Less than a year ago, when you entered the town of Anantnag in South Kashmir, you were greeted with party flags. The pen and inkpot of the People’s Democratic Party, the plough of the National Conference, even the odd Congress hand fluttered in Khanabal Chowk, close to the government quarters.

As you drove deeper into Anantnag district, there were rival political rallies held in the main town and surrounding villages. And there was graffiti on walls and shopfronts, calling for a boycott of elections.

That was just before the bye-election to the Anantnag Assembly seat, which had fallen vacant with the death of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed in January 2016. His daughter Mehbooba Mufti, who had succeeded him as chief minister, won that election in June. And as mandated by law, she quit her Anantnag Lok Sabha seat. Which meant another bye-election was due.

The polling was scheduled on April 12 this year, three days after the bye-election to the Srinagar Lok Sabha seat. But when eight people were killed in firing by security forces on protestors trying to disrupt the Srinagar bye-election, which saw a turnout of only 7.14%, the Anantnag election was postponed to May 25. On Tuesday, as the violence continued, the Election Commission cancelled the bye-poll .

Clearly, the political and security establishments could not take any chances, certainly not in South Kashmir. A season of unrest has swept through the district since last June, wrenching the flags off Khanabal Chowk. There is new graffiti, demanding “India Go Back”, declaring “Intifada 2016”, swearing allegiance to slain Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani and Pakistan. Some such slogans have been painted over but many remain.

Everywhere, the so-called political mainstream, made up of parties that participate in elections, is on the run. Everywhere, they have gone underground. Support for “Azadi”, for the leadership of the separatist movement and for militancy is openly articulated. Loyalties to mainstream parties are renounced. “People are scared but secretly many are with the People’s Democratic Party and other parties,” claimed a worker of the ruling party in Anantnag town.

As protests raged through the summer of 2016, leaving nearly 100 people dead and thousands maimed, a wave of anger gathered force against all political parties, which seemed indifferent to the bloodshed. The People’s Democratic Party, which rules Jammu and Kashmir in coalition with the Bharatiya Janata Party, has borne the brunt of the public anger.

Under siege

Even senior party leaders betray a sense of siege. Mehboob Beg, who is chief spokesperson of the People’s Democratic Party and is based in Anantnag town, feels the May 25 election is a bad idea given the “political alienation” in a population still “traumatised” by the unrest of 2016. “There is no question of going underground,” he said at first. Then he admitted, “You are seeing guns and we can’t give protection to everybody. The space for mainstream political parties is shrinking day by day.”

Anantnag Lok Sabha constituency comprises the southern districts of Anantnag, Pulwama, Shopian and Kulgam. The new wave of indigenous militancy in the Valley started here. These four districts were the epicentre of protests last year and saw the highest number of civilian deaths. They were also supposed to be the stronghold of the People’s Democratic Party.

The constituency has traditionally posted low voter turnouts in Lok Sabha elections. Most people in Anantnag will tell you they have never voted. But an unusual quiet has descended this year.

Like in the 1990s, when militancy peaked in the Valley, unidentified gunmen have started knocking on doors. The killing of party workers, common in that frenzied decade, has started again. Videos of party workers renouncing mainstream politics, while a gun peeks into the frame, have gone viral. The more fortunate among party workers have got away with unwelcome visits and threatening posters that went up at mosques or market places.

Senior party leaders have retired to Jammu and Srinagar. Now well-known party workers, especially in Shopian and Pulwama, are following suit. Others lie low, staying close to their homes.

In Anantnag, the People’s Democratic Party has held a few furtive meetings in securitised zones such as Khanabal Chowk. Brief indoor meetings have been held in some villages as well, one party worker claimed. But in Shopian, Pulwama and Kulgam, residents say, campaigning is out of the question. The mere presence of party leaders can trigger public anger.

A BJP poster in Tral, Pulwama district, ahead of the 2014 Assembly election. Image credit: AFP

Writing on the wall

A poster is strung up high on a transformer in Rohmoo village, Pulwama. It depicts a group of young men holding guns, one forefinger pointed towards the sky. The poster floated up in the Valley last year, in the thick of the protests set off by the killing of Burhan Wani. Militancy had not died with Wani, the poster was meant to signal. These men were going to be successors to Wani and his cohort. Three of the men in the picture have since been killed, residents say.

The poster watches over a house across the lane. Abdul Gani Dar, Pulwama district president of the People’s Democratic Party, lived there. Last week, he went to the district court in Pulwama, where he worked as an advocate. On his way back in the evening, his car was stopped by two unidentified gunmen, a relative said. They asked him to get down and then shot him. He was taken to the hospital in Pulwama, where they referred him to a hospital in Srinagar. He died on the way.

