High voter turnout expected in Poonch

November 15th, 2008 - 2:57 pm ICT by IANS  

Poonch, Nov 15 (IANS) A high voter turnout is expected in the three constituencies of the border district of Poonch that go to the polls Monday in the first phase of crucial assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir.This district has three constituencies - Poonch-Haveli, Surankote and Mendhar. Barring Surankote, both the constituencies have their geographical borders with Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

The election boycott call by separatists has not affected the voters, claim politicians.

“The election boycott call of separatist groups is not going to have an effect here in Poonch district. On the other hand there will be a record turnout of voters,” said Aijaz Jan, a contestant of the National Conference.

The elections this time will see 37 candidates in the fray, in comparison to 17 in 2002. Poonch-Haveli has 13 candidates with 97,321 electorate and 135 polling stations, while Surankot has 11 candidates with 85,129 voters and 110 polling stations. Mendhar has 12 candidates with 78,846 voters and 108 polling stations.

Of the 353 polling stations, more than half - 178 - have been marked hyper-sensitive, 83 sensitive and the remaining normal.

All three seats of Poonch district had gone to the National Conference in the 2002 assembly elections, with Mendhar and Poonch registering over 60 percent turnout while Surankot had 40 percentage voting.

According to Deputy Commissioner of Poonch, Mohammad Afzal Bhat, “The campaigning was very positive and peaceful. There was no case of violence registered anywhere in the district this time and the mood is upbeat.”

Traditionally, the voters here opt for the candidates on caste lines. The major division is between Gujjars and Paharis. The Gujjars and Bakerwals are nomadic tribes and are fiercely possessive about their ethnic identity. They got Scheduled Tribe status in 1989 and are opposed to the same being granted to the Paharis.

“They (Paharis) have no right to ask for it. They are well off. They have homes, we don’t. We survive on our cattle. Despite having got the ST status, we are poor, we are not getting reservation in jobs, eight percent of the jobs are to be reserved for us,” says Haji Karim Din, an elderly Gujjar.

“We have a substantial population, but our share in the decision making is nil,” he said, adding that there was only one Gujjar minister in the last ministry which had 14 cabinet ministers.

That Gujjars are going to be the deciding factor is why the Congress has chosen two Gujjar leaders - Bashir Ahmad Naaz for Poonch and Mohammad Aslam from Surankote for the contest. To balance this, it has also fielded Abdul Majid, a Pahari in Mendhar. Likewise the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) has chosen two Paharis - Mumtaz Bukhari and Rafiq Hussain Khan for Surankote and Mendhar respectively, while the National Conference has gone in for two Paharis from Surankote and Mendhar and fielded a Gujjar from Poonch.

The fierce fight over ST status is the main issue with the Paharis. Nothing else matters.

People of Poonch say that campaigning, though peaceful, was not very hectic as the announcement of elections caught them by surprise. They were excited over a new development when the polls were announced on Oct 19 - the cross Line of Control trade on the Poonch-Rawlakote route that began Oct 21.

“We were ill-prepared for the polls, for all our energies were focused on the start of the trade with the Pakistani side,” said Zahid Hussain, a vegetable seller. Politicians also echoed his feelings.

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