| BSF soldiers keep vigil from a shikara on Srinagar’s Dal Lake. (Reuters)
Srinagar, Sept. 23: At Lal Chowk in the heart of the city, shutters were clanging down at 4 this afternoon.
“Koi nahi vote dega (no one will vote),” said Zoohur Ahmed, closing his shop and the PCO near the clock tower.
“I have sent everyone to Ludhiana. Anything may happen tomorrow,” the 43-year-old, who has spent nearly half his life in Calcutta, said.
What may happen tomorrow — when 15 constituencies in Kashmir and 13 in Jammu vote in the second phase of elections — was clear today. Militants carried out a series of grenade attacks in the Valley, targeting campaign vehicles and polling booths, three in downtown Srinagar itself. Twenty-eight people, including a dozen security personnel, were injured in the attacks.
Late in the evening, one policeman was killed and two were taken hostage by militants in a house near a poll distribution centre, also in Srinagar.
Militant groups have sent word by mouth not to vote. The Greater Kashmir newspaper quoted the Hizb-ul Mujahideen as saying it had ordered attacks on polling stations. It warned government employees and voters to stay away from polling booths.
“We have no choice,” said Iqbal, also a shopowner at Lal Chowk, “but to accept their dictates. If we do not, we may be killed or someone from the family may be attacked.”
If the fear is all-pervasive, so is the security. K.R. Kumar, IG (Kashmir), described the arrangement as “unprecedented”, a word that has lost all its potency through overuse but still describes the security here best.
“We have intercepts from Pakistan to the terrorists to indulge in ‘do-or-die’ acts tomorrow. We will not allow them to sabotage the polls,” Kumar said.
Another senior officer, more realistic under cover of anonymity, said: “We do not expect heavy participation in the city, considering the support the terrorists have here and in adjoining districts, but even 20 per cent will suffice. We will try to get as many people who want to vote to the polling stations as possible.”
Some people in chief ministerial candidate Omar Abdullah’s constituency, Ganderbal, were, however, determined to exercise their ballot, braving the threat of bullets.
“Insha-Allah, we think our time has come. We will vote despite the threat from militants. We will vote because we want to teach Abdullah a lesson,” said Nazir Ahmed in a village that lies midway on the national highway between Srinagar and Ladakh.
As on the previous polling day, the separatist All-Parties Hurriyat Conference has called a strike tomorrow.
In the alleys of old Srinagar — where “aazadi, aazadi. Teri jaan, meri jaan, Pakistan, Pakistan” is a cry frequently heard — neither the militants nor the Hurriyat will have to try too hard to enforce a poll boycott.
“Buchus uahchan aazadi, elections na (I want freedom, not elections),” said 11-year-old Shiraj-at Zadibal, pointing in the direction of a Kalashnikov drawn on the wall. In the same breath he added that he need not be asked what “aazadi” meant.
Some of these areas are “prohibited” zones for campaigners and some even for journalists.
“Kashmir ko jail bana diya hain aur humko qaidi (they have made a prison out of Kashmir and prisoners out of us),” said 50-year-old Abdul Gaffar Wani, a resident of Zadibal.
He has always voted for the National Conference, but not this time because it has failed in his eyes. Not a vote for the Opposition, but boycott is the method of protest he has chosen.
The spilt in Srinagar is clear: among people who will vote and who will not. If in some areas, there is no sign of an election taking place; in some others, flags of all political parties are fluttering in flying testimony to the will of the people.
How strong that will remains after the spate of attacks and the silent warning not to vote can be known only tomorrow. For Delhi, what was worrying this afternoon and evening were the clusters of people at Lal Chowk waiting to take buses to get away from the election zone.
“Srinagar mein nahin rahna hai kuchh dinon ke liye (We won’t stay in Srinagar for some time),” some of them said.