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Democracy toehold under tent
- the few who voted did so without coercion

Sept. 16: Inside a tent in the field at Anderkote, the presiding officer from Meerut, western Uttar Pradesh, is sitting on his haunches, the collar of the bullet-proof jacket pushing against his chin. On his head is a cap ringed with a pad that is said to be capable of absorbing a bullet before it can get into the skull.

Outside, there is a queue of 66 people. It is 9 in the morning in Sonawari, “renegade” and sitting MLA Kuka Parrey’s constituency. The outer cordon around the tent is manned by a Rashtriya Rifles (army) company; the inner by the CRPF. In the corners of the field are four sentries, each manning light machine guns.

The tent was put up at 7 in the morning when polling was just beginning; it will be down just after 4.

“The idea is to get a safe place to vote,” says the presiding officer. “And a tent is safer than a house because it presents a moveable target — destroy one and another can come up in a jiffy.”

In the elections in the Kashmir Valley today, democracy has used the guerrilla tactic of fast-in, fast-out — set up the booth, fly in the polling officers, connect the electronic voting machines, punch buttons, lock data, disconnect, pack, scoot.

Anderkote has voted heavily by Valley standards — indications this far are that the turnout in the first phase of polling in 14 out of 15 constituencies (in the Valley) is less than that of 1996 — though the official figure so far is upwards of 40 per cent.

From Pattan, through Sonawari, Bandipora, Sopore and Sangrama, around the Wular Lake in North Kashmir, the defining image of the poll — where it represents itself in the sort of turnout that Delhi would like to see — is of the tent that packed more democracy in its canvas than in the concrete buildings around.

Indeed, many booths in concrete houses recorded zero to negligible turnouts compared to the attendance just outside that hastily-built shed of tough textile.

At the Yakhanpora booth in Pattan constituency adjoining Srinagar, 23 of 1,042 votes were cast in the first hour: n At the booths in the animal husbandry unit in Hajin, Kuka Parrey’s village: 229 out of 916 (10 am); 225 out of 1,039 (10 am).

Driving through Pattan and Sonawari and after a bend in the Jhelum, the hills overlook the Wular Lake. This is Bandipora, also a powder keg.

The town is desolate. In the sub-district hospital, doctors Nissar and Rahim say “last night, from 11.30, there was shooting near the bazaar that went on till 7 in the morning. People have boycotted the vote. This is not the democracy we want”.

n At Nadihal, near the town bazaar, till 11 am, three per cent of the votes have been polled.

At Sangrama — the constituency is named after the largish village — an agitated middle-aged man stops the car. He has a weal on his leg after, he says, he was beaten by a BSF trooper because he had not gone to vote.

Inside Sangrama, a platoon of the BSF is going from house to house. At one, a trooper knocks, asks the man if he has voted and wants to see if his ring finger has the mark of indelible ink.

“Why haven’t you voted' Get to the booth immediately,” the trooper tells him.

The womenfolk of the village come out on the street. “They have been to my house four times since morning,” says Rehana Tabassum. “They took my father to the booth but he did not vote.”

Twenty minutes later, the same platoon is at the Sangrama Government Boys School. It is 3.45 pm, 15 minutes before the scheduled close of polling. The turnout: 92/1,222.

This is the first instance of security forces seen going from house to house urging — even coercing — villagers to vote. There have been complaints along the way but little evidence to suggest that the pattern has repeated itself across the Valley.

Back in Srinagar, state information officers had been asked not to put out turnout figures for individual constituencies after 3 pm. Turnout figures would henceforth be announced centrally.

“It is much better than we expected,” said state chief electoral officer Pramod Jain.

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