The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Elections or azaadi ' Let’s see

Srinagar, Sept 11: The military green Cassipir mine protection vehicle that lumbers into Residency Road has two holes in its rear doors. From the holes the black nozzles of regulation INSAS rifles have been pointed in the general direction of the forehead since the monstrous four-wheeler slid into the traffic just ahead of the car.

It’s “9/11” in the Valley and the view through the windscreen is a shade better than looking into the nose of a jet that’s crashing into the 77th floor of the World Trade Center.

Before the Cassipir — its hugeness hogging the road — turns right into Lal Chowk, one of the nozzles disappears. It is replaced by a sleeved left hand — also in army fatigues — that sticks out, bends at the elbow and the fingers tap a beat on the metal doors. The soldier the hand belongs to is at least humming if not singing out aloud.

Welcome to Srinagar on a sunny morning of electioneering when hands that hold guns tire easily. Up north, in Kupwara, the state law minister, Mushtaq Ahmed Lone, has been killed while addressing a rally. The Valley is being itself: there are at the very least 10 killings here every day.

The Cassipir disappears into a lane in Amirakadal. At the crossing where it turns, a tall, gaunt figure in white salwar-kameez is holding a microphone.

Mohammed Shafi Bhat is at the Natipora crossing, leaning against his Maruti Gypsy, waiting for people to gather. It is 9.25 when he starts speaking. Bhat is the sitting National Conference MLA. He didn’t get the party ticket this time and is contesting on the ‘Hand’ symbol. There are 60 people in the audience when he starts, 15 of them in school uniform. Behind his white Maruti Gypsy is a butcher’s.

“He didn’t get the NC ticket because he’s a little hot-headed, otherwise he is a good man,” says Bashir Ahmed.

The avuncular Bhat is speaking into the microphone in Kashmiri. His style is conversational and as he speaks he urges the schoolboys to come up front so that traffic on the congested road is not choked.

“He’s saying he wanted to work for the people of the constituency and that is why he didn’t get the NC ticket,” translates Ahmed. “People will vote for him.”

“So there will be enough voters'”

“If the candidate is good, there will be people who will turn out to vote,” butts in Ali Mohammed, the local tailor.

Half-hour through the speech, a Tata Sumo arrives and out step 10 youths. The assembly has by now swelled to 80. A jeep with BSF soldiers parks itself some distance away. The men take positions on either side of the intersection.

“People want to vote,” says Mohammed, the tailor. “People want some relief. What does azaadi have to do with elections' That is a different matter altogether.”

In his speech, Bhat reminds the audience how he got a Natipora road repaired. Bashir Ahmed says it’s true.

“He will get my vote”.

“So you will vote'”

“I don’t know, let’s see”.

Up ahead of the Natipora crossing where the broken road meets the Bypass is the house of Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, former home minister and chief patron of the Peoples Democratic Party. His daughter Mehbooba Mufti, scarf firmly tied in a knot at the chin, is the party’s face. She has two scheduled election meetings this morning but now her workers want her in hospital where party activists injured in a scuffle in Batmaloo have been admitted.

“It’s really a mess and I’m sorry I have to leave; can we talk later'”

Her home is guarded by a company of the Central Reserve Police Force. Before she leaves, it has to be alerted.

“It’s simple really,” she says. “People are tired of Farooq Abdullah and the NC and they want a change,” she says. “We have announced that we will put an end to Poto (the anti-terror law), to custodial killings, to the repression.”

Is she sure people will turn out in large enough numbers'

“Let us see,” she leaves.

The Kashmiri for “Let us see” is talla vichhoo, but the English alphabet is somewhat limited phonetically to give its exact pronunciaton. It is a phrase that is as common as an Ahmed in the Valley.

Mehbooba Mufti’s little convoy goes past Sanatnagar where Shabir Shah is being interviewed by journalists from a Western television news channel. It is a mite simplistic to conclude that the vote-catchers are on the streets while the militants are in jail, or at home giving interviews to the media. In recent times, Shabir Shah has emerged as the most-acceptable-to-the-establishment voice of azaadi. He has always abjured violence.

“We from the Jammu and Kashmir Democratic Freedom Party have a clear stand,” he claims. “We have not called for a boycott of the elections but are saying that they are meaningless; they have no bearing on the real issue of Kashmir. The elections would have been important if we were in the field. For the moment, it is just a repetition of an old situation. First, there was the grandfather (Sheikh Abdullah), then the father (Farooq Abdullah) and now the grandson (Omar Abdullah). But this time it is not going to be simple. Omar will not sail through.”

If the National Conference is confronting the anti-incumbency factor, the azaadi forces are no less of a dilemma themselves — a call for a boycott of the elections will mean a low turnout which, in turn, will mean that committed voters (of the NC) will cast ballots and none disputes that the NC has more ability to mobilise numbers by hook or by crook. “If there is a decent turnout in the Valley, it will go against the NC. People are fed up of its autocracy, its black laws and of its association with the BJP. That is what people will vote against. It is not a mandate on azaadi,” asserts Shah.

From Shah’s house in Sanatnagar it is a 20-minute drive to Lal Chowk through busy-hour traffic. All along the way, CRPF soldiers patrol in single file, each at least 10 metres behind the other — should a grenade be hurled casualties will be minimised that way.

In Lal Chowk — where the clock on the tower is frozen at 8: am or pm' — a BSF armoured van, its multi-barrelled tear gas guns staring down at the throng of pedestrians and vehicles keeps watch. Two soldiers, fingers on the trigger, are ensconced in bullet-proof capsules shrouded about them. The van faces the “Sikander News Agency”, a prominent newsstand.

“In the past week, newspaper sales have gone up by 50 per cent,” says Yusuf Sikander. Owner and shopkeeper. “It’s these elections, you see”.

“Who will win'”

“National Conference will manage.”


“Don’t get me into this…find out for yourself.”

“Will people vote'”

“Some will.”

“Will you vote'”

“Let’s see.”

Abdul Rasheed has walked down to the shop from his office in the state secretariat a kilometre away. Around him, a group of six youths is reading a story on the front page of the Greater Kashmir newspaper. The story is headlined “All J&K National Conference and Sons!” Rasheed points to the group to illustrate his point.

“People are fed up. They want change but there is nothing that will be any different.”

Rasheed is 56 years old, born and brought up in the Valley. He lives in state government housing quarters.

“Will you vote'”

“Of course not.”

“Will you vote if you are guaranteed security'”

“How can I tell you' I don’t know what will happen to me next minute — if I can walk back to the office safely.”

“Militants may attack'”

“The BSF may open fire.”

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