Lowest voter turnout in India: Why young Kashmiris didn’t vote

Jammu and Kashmir, Pulwama, Shopian, Militants, Terrorists, Pakistan
People feel threatened by the presence of police and armed forces, and the constant surveillance, in the Valley. Photo: Prabhu Mallikarjunan

The troubled state of Jammu and Kashmir got prominent mentions in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s election campaigns. The party invoked nationalistic sentiments on the Kashmir issue and sought votes outside of the Valley based on the recent terror attack in Pulwama and the Indian Army’s retaliation. However, these tactics by the saffron side caused the people of Kashmir, especially the youngsters, to abstain from exercising their franchise in the five-phase polling held in the state.

While Jammu and Kashmir as a whole recorded 45 per cent voter turnout (lowest in the country) in the recently concluded Lok Sabha elections, three Lok Sabha constituencies — Baramulla, Srinagar and Anantnag — recorded 34.29 per cent, 14.08 per cent and 8.78 per cent respectively. Though the voting percentage was lower compared to the 2014 general elections, people abstaining from voting is not new to the region. Anantnag has recorded a low voter turnout since 1999.

Read more: Pulwama and Shopian hobble past the finish line during elections

The anxieties that the youth share and care about are not local issues like infrastructure development, job creation or unemployment. The main reason for abstinence from voting is political. Primarily, it is the call for ‘azadi’ (freedom) from the police, Army and the Indian government, and the demand for restoration of fundamental human rights and the right to self-determination in the region.

A call for referendum

On May 6, as voting began for the third phase of the elections in Anantnag’s Pulwama and Shopian districts, sitting near a polling booth in his village in Pinglena was 32-year-old Mohammad Ayoub. He was clear why he would not cast his vote. He believed that if he voted, the Indian government would think that people of Jammu and Kashmir are a part of the nation, and it may go on to declare in international forums that there is no dispute in the region.

Ayoub, a businessman selling Kashmiri goods, was excited to talk about the issue. With constant internet bans, many gather in the streets to discuss politics and share their views on various topics. On election day, with an internet ban in place, sitting with his friends and neighbours (some of whom were arrested by the police before for alleged stone pelting incidents in his village), Ayoub demanded that the government provide them with the right to self-determination and hold the referendum that was never held.

In 1948, the United Nation Security Council set up a five-member committee that passed a resolution calling for a referendum on the status of the territory. The resolution also mentioned that India should withdraw its forces and restrict it to the bare minimum. It also called on Pakistan to withdraw its troops. It even laid down the procedure and guidelines on how to conduct a referendum in India- and Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

“Let the government hold a referendum and end the mass human rights violations happening in the region,” Ayoub said. He felt a referendum is the only solution to ease the tension in the region.

Ayoub, a Kashmiri post-graduate from Noida, questions the alienation and discrimination Kashmiris have to deal with. “When the Naxal attack happened in Maharashtra recently, was there a call for war against the people? Did the nation erupt and say it is against the attackers? But when attacks happen in Kashmir, people cry for war,” he said.

Ayoub’s anger and frustration also come from the fact that the youth in the region are not given equal opportunity when compared to those in mainland India. Frequent bans on internet connectivity is one of the concerns.

While start-ups boom across cities in India, Kashmiris struggle to get mobile network and internet. While Ayoub uses a paid virtual private network (VPN) to run his business online, not many can afford to do that or are aware of such alternatives. Hence, the only way to communicate with others during such bans is to get outside their home and talk. But even that is considered as unlawful by security forces sometimes and they get questioned for forming groups.

Jehangir Ahmad, 21, says, “Just because we want freedom from the police, armed forces and Indian administration does not mean we want to side with Pakistan.” Many, like Ahmad and Ayoub, don’t like being forced to be an integral part of India and that keeps them away from voting, considering the human rights violations committed against the people of the region.

Revocation of AFSPA, Public Safety Act

Ayoub’s case is a reflection of what’s happening in the entire Valley. Many do not trust even the mainstream political parties in the region. Mehbooba Mufti-led Peoples Democratic Party partnered and broke ties with the BJP as the former’s vision for greater autonomy and restoration of peace did not work out. People lost trust in the party. And while the National Conference party, led by Omar Abdullah, promised to abolish the Public Safety Act (which results in mass arrest of Kashmiri youth for security reasons) and wished to revoke the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, youngsters feel these contentious issues remained only a promise and were not resolved over the years. People do not trust smaller parties in the region.

Another reason many abstained from voting is because of the arrest and detention of Kashmiri youth under the Public Safety Act, a preventive detention law where the accused may be confined in prison for an indefinite period without trial. Large scale arrests ahead of elections pushed voters to abstain from voting. The Federal earlier reported how youngsters, even as young as 12, were picked up by the police after midnight to ensure ‘free and fair’ elections.

Read more: A ground report on how the Public Safety Act was enforced during elections

“With large presence of police and Army on the streets, we are afraid to go to college in the morning. We worry who will bomb us and where (referring to militant attacks) and about the number of times the police question us,” MR Jeelani, a voter in South Kashmir, said. He added that the police question them even when they move from one locality to another in the same area to visit friends and relatives.

The restriction of free movement forces people like Jeelani to abstain from voting. Students from Kashmir colleges, working class and young business persons echo similar sentiments. “The day we see less armed forces and a drastic reduction in atrocities, participation in the democratic process will be guaranteed,” he said.

Article 370 and rise in militancy

Lack of faith in the political process pushes the youth towards militancy. Between 2007 and 2019 (May), as many as 2,640 terrorists and extremists were killed in the region.

Many Kashmiri youth were at the forefront of the separatist movement in the region. According to 2011 census, nearly 63 per cent of Kashmir’s male residents are under the age of 30, and 70 per cent are below the age of 35. Many, born after the insurgency in 1989, do not feel connected with India. Angered by the brutal treatment meted out in the region by security forces, many youngsters pick up arms and resort to stone pelting, moving further away from the democratic process.

Even as the Hurriyat leaders (part of political, social and religious organisations) called for a poll boycott, many believe that these figures too are milking the opportunity and do not actually have a roadmap for the region’s autonomy and safety. But despite the call for poll boycott, some participated in the elections to keep the BJP out, which promised to end the state’s special autonomous status under Article 370.

“I came to vote against the BJP’s decision to scrap Article 370 of the constitution. We do not want their communal agenda to spread here. While they can keep Kashmir as their poll plank for rest of India, in Kashmir they can do nothing,” said a woman who wished to remain anonymous citing security reasons and voted for the first time.

India’s response largely remained either a suggestion for dialogue or to enforce brutal and repressive stances. “The atmosphere should be conducive for people to vote. The Modi-led government treats Kashmiris as anti-nationals to say the least. If you look at Kashmir from the prism of security and law and order, things won’t work,” Imran Dar, Jammu and Kashmir National Conference party spokesperson, said. “The low voter turnout is a reflection of the angst against the Centre.”