“He had two private security officers with him,” said the relative. “But they were unarmed. With his public image, he did not think anyone would attack him.” But there had been open threats once the bye-elections were announced, with workers of all political parties asked to resign.

Abdul Gani Dar’s body was brought back to Pulwama that evening for the funeral prayers. Local journalists say it was a modest affair, not like the funerals of militants where a seething mass of mourners followed the dead.

A day after Abdul Gani Dar’s death, his house in Rohmoo was wrapped in private grief. Two tents had been set up outside the house next door, one each for men and women. Mourning relatives, gathered in the tents or hunched up outside in the late-morning drizzle, would not talk to the press.

Then an armoured vehicle rolled up in the lane outside and men with guns spilled out – the constabulary of the Jammu and Kashmir police and personnel from the Special Operations Group. Another vehicle brought men from the Central Reserve Police Force. They had come to secure the area as state Finance Minister Haseeb Drabu and other dignitaries from the People’s Democratic Party were expected.

Local journalists gathered around the house predicted that with such heavy troop deployment, stone-pelting was bound to follow. Eventually Abdul Gani Dar’s wife emerged at the gate, a middle-aged woman with glasses and a determined air. She asked the policemen to put her on the phone with one of the dignitaries due to arrive. Do not come here, the politician at the other end of the line was told, it would only make matters worse.

Stone-pelting had already started on the road leading from Rohmoo to Qasbeyar village, where advocate Bashir Ahmad Dar was killed on April 15.

Poster of militants outside Abdul Gani Dar's house. Image credit: Muneeb ul Islam

Political killings?

Abdul Gani Dar seems to have been targeted for his affiliation with mainstream politics, but what about two other advocates who were killed in South Kashmir around the same time? The “unidentified gunman”, responsible for so many unaccounted deaths in Jammu and Kashmir over the last quarter of a century, is a murky figure, acting on behalf of unknown interests or organisations. While conspiracy theories abound about the killings, in the districts, the families of victims deny political connections.

Around 9 pm on April 15, Bashir Ahmed Dar was at home with his family. Four men showed up at their door, a family member said, and only two of them were masked. “We took them to the guest room, offered them tea and refreshments,” said a relative who did not want to be named. Then Bashir Ahmed Dar went to meet them. The advocate was shot in the knees as was his cousin. Bashir Ahmed Dar bled to death before he reached the Pulwama district hospital. While reports have said he was affiliated to the People’s Democratic Party, family members say he was not. There had been no threats or warnings before he was killed, they claim.

In Pinjoora village, in the neighbouring Shopian district, the family of advocate Imtiyaz Ahmed Khan tells a similar story. Unknown men appeared after evening prayers at the mosque next to their house and took Khan away. He seemed to have gone willingly, only to be shot dead.

Khan had been a public prosecutor, appointed by the National Conference government that went out of power in 2014, and reports after his death suggest he was killed for having party ties. Reports that his wife indignantly refutes.

“He had no political affiliations, he was a public prosecutor. He did very good work and we are very proud,” she said. “He managed to get two convictions of militants, that is not a small thing. They told him not to do it.”

But the family went on to say that militant groups had denied killing Khan. The Lashkar-e-Toiba, the Jaish-e-Mohammad and the Hizbul Mujahideen, the three main groups active in the Valley, had reportedly left a letter with the imams of all local mosques saying they were not responsible.

Whatever the reason behind the killings, they have sped up the flight from the political mainstream, deepened the sense of mistrust that has never quite left the Valley after the conflict began.

“We don’t know who is with whom in this area,” said a relative of Bashir Ahmed Dar. “It is a result of Kashmir’s failed politics.”

Trucks carry government records from Jammu to Srinagar during the half-yearly Durbar Move. Image credit: PTI

Depleted ranks

Popular support for pro-India parties has dipped dramatically since last year. But the killings and threats have hollowed out the mainstream, particularly the People’s Democratic Party. They have driven away the foot soldiers, those who would have gone door to door with the party’s political message. In late April, as the state government shifted its offices back to Srinagar from the winter capital Jammu (the half-yearly ritual is called Darbar Move), workers of the People’s Democratic Party in South Kashmir felt bitter and abandoned by an aloof high command.

“The PDP leadership today doesn’t know what is happening on the ground,” said an angry worker in Anantnag who has featured in posters threatening mainstream political activists. “They sit behind security – let whatever happen to the workers. Last year, too, my name was on the posters. They didn’t do anything, they don’t remember their workers. I don’t want to go with these people any more. They only take care of their own relatives.”

