Report

‘It Is a Sin to Waste Your Vote’

‘It Is a Sin to Waste Your Vote’

SRINAGAR, Kashmir — On the morning of April 30, the day of India’s parliamentary elections in Srinagar, Showkat Ahmad Bhat stood quietly outside his shuttered grocery store. The alleyways in the capital of Indian-controlled Kashmir — dotted with political banners promising "a new age" — were mostly empty, aside from the scores of Indian soldiers and policemen deployed to guard against possible disruptions from Kashmir’s resistance movement, which seeks independence from India. Bhat and his friends huddled on a street corner, watching which of their neighbors would walk into the lane that leads to the polling booth.

"I have never voted in 46 years of my life and I never will," Bhat says, holding up his unstained left-forefinger to show he did not bear the ink-mark that Indian balloters receive. "Even if all of Kashmir votes in Indian elections, I will still boycott."

Between April 7 and May 16, over 800 million Indians are set to participate in the election that pits the Congress Party candidate Rahul Gandhi against Narendra Modi, the leader of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the overwhelming favorite to take over as prime minister. But while many are voting based on which candidate will jump-start economic growth, crackdown on bureaucratic corruption, and deliver stronger internal security, for Kashmiris like Bhat the question is not who to support — but whether to vote at all.

Since 1989, when opposition figures began mass protests against Indian rule, Kashmiris have largely boycotted the elections — refusing to participate in an exercise they feel has little or no connection with their real aspiration of self determination. (All major Indian parties say that Kashmir is an integral part of India.) In the South Kashmir constituency — which held its vote on April 24, the first of three election phases in the contested region — around 72 percent of its eligible voters, according to the Election Commission of India (ECI), chose to stay home. A week later in Srinagar, an estimated 900,000 of the city’s 1.2 million voters boycotted. In contrast, voter turnout in India’s 2009 parliamentary elections was at 58 percent nationally.

Yet years of abstention — voter turnout in Srinigar was 18 percent in 2004 and 25.6 in 2009 — has done little to further calls for Kashmiri independence. "They will still form a government, they always form a government no matter how few people vote," says Bhat’s friend Mohammad Yusuf. "India rules us with its soldiers and its guns. All this is mere theater."

Not all Kashmiris are abstaining from the election, of course. "It is a sin to waste your vote," 51-year-old Haleema Bano says, covering her face with her white headscarf as she waited her turn in line. "Allah will punish you for it."

* * *

Kashmir is one of the subcontinents oldest conflicts. The region — an autonomous princely state prior to partition in 1947 — is claimed by both India and Pakistan and divided along the Line of Control, a highly militarized boundary separating the Indian-controlled state of Jammu and Kashmir from the Pakistani areas to the north. Kashmir’s post-partition political tensions cannot be disentangled from its religious demography: The region is predominately Muslim, though controlled by Hindu-majority India. After decades of simmering discontent, a mass armed uprising, supported by the neighboring Pakistan, erupted against the unpopular Indian occupation in 1989. India responded by deploying more than half a million soldiers in the region.

While India’s counterinsurgency methods have almost wiped out the armed movement — the Indian Army estimates there are only 300 active militants in Kashmir — the spirit of Kashmiri resistance remains active, and often manifests itself in massive street protests. 

These street demonstrations have often led to violence between the police and the protesters. Indian forces have killed hundreds of unarmed protesters in the last few years. During voting in South Kashmir in late April, clashes between Indian forces and protesters left at least 12 police and paramilitary soldiers injured and several young protesters wounded. Suspected militants killed three people, including two village leaders, in attacks on April 21 in an apparent effort to intimidate voters. In the lead-up to the election, police detained roughly 600 Kashmiri activists, including many of the leaders of the independence resistance movement.

In a statement released on April 28, police said that "[n]obody will be allowed to disrupt the electoral process," describing those arrested as "stone pelters and trouble mongers."

Owais Mushtaq, who has been involved in street protests, is one of those so-called trouble mongers. Local police picked up the 20 year old on April 27, along with dozens of other boys from Maisuma, a predominantly pro-independence neighborhood in Srinagar, according to his family. As of May 8, Mushtaq remains detained.

Sitting in the family’s small home in Maisuma, his father, Mushtaq Ahmad, recalls the first time his son was arrested: Mushtaq was just 15 then, charged with waging war against the state.

Ahmad himself says he was never involved in resistance efforts, even though at times he longed to join. "Two years ago, half a dozen soldiers beat me up," he says. "I kept showing them my identity card, but they kept beating me. It was there that I swore that my son is actually doing the right thing by throwing stones."

The independence movement in Kashmir has been buoyed by serious abuses by Indian forces. Human Rights Watch and other organizations have implicated Indian armed personnel in extrajudicial killings, disappearances, and torture. Militants have also committed atrocities, in particular targeting civilians perceived to support India. About 70,000 people have reportedly been killed in the conflict and thousands have been detained in Indian prisons.

As Ahmad spoke, Mushtaq’s mother and two sisters were trying to stay busy, dusting off the window sills while a soap opera played unnoticed on the TV in the corner. "Only my body is here," Mushtaq’s mother says. "My heart is there, in the prison."

* * *

Despite the heavy deployment of armed personnel, protests started in late afternoon on election day. As police were withdrawing from their polling stations, scores of resistance activists killing a young protester, Bashir Ahmad Bhat, a 26-year-old mason, and wounding five others.

The Kashmir government immediately instituted a curfew, which remained in force for the next two days in many places throughout the city. The killing sparked clashes between protesters and police across the region, wounding several more people. The deployment of armed forces remained heavy through May 7, when elections were held in the constituency of North Kashmir. As in Srinagar, police clashed with protesters during North Kashmir’s polling hours.

While boycott calls are nothing new during election season, Modi’s ascension has revived the debate. The BJP politician is considered a hardliner when it comes to state policy towards the contested region. Modi’s track record of right-wing Hindu nationalism politics is a point of concern for Muslims across India — his critics point to his alleged role in the 2002 anti-Muslim Gujarat riots, in which over 1,000 people were killed in sectarian attacks — yet for many Kashmiris, a Modi administration would be just another in a long line of abusive regimes. "The Kashmir policy of India has always been fascist but they have been carefully sugarcoating it in narratives of democracy and secularism," says human rights activist Khurram Parvez of the Coalition of Civil Society, a Srinagar-based human rights organization. "For us, Modi’s coming will be an unveiling of the real India."

This is the India that Bhat rejects in boycotting the country’s elections. Standing just a few miles from where Bashir Ahmad was killed, watching the few people trickle down the alley towards the polling station, Bhat pointed towards a street corner and relapsed into an old story: Two decades ago, he says, Indian Army soldiers killed two people on this corner. He remembers seeing the blood of a middle-aged woman shot in the stomach — he ran from his grocery store, he said, but he couldn’t help her.

"If I walk to the polling booths, I will have to answer that woman’s dying face and many more dead people along the way," says Bhat. "And I can never do that."