Once more, Jammu and Kashmir votes for change (Roundup)November 23rd, 2008 - 7:45 pm ICT by IANS
Srinagar/Jammu, Nov 23 (IANS) It was another vote for change, for a stab at normalcy after years spent under the shadow of the gun in the volatile hills of Jammu and Kashmir where people Sunday again defied a separatist boycott call to queue up outside polling booths in round two of the assembly elections. After an impressive 64 percent turnout in the first round of the seven phased elections last week, six of the state’s 87 assembly constituencies went to the polls — two in the Muslim majority Kashmir valley and four in the Hindu dominated Jammu region.
The long queues pointed to a high voting percentage Sunday as well.
By close of day at 4 p.m., 45 percent of voters had exercised their franchise in Ganderbal and 55 percent in Kangan of the Kashmir Valley — with 22 candidates and an electorate of 137,560 - where the exercise had got off to a sluggish start at 8 a.m. because of the morning chill.
It was significantly higher at 60 percent in Jammu’s four constituencies of Kalakot, Rajouri, Nowshera and Darhal, which have 353,457 voters and 59 candidates. All four constituencies are in the hilly district of Rajouri.
In a state that has so often resounded with the cries of ‘azadi’ and where separatist violence has claimed 40,000 lives in two decades, the sentiment on Sunday - as on Nov 17 during the first phase - was one of a longing for a better quality of life.
Issues of road connectivity, schools, water and electricity drew voters to the ballot box both in Kashmir and in Jammu — that have been without an elected government since July.
“It is time to vote, the boycott would only damage our cause for development,” Raufullah Lone, a retired teacher in Rajouri town, said as he watched young people rush to the polling booths.
Some enthusiastic voters were even moving around the streets calling out to people. “Come out,” shouted Tasaduq Hussain to his neighbhour Shiv Malhotra, “Otherwise, we will have to stand in the queue for a long time.”
As if in echo, 28-year-old Muhammad Hanief said in Ganderbal, from where National Conference (NC) leader Omar Abdullah is contesting: “I have cast my vote. It is a right I want to exercise. I know my voting has nothing to do with the resolution of the Kashmir problem. I am voting for better electricity, better roads, a government job for myself and good governance.”
Added Abdullah, who had lost the last election: “People are voting for good governance.”
Along with the regional NC and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), the two other contenders for power are the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress.
Said state BJP president Ashok Khajuria: “It’s a victory of democracy.”
Analysts also found much to cheer about in the voting percentage from a region that has been in the global spotlight of trouble and the subject of constant tension between India and Pakistan.
Separatist leaders need to read the writing on the wall, said Bashir Manzar, editor of an English daily published from Srinagar.
“Kashmiris have consciously delinked the larger issue from their civic necessities… They (separatists) should not embarrass themselves more by giving excuses like polling was under the gun and it’s bogus voting. Kashmiris are voting for jobs, electricity and daily life needs… things that cannot wait till the Kashmir issue is resolved,” he said.
Separatist leaders viewed it differently, of course.
Sajjad Gani Lone of the Peoples Conference said it was “too early to rush to any conclusion”.
“Five more phases are yet to go,” he said.
“India portrays these elections as a substitute for the resolution of the Kashmir issue, which is not the case.”
Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, chairman of the Hurriyat Conference, added that the elections were held under “occupation, detentions, curfews and crackdowns”.
“These are illegitimate (elections),” he said.
But the fact is that the election proceeded relatively smoothly, despite two people being killed in clashes with security forces in Baramulla in the Kashmir valley Saturday.
With five phases to go before the elections end on Dec 24, it is yet to be seen if the trend of heavy voting persists. If it does, then lasting peace could still be a reality in the troubled region.