On April 10, masked men had come asking about him to the local chemist’s. On being told that he was away, they left a message: there was a “hit order” against him. They returned later that evening to throw a petrol bomb on his house. The police had offered him security, the worker said, but he refused.

Another party worker, who owns a shop in Anantnag town, still carries a letter in his wallet. There is a photocopy of it pasted at a local mosque, he says. It asks for forgiveness for having joined the People’s Democratic Party. When two masked men burst into his home in September last year, it was all he could do to save himself.

“They knocked on the door, then kicked me in the chest,” he said. “I immediately ran out through the kitchen window, leaving my wife, my children and my cousin. They said, ‘until he apologises at the mosque, we will not go.’ So I went.”

He had joined the People’s Democratic Party in 2003, just a year after its inception. He recalls going to voters in the mohallas, asking them what they needed, promising them development. “We used to get a good response,” he recalls. But when he was forced to resign, the only senior leader who reached out to him, he said, was Mufti Sajjad Hussain, a cousin of the chief minister and South Kashmir coordinator for the party.

Now the shop owner does not know whether he will join the mainstream again. He cannot forget the night gunmen barged into his house. “My children were weeping at their feet, ‘Uncle please don’t do anything to my father’,” he recalled.

Not all workers have given up on the ruling party but even the staunchest supporters are shaken. Take the women’s wing worker who said she had been involved with the party since school. “I always had affection for Mehbooba Mufti, a lady who could solve our problems,” she said.

Like many of her party colleagues, she has received threats and must stay away from election campaigning. The loyalties remain but even she cringes at remarks made by the chief minister last year. “Those who got hit by bullets or pellets were not going to buy milk or toffee,” Mufti had said.

“People were a little angry,” admitted the women’s wing worker. “She never took our [the people’s] side even after so many killings.”

Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti's meeting with Prime Minister Narendra last month led to speculation that Jammu and Kashmir may be in for a spell of governor's rule. Image credit: IANS

Governor’s rule?

Beg dismisses the suggestion that the People’s Democratic Party has lost touch with the grassroots. “We were the only ones to organise a campaigns for Anantnag and Srinagar bye-polls,” he claimed. “We managed to hold an open rally in Dooru [a village in Anantnag]. Farooq sahab [Farooq Abdullah of the National Conference who just won the Srinagar bye-election] is not working on the ground. There is no one playing the role of a mainstream opposition. That vacuum has been filled by other elements.”

But is the mainstream even an alternative to separatist politics anymore? The Srinagar bye-poll and the Anantnag campaign have broken all assumptions about political behaviour in Kashmir.

There is an old political joke often told in the Valley. Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad, prime minister of Jammu and Kashmir from 1953 to 1964, was once asked how many people supported him. “Forty lakh,” he replied. Then he was asked how many people supported his rival Sheikh Abdullah, and he replied “forty lakh”. And what was the total population of Kashmir? “Forty lakh.”

The joke, a favourite with political pundits, was meant to show the changeability of public opinion, to explain how large crowds turned up for anti-government protests and then also went for election rallies. But this time the protesting crowds did not go back to the rallies.

For years, people in the Valley tell you, those who wanted Azadi also voted in elections. “Those who became voters had some expectations – education, jobs, fewer human rights violations – but nothing happened,” explained Aatif Hussain, a businessman from Anantnag town who faces multiple charges of stone-pelting.

In the turbulent southern districts in particular, the People’s Democratic Party had another strategy of gathering support: freeing stone-pelters arrested by the police in exchange for votes. But even that strategy would have limited returns this time, Hussain speculated.

As Anantnag inched towards election day, a nervous state government explored the options before it. Its pleas to defer polls indefinitely fell on deaf ears for weeks and the Election Commission asked for 74,000 paramilitary forces to provide security on polling day. When Mufti met Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Delhi on April 24, it was speculated that the state could be in for another spell of governor’s rule. It conjured up dark memories from the 1990s. For six years, as militancy raged in the Valley, governor’s rule was imposed and elections suspended.

Few are dismayed by that prospect now, though. Disgruntled party workers say governor’s rule would clip the wings of the political leadership. Those who still have expectations from the state say it would help restore law and order in the Valley. Those who have never voted and who never will say it does not make a difference.

“For the pro-freedom people, governor’s rule is the same as a government, both are under Delhi’s command,” said an advocate at the Anantnag district court who identifies with the separatist camp. If anything, it would be a minor victory. “With governor’s rule, they accept defeat,” he argued. “They accept that the government has failed and that people want Azadi.”