| Villagers at an election rally in the border town of Mandi near Srinagar on Saturday. (Reuters)
Srinagar, Sept. 14: The setting was idyllic, the weather splendid. It was a big relief from the sweltering heat of the plains for the 2,500-odd staff flown in on special planes to perform election duties in Kashmir.
“As I stepped out of the plane and looked around, I found the Valley really beautiful, the air salubrious. I could not believe my eyes on seeing such beauty,” said Sarfaraz Ahmed Khan, a government teacher from Hassanabad in Uttar Pradesh.
Mohammad Asif from Meerut said: “I volunteered to come to Kashmir for poll duty. I wanted to visit the Valley. I have heard a lot about the various health resorts here and if I get time, I will definitely visit Gulmarg and Pahalgam.”
“I wanted to visit Kashmir and I requested the administration to include me in the list,” said another officer from the group, Balbir Singh.
But as they trooped out of the airport and entered a paramilitary camp, the pleasure of the pleasant weather and beautiful surroundings seemed short-lived. Paramilitary soldiers and police surrounded them, tightening bulletproof jackets around their waists and searching for helmets that fit.
Soon it dawned on the bewildered poll staff that they have not been brought for a joy ride to the “paradise on earth”.
A paramilitary handout stated: “Welcome to happy Valley.” It also detailed the guidelines to be followed by the staff during their stay in Kashmir, the first being a security drill.
The election officials then busied themselves reading the directives in the release: “Do not go outside prescribed security zones. You would be staying with us in our makeshift camps while on election duty in Kashmir. Our effort would be to make you as comfortable as possible, within the given constraints,” it said.
“In the present security scenario in the state, eternal vigilance and alertness would be essential on your part. However, we may assure you that your safety, security and comfort would be our prime concern,” the statement emphasised.
“Now I realise why my family was hesitant when I received the order for the poll duty,” remarked Yogesh Tiwari, a multi-purpose health worker. “It took me days to persuade my family. They finally relented and I boarded the special plane to reach here.”
The first strains of apprehension set in as the staff realised that the directive made everything that fell outside heavily-guarded camps off-limits.
“My wife and two children must be worried for me in view of the recent incidents,” added Tiwari. “This bulletproof jacket and helmet make me feel that the Valley is no more the pleasure place it used to be.”
According to one police officer, each employee will be paid Rs 12,000 for the poll duties and each has been insured for a hefty sum. He said in case of death, a close relative of the deceased would be provided a government job.
Shahid Hassan concentrated on his copy of the guidelines as he stood in the queue to board a bus that would take him and his colleagues to their final destination in north Kashmir.
“In any crisis, keep your cool and act as advised by the central paramilitary forces (CPMF),” the release warned. “Be alert and vigilant round the clock. Anything unusual and suspicious noticed by you must be reported to CPMF.”
The guidelines ended on a positive note: “Wish you a very happy and memorable stay while on election duty in Kashmir.”