BY ALIYA BASHIR (with RAIHANA MAQBOOL)
SRINAGAR, Indian-administered Kashmir — There are more people eligible to vote in the election happening across India than there have been in any other election in modern history.
Even so, plenty of people in this city sat it out.
“I have never voted and will not vote this time as well,” says Hamid Altaf, a 32-year-old businessman from Srinagar. “We live in conflict and governments and ministers keep coming and going, but none so far has really raised the issue of Kashmir in Parliament.”
“They have betrayed us time and time again,” he adds.
India’s seven-phase election began on April 11 and will continue through May 19. About 900 million people are eligible to vote, which they will do via electronic voting machines. The results are scheduled to be announced on May 23.
In each phase so far, voter turnout in the state of Jammu and Kashmir has been lower than the national average – largely due to low turnout in areas where anti-Indian sentiment runs high.
That’s not unusual. Less than half of the state’s voters participated in the 2014 elections, reflecting especially low turnout in the Kashmir Valley, where anti-Indian sentiment is common. Preliminary numbers show turnout for the 2019 election could be even lower. For example, voter turnout in Srinagar plummeted from an already-low 25.7% in 2014 to just over 14% this year. By contrast, voter turnout in the more populous Jammu, a city further south, was up from 69% to 72.5%.
Key candidates in the election include current Prime Minister Narendra Modi, of the Bharatiya Janata Party, who is running for re-election. Rahul Gandhi of the Indian National Congress, the main opposition political party, is Modi’s primary opponent, but there are a host of other candidates as well. In addition, 543 members will be elected to India’s lower parliamentary house.
Modi’s party has dominated the government since 2014, but he’s faced criticism for what his opponents say is a Hindu nationalist ideology. People who are among India’s minority groups say they worry about what will happen if he continues as the country’s leader.
People who live in or are from the Kashmir Valley, which has a Muslim-majority population, are particularly concerned. Modi’s party election manifesto proposes to eliminate Articles 370 and 35A from India’s constitution – articles that protect the Jammu and Kashmir state’s unique autonomous status.
“Indian politicians are leveraging the anti-Kashmir prejudice which is visible and widespread in Indian society to their best advantage in these elections,” says Shahid Lone, a Kashmiri academic who is based in New Delhi.
The region of Kashmir is a hotspot for tension. Pakistan and India assert control over large sections (a piece in the northeast is claimed by China, as well), while many Kashmiris push for independence. In the Kashmir Valley, part of the section of Kashmir that India administers, Kashmiris frequently clash with the Indian military, which enforces curfews, checkpoints and other measures to control the area.
On Feb. 14, at least 40 members of Indian armed forces died in a suicide bombing near Srinagar, a major city in the Kashmir Valley. That incident sparked a serious crackdown in the area, as well as harassment of Kashmiris throughout India.
The Indian government also introduced a two-day per week restriction on the movement of civilian vehicles over a 270-kilometer (about 168 miles) stretch of national highway, from Baramulla to Udhampur. This well-traveled route connects Srinagar with the rest of India. The stated reason for the ban was that security forces needed safe passage. It has been partially lifted, but won’t be fully gone until later this month.
Tensions are high because there’s so much at stake. Article 370 of India’s constitution grants autonomy to the state of Jammu and Kashmir from the federal government except in matters of defense, central finance, communications and foreign affairs. Article 35A empowers the state, which has its own constitution, to define its own permanent residents and give those residents special rights and privileges, including the exclusive right to own land.
Many people who live in Indian-administered Kashmir say the Indian government already oversteps its bounds, even with those constitutional guarantees. Without those guarantees, they worry, the Indian government will become heavy-handed across the board, instead of focusing their attention on security.
“I am the only one in my family who voted,” says Mohammad Ramzan, who runs a grocery shop in Srinagar.
Ramzan says he voted because he wants to ensure that Article 35A remains in India’s constitution.
“We need a trustworthy person who will speak for us in this concern in the parliament,” Ramzan says. “This time, the vote was necessary as there is so much that’s happening here. We need proper representation of Kashmir.”
Originally appeared in Global Press Journal