Kashmir is Breaking Election Boycotts and Protesting Against Indian Policies – by Voting - Latest Global News

Kashmir is Breaking Election Boycotts and Protesting Against Indian Policies – by Voting

Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir – Haroon Khan crouched with his friends on the lawn of a polling station in the heart of Nowhatta, a part of Srinagar city known for its anti-India sentiment. Khan had just emerged from a small room after casting his vote in India’s ongoing general election.

For years, most people in Indian-administered Kashmir have boycotted elections, which many here see as attempts by New Delhi to use democracy to legitimize its control over a region that has been a hotbed of armed rebellion against India since 1989. Rebel armed groups and separatist leaders have routinely issued boycott calls before every election.

But as India participates in its national elections, this voting pattern is changing. Five years after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government abolished Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, abolished its statehood and brought it under the direct control of New Delhi, 21-year-old Khan and his friends opted for a new form of protest outside the polling booth : Choose.

“We achieved nothing through boycotts or other means [stone pelting] of protests to express our dissent,” Khan said. “Many of my friends and neighbors have been languishing in prison for years and no one cares about them.”

Khan is not alone.

The Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley’s three seats in the Indian Parliament’s lower house, the Lok Sabha, have been assigned three different dates for voting in the elections. Srinagar, the only city to have voted so far – on May 13 – recorded a 38 percent voter turnout for the region. This is the highest voter share since 1989. In the last elections in 2019 the value was 14.43 percent.

Voters and local politicians say this is not an endorsement of India or its policies. Rather, it is a reflection of a dramatically changed political landscape in the region, which they say leaves them no other option to express their opposition to New Delhi.

“Choose those who can speak for us”

Kashmir is disputed by India and Pakistan, both of which claim all of Kashmir and control parts of it. The South Asian neighbors have fought three wars over the Himalayan region.

Tens of thousands of people have been killed since 1989, when the armed insurgency against Indian rule broke out. A massive Indian army presence oversees most aspects of life in the country’s controlled part of Kashmir.

Nevertheless, the special status that Jammu and Kashmir enjoyed gave them a certain degree of autonomy: outsiders, for example, could not buy land there.

The abrogation of Article 370 – the Indian constitutional provision that granted this special status – in 2019 changed that, and the situation has worsened since then, Khan said. There have also been no elections in the region’s legislative assembly since then, leaving many Kashmiris feeling like they have no say at all in the politics that shape their lives.

“The purpose of my vote today was to elect my local Kashmir representative who can speak to India on our behalf. I want my friends to be released from prisons,” Khan said.

Voting for the “lesser evil”.

For the first time in decades, separatist leaders and armed groups have not called for an election boycott – most separatist leaders are currently in prison.

Meanwhile, traditionally pro-India parties have become vocal critics of New Delhi since the 2019 crackdown. Their leaders have been arrested and they have accused India of betraying the people of Kashmir by abrogating Article 370. Parties that were once treated almost like New Delhi sellouts are now seen as potential voices of the people, according to voters and analysts.

Faheem Alam, a 38-year-old web developer who cast his vote in downtown Srinagar’s Lal Chowk, said his vote was for a “lesser evil,” referring to the BJP, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, as the “greater evil” compared to other political parties.

“I’m voting for the INDIA alliance,” he said, referring to the grouping of opposition parties that are challenging Modi’s bid to return to power for a third consecutive term. “I don’t like any political party, but I am casting my vote to keep the BJP at bay.”

Modi’s recent election speeches against Muslims – the prime minister described them as “infiltrators” and “those who have more children” – have added to Alam’s worries.

“Kashmir is Muslim-majority, but what is happening to Muslims in other states of India is appalling. That’s why I voted to save our region from the BJP,” he said.

Kashmir’s mainstream political parties have welcomed the change in protest strategy from boycott to voting. Aga Syed Ruhullah Mehdi, the National Conference (NC) candidate from Srinagar, said Kashmiris have paid a price over the years for the “criminalization” of participating in elections.

