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Apple boxes full, ballot boxes...

Sopore, Sept. 15: The Border Security Force soldier in the public call office here, in the heart of apple-growing country, is talking to his family in Haryana.

“I’m fine, its raining, a little cold. Tell baba that I have been promised leave after the elections.” He is 26 years old, posted in Sopore over the past week.

Round the corner, from the PCO, in the garment store City Fabrics, Mohammed Ashraf says: “Not a single candidate has campaigned here, given a speech. No one will vote.”

Nine years ago, Ashraf’s shop was in Chowk Bazaar, the main market, that was burnt down by a battalion of the BSF. In Sopore, time is marked since that event.

Episodes of violence are the narrative pivots of recent history in the Kashmir Valley. Since 1993, Chowk Bazaar has been rebuilt. Sopore, the Valley’s third largest town, looks more prosperous than district headquarters Baramulla.

“We returned the money the government gave us for rehabilitation. No one accepted it,” says Ashraf.

The election is not easy to find in Sopore beyond the National Conference and Congress buntings over the Chowk that Ashraf says were put up hastily two nights ago, strung from window to window of buildings built after 1993.

Two Hizb-ul Mujahideen militants had overrun a BSF light machine gun post and run away with the weapon. In its wake, the BSF burnt down Sopore on January 6, 1993.

That was when the Valley was aflame. Today, in comparison and despite the daily toll, Sopore seethes within.

“The Kashmiri is really never to be taken at face value,” says Ghulam Rasool Kar, a 80-year-old Congressman, former MP and six-time Haji. “You give him a job, he’ll take it; you give him land, he’ll cultivate it; you give him a lecture, he’ll listen. But he will still sling a gun on his shoulder.” Sopore will not vote, save as tokenism.

The sitting MLA is National Conference candidate and Speaker Vakil Abdul Ahad. Kar is the best-known name of the Congress but the ticket has gone to Ghulam Sultan.

Sopore is also where town meets country: the Valley’s only apple-distribution centre is here. (there is another at Srinagar but it caters to local demand).

Ashok Sharma has come here from Chhapra, Bihar, because “what can I do when it is business”' The Valley growers’ association estimates that there is enough of the fruit produced here for each Indian to have seven to eight apples per annum. It’s a measly amount, a comment on the purchasing power of the country rather than on Sopore’s productivity.

In the orchards that line the highway from the Chowk to the mandi, the trees are laden with the premium Dilshas variety.

“The going rate now is Rs 350 per box,” says Ghulam Mustafa, commissioning agent and grower. “Each box holds 16 to 18 kg.” An estimated one crore boxes are to be sold this season from May to December. Lorries from across the country have turned the mandi into a slushy field in the light rain.

Unlike in Himachal Pradesh, the state-run corporation here (the Jammu Kashmir Horticulture Marketing Corporation) does not have a chain of processing units and retail outlets.

The offtake does not give the grower margins beyond Rs 30 per box after cost of production and delivery. The mandi itself gives direct and indirect employment to 10,000 people. The orchards -- all across Baramulla and Kupwara – multiples of that figure.

In the villages around the mandi, growers hastily pack apples into wooden boxes for delivery. The election on Monday threatens to disrupt supply schedules.

“Last night somebody put up Congress and National Conference flags in our village,” says Pervez Subhani. “Nobody has come to ask for our votes. I don’t even know who the candidates are. I might still vote if the army and the BSF ask me to do so.”

In the towns – Srinagar, Baramulla, Uri, Sopore – the overwhelming observation is that polling for Monday’s election will be heavier in the villages. In the villages, just kilometers from the highways, they say they are caught between the barrel of the gun and the ballot box.

“Three days ago, the militants put up posters in our village saying the first person to vote will be excommunicated,” says Rashid of Zaingeer, off the road to Bandipore.

Jailed Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani is from Sopore. Geelani, who wants Kashmir to be merged with Pakistan, has been MLA four times.

“Those who have been to Pakistan – like me – will not want to be in that country,” says Ashraf. “I have been there four times to visit family and friends in Rawalpindi and Muzaffarabad (in occupied Kashmir). Kashmir is a tussle between India and Pakistan where we Kashmiris get kicked from end to end.”

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