The Anantnag Lok Sabha seat in South Kashmir, lying vacant since 2016, will vote for a new representative in three phases over April and May.

While announcing the dates for the Lok Sabha elections on Sunday, the Election Commission also ruled out holding simultaneous Assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir. This means that the state will continue to be governed under Central rule, imposed in June.

Assembly elections in the state would not be possible, “considering recent incidents, security of the candidates”, said Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora said at a press conference on Sunday.

Pulwama district, where a suicide bomber drove into a Central Reserve Police Force convoy, killing 40 personnel, on February 14, is located in this Lok Sabha constituency.

Splitting polls over three phases for a single constituency, however, is unprecedented, even in Kashmir, with its troubled electoral history.

The state election commission is still working out the details of the exercise. “The announcement was made just yesterday, so we have to work out how to ensure everything is done smoothly,” said Shailendra Kumar, chief electoral officer, Jammu and Kashmir, on Monday.

By the rulebook?

The four districts of South Kashmir – Anantnag, Kulgam, Pulwama and Shopian – fall within Anantnag Lok Sabha constituency. According to the election schedule, Anantnag goes to polls on April 23 and Kulgam on April 29 while Shopian and Pulwama will vote on May 6.

According to Kumar, the polling schedule works within the rules laid out in the Representation of the People Act, 1951. “If you go through the Act, it says polling shall take place in one day/days,” he said.

Section 126 of the Act also says public meetings as well as the display and propagation of “any election matter” will be prohibited in “any polling area” 48 hours before the start of the poll.

In this case, Kumar said, “campaigning will be banned two days before the polling in each district as per the schedule”. This means, for instance, that campaigning in Anantnag district will stop on April 21 but continue in the three other districts of the constituency.

‘Politically motivated’

Most regional parties had urged simultaneous Lok Sabha and Assembly elections when a team from the Election Commission went for an exploratory visit to the state earlier this month. Not many leaders of these parties are convinced by the security reasons cited for holding the poll in three phases.

“This is a politically motivated move,” said Ali Mohammed Sagar, senior National Conference leader. “If the security situation is bad here, then why are you holding parliamentary elections at all? Shouldn’t the elections then be held an appropriate time after the situation is better?”

The four districts of Anantnag constituency are the centre of the local militancy that has taken root in the Valley over the last few years, and the site of pitched battles between security forces and militant groups.

The Lok Sabha seat fell vacant after Mehbooba Mufti vacated it in June 2016 to contest Assembly elections in order to become chief minister.

Weeks later, popular Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani was killed by security forces, plunging the Valley into a chain of mass protests, civilian deaths and gunfights. As anger against the government grew, few leaders who took part in electoral politics were able to enter these districts. Some were targeted by militants while many announced their decision to resign from political parties.

Bye-elections for the Anantnag and Srinagar Lok Sabha seats were scheduled for April 2017. But when at least eight people died in protests during the Srinagar poll, and turnouts dropped to single digits, elections for the Anantnag seat were put off indefinitely.

When local body elections were held last year, candidates were barricaded in hotels in Srinagar and few campaigned or even declared their candidacy in public.

But most political leaders based in the Valley played down the security challenges, keen for Assembly elections after the Bharatiya Janata Party and Peoples Democratic Party coalition fell apart in June.

“No doubts there are challenges when it comes to campaigning and elections in South Kashmir but we will deal with them,” said Naeem Akhtar, a member of the Peoples Democratic Party and former state cabinet minister. “Holding the election in Anantnag in three phases is not important considering the security scenario. What is important is taking away or delaying the Assembly elections. Which really looks sinister. Sinister in the sense that they [the BJP] continue to rule Jammu and Kashmir directly. They are ruling Jammu and Kashmir through their officials and governor. So they feel that the local Assembly and local government is dispensable.”

According to Akhtar, delaying Assembly elections was also a political message from the BJP to its voters. “Perhaps a signal is being sent to the country at large that look, we can disempower the only Muslim-majority state,” he said.

Congress leader and former member of Parliament Saifuddin Soz, however, felt even Lok Sabha elections were not feasible in South Kashmir. “I do not know what the Election Commission of India’s assessment is,” he said. “South Kashmir – particularly Shopian, Pulwama and Kulgam district – is very hot and there is a kind of turmoil. Its influence will travel to Anantnag. Last time also, elections could not be held there. This time, the situation is far worse. People have died in very large numbers.”

Throwback to 1996?

Kashmir has a particularly violent history of elections. The 1987 Assembly elections, widely believed to have been rigged in favour of the National Conference, led to an exodus of people from electoral politics and provided an impetus to the militancy that would spread two years later.

In the Lok Sabha elections of 1989, of the three parliamentary seats in the Valley, Srinagar went uncontested, while voter turnouts in Baramulla and Anantnag hovered around 5%.

The state went under Central rule in 1990 and elections were suspended till 1996. The polls that year took place amid violence and allegations that residents of the Valley had been forced to vote by the Army.

Political leaders are divided on how the current situation compares with the 1996 polls.

“In 1996 elections, people did not participate in large numbers but it was possible to hold elections,” said Soz. “It was possible because people were turning against militancy. This time, the turmoil is of a different kind where we have armed militancy of homegrown local boys.”

Sagar, however, felt that the situation was “not as bad as 1996” and that conditions were ripe for Assembly polls, at least, after eight months of Governor’s Rule. These were marked by rising anxieties that the Centre was eating away at the autonomy granted to the state by threatening to undo Article 35A, which empowers the state government to define “permanent residents” of Jammu and Kashmir and grant them specific rights and privileges, and Article 370, which guarantees special status to the state.

According to Noor Mohammad Baba, who teaches at the department of politics and governance at Central University of Kashmir, the political space in Kashmir has grown more crowded, with more parties entering the fray.

“In 1996, it was largely National Conference,” he said. “This time, PDP [Peoples Democratic Party] is also there and the Congress also has a presence in the region. So they have to create an atmosphere in which each and every candidate is secure. But in their assessment, possibly, things are not going to be easy,” he said.

Election a ‘drama?’

According to Baba, staggering the Anantnag poll would make the electoral process easier, as it would allow security forces to concentrate troops in a particular area.

But Sagar feels there will be scant interest in the Lok Sabha polls now that it is clear that Assembly elections will not be held simultaneously. “I met a lot of people and other workers,” he said. “My personal opinion is that there will be less participation in this election. It is because people are calling it a ‘drama’. People say they [the Centre] are taking decisions as per their wishes. At times, they postpone elections and suddenly they decided to hold elections in three phases.”