JK Bank

Making his way through the deserted roads of Arwani area of South Kashmir, at around 11am, twenty-year-old Neem Chand paddled his colorful freezer-laden bicycle cart from his rented home, carrying ice-creams.

Riding for not more than three kilometers, Mr. Chand parked on a roadside—in front of a chain of shutdown shops—on the edge of a street leading to one of the polling centers, set up in a PHE Division office of Bijbehara.

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The center had seven polling booths set up inside, aiming to cover several areas of Bijbehara. Only one polling booth was set up at a distance away—near the old residential area, just a few meters away from the ancestral house of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, the founder of People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Bijbehara—and roughly entire Southern Kashmir—has been considered as the bastion of Mr. Sayeed’s party, and today, after four years of his demise, his party is fighting a strong battle to win the Anantnag Lok Sabha constituency.

As the noon sun turned stronger, Mr. Chand’s cart was circled by people; mostly police officials, political party workers, journalists and the cab drivers. Busy with customers, every vehicle—private, government, or OB Vans of news channels—would catch the eye of Mr. Chand towards the street, filled with policemen and Kurta-wearing political party workers.

Taking a drag from his cigarette, wearing faded red chequered shirt and pale-brown pants, dust on eyelashes and eyebrows, Mr. Chand tells me, “I don’t vote in my home, because I’m working here,” mentioning that two of his brothers live in Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh, which is going through polls too.

While stealing a glance at a masked armyman standing on guard on the shopfront, next to us, he adds, “I came here eight years ago and since then been living in Arwani selling ice-cream. I came today at 11 am as I knew there is a polling booth.”

The voters, coming in groups or singly, were voting to decide a winner for Anantnag Lok Sabha constituency, among the front-runner candidates: Mehbooba Mufti of the PDP, G. A. Mir of the Congress and Hasnain Masoodi of the National Conference (NC). The constituency comprises of district Anantnag, Kulgam, Shopian and Pulwama, but in the backdrop of sheer violence since the killing of popular militant commander Burhan Wani in 2016, the polls were held in three phases—with only Anantnag district going to polls on Tuesday.

“You see there is a shutdown today but I did good business. I earned 2000 rupees so far today compared to 1500 that is usual day,” said Mr. Chand, while being punctuated by a speedy vehicle, deboarding a few burqa clad women, leading to the polling booth along with the driver, he adds, “If I would stay at home without work, I will die; my family will die of hunger.”

Today, following the standard shutdown calls from Joint Resistance Leadership (JRL), to protest against the elections, a significant shutdown call was observed by people in the area. In some areas, minor clashes also took place, injuring at least four people. Like Mr. Chand says, an old man playing with his grandchild on a tractor, a few kilometers ahead, further South in Achabal area, also tells us that he didn’t vote.

“I won’t vote. No politician really does any good to us. They only keep doing for their near and dears, and leave common people to their own fate,” he says while giving us the directions to a polling booth, “Otherwise at this age, I wouldn’t have been wandering to earn a few bucks.”

Driving a few miles ahead, in Shangus assembly constituency, a polling booth wore deserted look, baring police officials and election staff. Overlooking a meadow, the school turned polling booth, had a few voters, most of whom party workers.

Waiting in the playing ground, Khalid Muzaffer, who lives in Shangas area, said that he votes only to see the situation of J-K normal again, and to choose a leader who will talk about the Article 370 and 35-A of Indian constitution, which is under threat right now. “People who believe in democracy know that this time casting a vote was must, we need to represent a leader who will help to de-escalate the situation and take the plight of Kashmiris to the Parliament,” said Mr. Muzaffer.

Across the district, the polling was brisk, unexcited and amid anger, the reminder, representing the loss too. After 2016 civilian uprising, the last Lok Sabha elections in 2014, Anantnag district saw 37.7% voter turnout – highest among all four districts of the constituency. The by-elections for this constituency were not held as the situation worsened and the seat remained vacant since Ms. Mufti rose to become Chief Minister under the PDP-BJP coalition government.

Back in Bijbehara, with the sun drifting West, more customers thronged Mr. Chand’s cart—to kill time and heat—while waiting for the PDP president, Ms. Mufti to arrive to cast her vote in the polling booth. After a while a cloud of dust and the running policemen, special guards announced her arrival. She de-boarded a black vehicle, followed by her workers and female followers, singing praises, and within a few minutes, she left after casting vote in her home assembly constituency—Bijbehara, which saw total voting turnout of 2.04%.

After Ms. Mufti left, one of the women voters tells us that to vote is the right of every individual, and wasting it is a sin. “We are fools that we unfortunately waste our votes. We must vote for our basic necessities like roads,  jobs—and to end the rule of BJP in the state.”

Talking in whispers, looking at the same armyman again, Mr. Chand says that many have been killed in Arwani in recent times. “I will stay till voting gets over, at 4 pm.”

By the time he would paddle back to his home, after a day’s work, the voting was over with total turnout of 13.6% in the district. The highest percentage 20.3% was recorded in Pahalgam, 3.4% in Anantnag; 17.2% in Dooru; 19.5% in Kokernag; 15.1% in Shangus and 2% in Bijbehara.

Today’s voting turnout came indirectly proportional to Mr. Chand’s ice-creams in the freezer—as lesser the votes were cast, the more ice-creams he sold.