In Kashmir, disinformation — about election and COVID-19 — clouds DDC polls

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Traveling through the thick fog, Aijaz Ahmed*, reached the polling station in Panzinara, in Srinagar’s outskirts, at 6:30 am today. He has been entrusted by the authorities to conduct free and fair ballots in the first-ever District Development Council (DDC) election in Kashmir. But before he can save democracy, he said, his life is at risk due to the prevailing COVID-19 pandemic.

So, he has been armed with a kit that he relies on. “We have masks, hand sanitizers, face shields, and infrared thermometers,” he said, wearing dual masks, “and we make sure every voter uses them. It is our life that is at risk.” That’s the textbook; on the ground, that is not happening. 

In the queue that leads to the booth overviewed by Ahmed, voters stand in close proximity — mostly without masks — in the chilling cold, basking near kang’ir. A young man, who holds the kang’ir, drops it to pull up the scarf and cover his face. He wasn’t scared of the COVID-19, but the cameras. Police personnel, standing guard to the booth’s door, took a dig at him: “Aye, let the world know it is cold in Kashmir and still you are voting.” 

The polling station had nine booths, all of Srinagar’s Qamarwari II constituency — reserved for women. As per the protocol, the police personnel hands out face masks. Voters preserve them in pockets to use later, maybe. Ahmed’s colleague looked at the voters’ queue and said, “Social distancing is a hoax. It’s a city thing, nobody follows that in villages.”

Without a vaccine available for COVID-19, social distancing and face masks are the only proven method to elude the pandemic. In Jammu and Kashmir, more than 1,10,000 people have tested positive for COVID-19 till 30 November as death toll soared to 1,694. In fact, a sero survey found, in November, that two out of five people in Kashmir Valley have coronavirus antibodies. 

However, a more fatal factor than the mismanagement by the government that called in more than 7 lac voters to cast ballots, in this phase, in-person amid the pandemic is disinformation — about the agenda of the election as well as the virus. 

Barely a kilometer away from Panzinara, Ghulam Ganaie, 70, sits on a log as a handful of people wait to vote in Ganastan constituency, which falls under north Kashmir’s Bandipora district. Ganaie is a veteran voter and an old National Conference (NC) supporter. 

Empowered by his vote in the DDC polls, he said, “the NC will bring back article 370”. “Instead of the assembly election, they conducted DDC polls,” said Ganaie, “and we are out because we have been told by our party that if we come out and our members succeed, they will fight against it and get the article [370] back.”

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Bilal Rather, a deputy sarpanch associated with the BJP. Photograph by Umer Asif for The Kashmir Walla.

However, despite his unfactual assessment of the function and role of the elected DDC member, Ganaie suspects the whole exercise. Explaining one of the main conspiracies running wild in his circle, he said: “If DDC elections happen without meddling then something might happen. But who trusts them? What if they are using ballots instead of machines to steal them?”

His neighbour, and a friend, 48-year-old Manzoor Ahmed Mir said he only reached the polling booth to keep the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) away from power. “[Non-BJP] people will win and they will build their house,” he said. “They never do nothing for people. But I’d vote for anyone, even independent candidates, to keep BJP away.”

A 23-year-old man, sporting a fancy undercut, smirks from a distance. “It is the BJP-phobia that the Alliance [People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration, an amalgam of Kashmir’s unionists] has created to mislead people,” said Bilal Hussain Rather.

Rather is a serving deputy-sarpanch in the village after he won the election on a BJP mandate. He shies away from acknowledging it out loud. So, he talks in whispers. 

“Who are these independent candidates, including the one currently leading in this booth?” he asked, cracking an evil smile. “They all are with the BJP. Don’t be a fool. People don’t vote for the BJP — but people don’t understand that people who they are voting for will go with the BJP after the polling ends.”

“Don’t you remember the last BDC (Block Development Council) polls,” he said. He said that this election is being fought on disinformation; the BJP and its proxies — that Rather said includes Altaf Bukhari’s Apni Party — are fooling people by pre-poll understanding and the Alliance by labelling the BJP.

“People don’t know, obviously,” he said. “They have been fooled for years. And this time they have been fooled again. They don’t know what is happening. These independent candidates they are voting for will merge with BJP too.”

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Fatima, in her late 80s, reached the polling booth, with the support of her granddaughters. Photograph by Umer Asif for The Kashmir Walla.

He had advice, too. “Don’t even trust small NC, PDP leaders — they even might go with the BJP,” he added, with a smirk.

And COVID-19? Maskless Rather laughed it off. 

Across the road, a government-run school has been turned into a polling station too for the same constituency. Fatima, in her late 80s, walks with the support of her granddaughters towards the booth. She is not sure what election she is here for — the DDC or by-polls for vacant panchayat elections. But she is irked because she said “the political workers forced her out of her home to vote”.

“Aren’t you the same workers who told me to come and vote?” she asked. “If I don’t get benefit this time [after the elections], then I’ll tell them from my grave to not cast my vote.”

*Name changed upon request

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