turnout, one of the lowest in the state’s electoral history.
Tral lies in Pulwama district, where the first stories about Hizbul Commander Burhan Wani emerged. When Wani was killed in 2016, the town became an epicentre of Kashmir’s unrest. However, there has been a considerable decline in local militant recruitment over the past year.
The last commander of the Hizbul outfit in Tral was 26-year-old Muhammad Qasim Shah, who – along with two newly-recruited militants (at the time) under his command – was gunned down on 26 June 2020.
The volatile Tral region, meanwhile, is also referred to as the ‘Land of Martyrs’, the ‘Town of Newton’, or the ‘Land of Burhan’. ‘
Newton’ was the name given to Ishaq Parray, a 19-year-old deceased Hizbul militant, who was known by this name for his academic brilliance. He became famous across Tral after scoring 98.4 percent in Class 10, ranking ninth in Kashmir Valley.
In his native village of Laribal, the polling booth outside his residence did not record a single vote this time.
Why CRPF Officers At Polling Booths Had A Leisurely Time
Without any calls for shutdown by separatists this time, the entire town still wore a deserted look – with people themselves leaving their shops, and business establishments remaining closed, and transport staying off the roads. The authorities had also blocked the internet as a precautionary measure.
Such was the poll boycott mood in another Midoora village that young boys did not allow anyone to go inside the polling station. “What have we achieved from these elections? How can we cast votes when we lost our militant brothers during the ongoing conflict? These are useless things and we will not allow anyone to go inside,” said a teenager in Midoora village, Tral.
Midoora is the native village of Qasim Shah, the last Hizbul Commander of Tral who was also killed eventually.
The polling booth set up in Midoora High School did not see a single vote being cast till 1 PM.In Nowdal village, only two votes were cast during the day. Rathsuna village saw just six votes being recorded, and in Shairabad, only two votes were cast through the day.
A Central Reserve Police Officer (CRPF), while performing his duty in Midoora, gestured that not many people had come to the polling booths.“One can say polling here was like salt in flour,” he said.
The view outside other polling stations across South Kashmir areas was no different. Security forces manning the polling stations were busy with their smartphones. The polling staff had a leisurely time as barely any voter turned up.
Why Some Sikhs And Gujjars Chose To Cast Their Vote Despite Most Not Voting
Those who participated in the polls hardly spoke about Article 370, the new land laws and the BJP. Voters expect their problems to be addressed by their representatives, even though they haven’t spoken up about development.
There were no long queues in Sikh and Gujjar-dominated villages of Tral either, but the frequent arrival of voters at least kept polling stations abuzz through the day.
A polling station established in a government secondary school in Bathnoor village of Tral on Tuesday didn’t have long queues, but it saw several elderly voters coming out of their homes, albeit in small groups, to cast their vote. “I have been a committed voter even though our elected representatives did nothing. I always believe that staying away from polling is no strategy. A vote has the power to bring change because we have many issues here in our village,” holding a stick in his hand, 80-year-old Abdul Ramzan Sheikh told The Quint.
50-year-old Paramjeet Kour, in the Sikh-dominated Chatrogam village said: “I voted for the development of my village. There are many problems like lack of electricity, water, bad roads and others. We want such issues to be addressed.”
First-time voters in Tral who exercised their franchise said that they were taking part in the exercise for “better job opportunities”.
‘I Voted For Peace In Kashmir’
An arts graduate, Kawleen Kour, talking to The Quint said that she was excited as she was participating in the election process for the first time. “My vote is for better employment opportunities and development,” said Kour, who was returning from the polling station in Nigeenpora village.
Another first time voter, Mushtaq Ahmad Gojar, a resident of Khashdi Karmulla village, said that his first vote is for road construction in his area.
“We live an agonised life here as we do not have proper roads. We have to walk 3 kilometres by foot to get our basic requirements. Our ailing men, women and children are forced to walk to reach hospitals. Today, I voted, and I am hopeful that my vote will bring a change in my village,” said Gojar, while standing in queue to vote.
60-year-old Sakeena Gojar has similar problems, and she is confident that her vote will bring a macadamised road to her village.
“Due to lack of roads here, our pregnant women are suffering. We have lost one pregnant lady who died helplessly while villagers carried her on a stretcher,” she told The Quint.
“I voted for peace in Kashmir since Kashmir is witnessing trouble after the abrogation of Article 370. We need freedom from all hassles and troubles. I am hopeful that this time my vote won’t go in vain,” said another voter in Gujjar-dominated Karmulla.
He lamented that the current government was tormenting Gujjars while vandalising their huts in forest areas. “We’ve not built any concrete structures anywhere in the forest except for small huts. What damage will it cause to the forests?”
Anxiety Grips Gujjars Whose Way Of Life Has Been Threatened By Govt Statement On ‘Encroachment’
On 7 November, the Jammu & Kashmir government had issued a statement that it had launched an anti-encroachment drive at Mamal Pahalgam in Anantnag district and retrieved illegally encroached 110 kanals of forest land.
The statement added that the team demolished illegal huts, wooden shacks and fencing on the forest land. Following this, the government received sharp criticism from all quarters, while the anxiety of enforced homelessness gripped Gujjars as evictions have now threatened their centuries-old way of life.
(Irfan Amin Malik is a journalist based in Kashmir and he tweets @irfanaminmalik. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)