The Telegraph
Friday , April 25 , 2014
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Two booths, one voter

But for one man, this village off the Srinagar-Jammu highway would have kept its fingers free of ink. The rest of the 1,500-odd voters stayed at home, scared to step out where even birds fear to fly in.

“We couldn’t sleep last night (out of fear). Even birds are not coming this way. The only man who voted came at 2pm and nobody came after him,” said Ali Mohammad, the presiding officer, one of the eight poll officials at the two booths in Batgund.

No one turned up at the other booth in this village in Pulwama district where militants had killed a sarpanch, Ghulam Nabi Mir, and his son Firdous on Monday night. Even the presence of 16 security personnel failed to bring them out.

Batgund, part of Anantnag parliamentary constituency, is 13km from Khar Mode on the Srinagar-Jammu national highway. The stretch, barely 27km from the centre of Srinagar city, is no ghost road but today it looked like one. Most villagers who live on either side of this stretch stayed indoors. Only a few walked their livestock.

From village to village, the story was the same: deserted booths where security and poll personnel idled away the hours. Not that it was all quiet. In neighbouring Shopian district, militants attacked a poll party, killing one and injuring five, including three security personnel.

Election officials said Pulwama recorded just 6.32 per cent votes, against 28 per cent in the whole constituency — a decent figure given the percentage during parliamentary elections in Kashmir has remained low in the last two-and-a-half decades, although Assembly polls have witnessed high turnouts since 2002.

The point the deserted booths drove home was that a handful of rebels could keep the militancy pot boiling in the Valley and why it is too early to write an obit of the rebellion despite official claims that it was on the wane.

Police sources said just three dozen militants are active in the whole of South Kashmir, or Anantnag parliamentary constituency. Half of these militants operate in Pulwama, and fighting them are thousands of security personnel.

“There were just a handful of attacks here in the past few days but the impact was felt in the whole of Pulwama district and some other places too. Tral was the worst hit,” a police official said.

Batgund is part of Tral, an Assembly segment that in the heyday of militancy was called Kandahar when hundreds of rebels were active. “In the past few days it has again become Kandahar. Maybe, it will be normal again after the elections,” said Ghulam Mohammad Gulzar, a shopkeeper.

Only Ghulam Mohammad Mir, the Batgund villager who voted, decided that he wouldn’t wait till then. Residents said Mohammad Mir, a cousin of the slain sarpanch, is a local Congress leader.

Over the past few days, mourners have visited the murdered village chief’s residence but none mustered the courage to speak openly against the killings. Asked how a handful of militants could strike such a fear, a villager said he was not surprised. “There are others who support them,” he said.

Muntazir Ahmad, a teenager, said pro-aazaadi sentiment was strong in the area. “There was a complete shutdown here in response to a call (by the separatists).”

There was a complete shutdown across much of the constituency today, even in villages that witnessed relatively brisk polling. The turnout was the highest in Anantnag district (38 per cent). Kulgam and Shopian districts recorded 37 and 20 per cent, respectively.