Security personnel guard during the strike call given by separatist leaders against urban local bodies elections, at Lal Chowk in Srinagar
Security personnel guard at Lal Chowk in Srinagar | S Irfan/PTI
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Elaborate security arrangements were in place for the first phase of J&K civic polls Monday, with 400 additional companies of security forces deployed.

New Delhi: Voting for the first phase of the Jammu & Kashmir municipal polls Monday was marked by a dismal turnout in the Valley as security concerns kept most people away from polling booths. The polls are taking place after 13 years.

By 4 pm, nine hours after polling began, only 6.2 per cent of the voters in Srinagar’s three wards had cast their vote. At Anantnag in south Kashmir, the voting percentage stood at 7.3 per cent, with Bandipore and Baramulla recording a turnout of 3.4 per cent and 5.1 per cent, respectively.

North Kashmir’s Kupwara district witnessed the highest voting in the Valley at 32.3 per cent.

The polling booths close at 5 pm.

“This is the final percentage for Kashmir Valley. It may, however, vary by a per cent or two since voters, who were still in the queue or at the polling station, are being allowed to cast their vote,” the state chief electoral officer (CEO) Shaleen Kabra told The Print.  “The final percentage of the state would be put once the polling officers submit data”.


The shadow of fear

“Well, voters and the government are wary,” said Abdul Qayoom, a resident of Hamdani colony in Srinagar, explaining the dismal turnout.

“There is fear. At least 20-25 vehicles of the security agency are guarding one of the polling booths here,” he added.

“People from north Kashmir — Tangdaar, Karna and Kupwara — have purchased plots to live in our area,” Qayoom said, “They are mostly the kin of police and Army men. Most of the votes polled here are by them.”

Also read: Killing terrorist part of Indian Army’s role, but not real measure of success in J&K

Amid threats from militant organisations, elaborate security arrangements were in place for the election, with 400 additional companies of paramilitary forces deployed by the Centre.

On Saturday, Governor Satya Pal Malik had undertaken a detailed review of the security situation.

“We are all scared, especially after the attack on the National Conference (NC) workers,” said Salman, a Srinagar resident, referring to Friday’s fatal attack on two NC workers by terrorists. “The streets are filled more with security forces and less with voters.”

Former chief minister Omar Abdullah said the attack on workers of his party was meant to be a message to candidates and voters.

A senior officer told ThePrint Monday that the security situation was under control. “It’s going good. Our forces are well prepared. So far there is no law and order problem reported,” the officer added.

In Kashmir division, 138 polling stations have been categorised as hypersensitive, with 52 classified as such in the Jammu division, state chief electoral officer Shaleen Kabra said.

Given the security situation, some candidates reportedly refrained from campaigning at certain places in the Valley.

Ballot boycott

The civic elections come at a particularly tumultuous moment for Kashmir, which has seen an uptick in violence over the recent months with police personnel, especially the special police officers (SPOs) drawn from the local population, under threat like never before.

Militants have killed around 32 SPOs in south Kashmir this year alone.

The situation is tense politically as well. It was just four months ago that the state came under Governor’s Rule after the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) pulled the plug on its coalition with the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) over, among other factors, its alleged soft approach towards militants and separatists.

The PDP and the NC have boycotted the ongoing polls over what they allege is the Centre’s “uncertain” stand on Article 35A, a special constitutional provision that allows the state legislature to define the state’s permanent residents and thus the beneficiaries of government aid and benefits.

Also read: This is how Modi govt hopes to push through J&K local polls & defeat PDP, NC boycott call

The provision, which has been challenged in the Supreme Court, has long been criticised by some sections of the Hindu Right-wing as one engendering divisions between India and Jammu & Kashmir.

However, the Central government ignored the protests to go ahead with the elections, in keeping with a promise PM Narendra Modi made in his Independence Day speech.

As a result of the boycott, the BJP and the Congress are the main contesting parties in the Valley.

“We are running for the municipal elections for the first time. It is a big opportunity for the party,” said BJP spokesperson Sunil Sethi.

“(If we win) We will get a chance to reach out to people in the interiors of the Kashmir Valley. We have to work hard to further engage with the people,” he added.

In north Kashmir, Sajjad Lone’s People’s Conference is the main player. Lone cast his vote in Kupwara early Monday, subsequently tweeting a photo from the exercise. Independents also make a huge chunk of the contestants.

Three more to go

The first phase of the four-phase election was held Monday across eight districts of the Valley, including Kargil, and Leh in Ladakh, comprising a voter base of 5.8 lakh. The other three are scheduled for 10, 13 and 16 October.

Liyaqat, a candidate in Kargil, said he was looking forward to winning.

“I will address issues like drainage, drinking water and footpaths,” he added.

The voters will elect representatives to 15 municipal councils and committees in this phase. Of the 321 wards that went to the polls across the state Monday, four are in Anantnag and three in Srinagar. There are only eight candidates in the fray in each of the two districts.

“In the first phase, 78 candidates have been elected unopposed, while there are 1,204 candidates in the fray in 321 wards, including 83 in Kashmir division and 238 in Jammu division,” said CEO Shaleen Kabra.

“In all, polling will take place at 820 polling stations, 150 in Kashmir division and 670 in Jammu division,” Kabra added.

Altogether, 1,145 wards are going to the polls, with candidates for 244 contesting unopposed.

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