The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Bunkers to booths: Picnic in panic zone

Jammu, April 20: At 100, Kartaro Devi does not want anyone to stand between her and a carnival she last saw in 1987. With a ceasefire in force, Pervez Musharraf’s gunners were only happy to oblige and desist from playing the usual party-poopers.

“Indeed, it is a party for all of us,” exulted Ujjagar Singh as he stepped out of a booth that has replaced bunkers in Abdullian, a village just 400 metres from the International Border in the Jammu region.

Abdullian, usually resonant with the boom of shells and whine of bullets, voted today after 17 years as the frontline ceasefire allowed booths to be set up and voters to turn up without the fear of being sitting ducks.

Since the 1987 Assembly elections, most of the villagers hardly managed to vote as they were more often than not evacuated from their homes because of stepped-up shelling from across the border.

In the 2002 Assembly elections, when tension with Pakistan was running high, people from the frontline villages did vote but they had to go to booths that were set up at least five to 10 km away, safely out of range of the Pakistani guns.

At Suchetgarh, where Kartaro Devi voted, the polling station was more close to the border – 100 metres from the fence that none dared approach before the Id ceasefire that came into play in last November. Among the first in the queue was 92-year-old Karam Chand.

Kartaro Devi had come accompanied by several grandchildren, some of whom have never voted in booths in their native places.

Even before an hour into polling, long queues were taking shape outside another polling station in a government school about half a kilometre from the International Border. A carnival mood prevailed in several clusters along the border belt from Samba to the heights of Pir Panjal in Rajouri and Poonch.

The novelty factor of voting on the shell-scarred terrain did draw voters in large numbers in rural areas today but it also highlighted the contrast with urban belts.

The lukewarm response in the urban areas nudged downwards the turnout in the Jammu Lok Sabha seat to 45 per cent as against 48 per cent in 1996 and 47 per cent in 1999. But the polling today was free of the rigging charges that have accompanied most elections in the state before 2002.

The composition of the turnout does not augur well for the BJP candidate, Nirmal Singh, as the party’s committed voters are mostly concentrated in the urban areas. The National Conference now holds the seat.

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