On Thursday afternoon, a school teacher doing duty as a polling agent in Galwanpora in Kashmir’s Budgam district was anxiously waiting for the day to end. He had been brought to the polling booth, set up in a government school, in an armoured car at 5 in the morning. To ensure that he wasn’t late for duty, he had spent the previous night in the Police Lines in Srinagar. Every now and then, he approached the policeman sitting on a chair on the porch to inquire about the situation in Galwanpora village. It wasn’t as if he had a lot to do. Even though it was 12.30, not a single vote had been cast.
“We had apprehensions before coming here,” said the teacher, who declined to give his name. He had good reason to be nervous.
The booth in which he was doing duty had been the site of intense violence on Sunday, when a bye-election was held to fill the Srinagar Lok Sabha seat that had fallen vacant in September with the resignation of the incumbent. From 9 on Sunday morning, local youths had begun hurling stones at the school. A little later, said locals, about 100 men stormed the school, damaging furniture, destroying fittings and making off with the Electronic Voting Machines. The polling staff were caught in the melee until elders of the village asked the youth to free the election workers.
Other parts of the constituency were also gripped by violence. By the end of Sunday, eight people had been shot dead by security forces and only 7% of the electorate had actually come out to cast their votes. On Tuesday, the Election Commission ordered a re-poll in 38 booths where EVMs had been damaged or stolen.
Though security cover was strengthened for the re-election on Thursday, poll workers like the school teacher in Galwanpora were justifiably jittery. On Sunday, dozens of buses ferrying polling staff were attacked in various parts of the city. A driver in Srinagar’s Bemina area lost control of his vehicle and rammed into a shop after he was hit on the head by a stone.
The next day, another bus driver on poll duty, Ali Mohammad Dagga, was killed by stone pelters in Srinagar’s Tengpora area. After being hit by a stone, Dagga lost control and ran into a divider.
Across the constituency, polling staff, drawn from various government departments, said that they did not want to dispense duties under “such troublesome circumstances”.
The polling agent in Anchar in Srinagar’s Soura area said that the staff “were there because they had to do it not because they wanted to do it”. He added: “No one has the dedication to do it, mainly because of security reasons.”
A college lecturer who had been selected for election duty in the Anantnag parliamentary constituency on May 25 said that the hesitation of poll workers wasn’t just prompted by the prospect of being injured – it was also fear of punitive action in case a mob burst in. If “you are not able to protect the EVM from the mob, you are liable for explanation”, he said. “If you lose the EVM to the mob you are liable for suspension from the job. If you deny duty, then you are liable for suspension for up to nine years.”
He added: “You can’t even feign illness [to avoid election duty]. You can only avoid if you die.”
Besides, he explained that doing the duty also meant being pitted against fellow Kashmiris. “These stone pelters, at the end of the day, are our own Kashmiri brothers only,” he said. “You have to fight your own people this way.”
But on Thursday, as the day progressed in Galwanpora, the school teacher doing poll duty lightened up a little. The village was calm and he was reassured by the presence of dozens of security force personnel sitting along the compound’s wall and on the porches of the school buildings. Armoured vehicles and security force personnel dotted the streets leading to the polling booth.
“Seeing the heavy security we are at ease,” he said. “It has been peaceful since morning, so we are not worried at the moment.”
There was so little activity, in fact, that the only people who showed up at the booth were villagers bringing staff their tea. At the end of the day, not a single vote had been cast in the school, a situation that was replicated in 26 other booths. In fact, only 679 voters of the 35,169 registered at the 38 booths that went to the polls again actually exercised their franchise.
The day ended relatively peacefully. But the poll boycott signals troubling times ahead for electoral politics in the Valley.