“All these years, the established political parties in Kashmir have been discredited. Voter turnout was taken into account [a] Sin,” Mehdi told Al Jazeera at his party headquarters in Srinagar. “Today Kashmiris have lost their identity. We are ruled by outsiders.”

Waheed ur Rehman Para, Mehdi’s rival from the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), agreed.

“People have now realized that [their] Voting is a weapon,” Parra told Al Jazeera. “Today there is complete silence in Kashmir. People are even afraid to speak, but by participating in the elections they have expressed their opposition to New Delhi’s 2019 decision.”

Since abrogating Article 370, the Modi government has jailed hundreds of human rights activists, journalists and political leaders and even imposed restrictions on NC and PDP politicians who pledge allegiance to the Indian nation.

About 34 km (21 miles) from Srinagar, in south Kashmir’s Pulwama – once the epicenter of armed insurgency against Indian rule – people lined up at polling stations to cast their votes last Monday.

In the last general elections, Pulwama district, which falls under Srinagar constituency, received only 1 percent in the polls, this time it was 43.39 percent.

Muneeb Bashir, 20, a computer engineering student at AMC Engineering College in the southern Indian city of Bengaluru, is a first-time voter.

“We need young leaders who will represent the aspirations of Kashmiri youth. Here the situation has changed [in Kashmir] of boycott days,” Bashir said, referring to fears that the BJP is trying to change the demographics of the Muslim-majority region by allowing people from other parts of India to buy land, take jobs and settle in Kashmir.

Standing in line behind Bashir was 25-year-old Muneer Mushtaq. His reason for casting a vote for the first time was to save the “Preamble” of the Indian Constitution, he said. This part of India’s Constitution sets out the values ​​that underlie the modern Indian state – which it defines as a secular, socialist nation.

“It has been 10 years since a general election was held in Kashmir,” Mushtaq said, referring to the state elections. “This vote is against the Indian government.”

Unlike before, many women also lined up to vote.

Rukhsana, a 30-year-old voter from Naira village in south Kashmir, said her vote would help release detained youth in her village.

“Many atrocities are happening in Kashmir. Our youth are locked up. I am sure that if we have our people at the forefront, our misery will be less,” she said.

Shopian, another south Kashmir district where armed groups have long held influence, also recorded a voter turnout of 47.88 percent, compared to 2.64 percent in the 2019 general election.

Who is creditworthy? And who is to blame?

Both Modi and Indian Home Minister Amit Shah attributed the abrogation of Article 370 to the higher voter share in the Srinagar Lok Sabha constituency.

“I would particularly like to applaud the people of Srinagar Parliamentary Constituency for the encouraging voter turnout, which is significantly better than before,” Modi tweeted.

Modi has re-shared images released by the Election Commission of India showing long queues of voters in Srinagar.

Shah said abrogation of Article 370 was a victory for democracy in Jammu and Kashmir.

“Modi government’s decision to abrogate Article 370 also shows results in the survey. It has strengthened people’s faith in democracy and its roots have deepened in J&K [Jammu and Kashmir]”Shah wrote on X.

“With the rise in poll numbers, the people of J&K have given a befitting reply to those who opposed the repeal and are still agitating for its restoration,” he added.

Still, the BJP’s opponents point out that the party has not fielded a candidate in any of the three Kashmir Valley constituencies – which experts say reflects its recognition of the deep anger it faces in the region.

Sheikh Showkat Hussain, a political analyst, said that contrary to the BJP’s claims, it was actually a “BJP-phobia” – also built by the NC and the PDP – that attracted a larger number of voters this time than in prompted people to vote in the past.

At the same time, he pointed out, almost two-thirds of voters in Srinagar still skipped the polls despite there being no call for a boycott. And the constituency’s 38 percent voter share is only about half of the 73 percent in 1984, the last national election before the armed insurgency broke out.

In Budgam’s Chadoora district, about 14 km (9 miles) from Srinagar, 22-year-old Inayat Yousuf voted against “outsiders” taking power in Kashmir. His concern: A huge majority for the BJP in the election could encourage it to change its image of Kashmir even further.

“The issues of development and jobs will always be there,” Yousuf said. “But this time it’s about our identity.”

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