Students of the Central University of Kashmir’s Ganderbal campus were “verbally directed” last week to stay home until April 21. Why? Ganderbal, part of the Srinagar Lok Sabha constituency, votes on April 18.
“We were told to come back next Monday, April 22, as the campus is required to house polling staff and security forces,” said a postgraduate student from South Kashmir who requested not to be named for fear of reprisal. Since its permanent campus is yet to be constructed, the central university functions out of a series of rented buildings in Srinagar and Ganderbal.
The Ganderbal Degree College has also suspended classes for three days until April 18. “The decision was taken on the directions of the deputy commissioner of Ganderbal,” said Bashir Ahmed Parray, the college’s principal.
The deputy commissioner, Hashmat Ali Khan, confirmed that “these premises have been allocated for the temporary accommodation of security forces deployed for this election”. “Several other institutions are also being used to accommodate security personnel,” he said. “They will be vacating the premises on the evening of April 18.”
Since elections in Kashmir entail a heavy deployment of security forces, they invariably end up disrupting daily life. Boycott calls by separatist groups mean polling days are generally marked by shutdowns, adding to the disruption.
This election, being held when Kashmir’s militancy is at its strongest in nearly two decades, has come with especially harsh restrictions. To ensure “safe movement” of security forces following the Pulwama attack, the government has declared the Valley’s main highway out of bounds to civilian traffic two days every week until after the polls are over. Two major political organisations, the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Liberation Front, have been banned and a crackdown on separatist political activists is ongoing. Polling in the Anantnag constituency, which spans the militancy hotbed of South Kashmir, is being conducted in as many as three phases.
State police officials said around 400 additional companies of central paramilitary forces have arrived in the Valley to augment security for the polls. At any time, 6.5 lakh to 7.5 lakh security personnel, including the Army, are estimated to be stationed in Jammu and Kashmir. The exact number of security personnel deployed for the election, however, remains unknown.
In Srinagar, Nodal Election Officer KK Sidha has ordered at least 10 schools shut for four days from April 15. “In Srinagar district alone, we have 857 polling booths,” said Sidha, who is also the additional deputy commissioner. “At 10 schools, only classwork has been suspended. The administrative staff is working and security forces have arrived to be stationed there for the polls.”
It is not just schools that will house security forces and serve as polling booths. “They include every government department,” said Sidha. “Name any department and you have it. At some places, they include private institutions as well. Security personnel will arrive at the booths a day ahead of polling and will leave by the end of the polling day.”
The Srinagar constituency will have a total of 1,716 polling stations for 12,94,560 electors to decide the fate of 12 candidates.
Not only students, traders are also suffering as a result of the security restrictions. Security personnel manning barricades, frisking civilians and searching vehicles is a common sight across Kashmir these days. “People tend to avoid going out during election time since anything can happen,” said Mohammad Sayeed, a dealer of watches near Srinagar’s famous clock tower, Ghanta Ghar. “Business is down almost 80%.”
The highway traffic ban has only worsened the situation. “This market witnesses a rush on weekends,” Sayeed said. “Last Sunday, you won’t believe, I didn’t make any sale at all since civilian traffic was not allowed on the highway.”
Not far from Sayeed’s shop, electronic goods trader Bilal Ahmad ruefully watched his salesmen chat. “I have to pay Rs 20,000 a month to the three of them but look they are sitting idly because there is no business,” he said. “When there are so many security personnel around and tension, nobody likes to take the risk of going out. Even when election fervour isn’t visible on the streets of Srinagar, people are still mindful about avoiding crowded places.”
Ahmad blamed the highway ban as well for the dip in business. “Most of our customers are from rural areas and for two days every week they are unable to travel to the capital city of Srinagar,” he explained. “Be it the supply of goods from Jammu or customers, we rely on this highway for our business.”
For Kashmir’s tourism industry, the election has meant cancellation of bookings and a decline in tourist footfall. The tourist season usually picks up with the onset of spring but according to Abdul Hamid Wangnoo, who owns a houseboat on Srinagar’s Dal Lake, that has not happened this year.
“This is the tourist season and I don’t think it is a good idea to hold elections around this time,” Wangnoo, president of the Kashmir Houseboat Owners Association, said. “The government has been asking us to promote tourism and hold roadshows. But when a tourist sees so much security and restrictions on the roads, they get scared. It sends a wrong message outside.”
The behaviour of security forces on the ground is not helping, Wangnoo claimed. “We held a meeting recently and many members said Army personnel are warning tourists, ‘why have they come here, the situation here is not good’,” he said.
While the security restrictions are hurting almost every section of the population, many people said they could live with them as long as the election passed off peacefully. On the first day of polling on April 11, a 13-year-old boy was killed by pellets fired by security personnel during clashes in North Kashmir’s Handwara.
“I hope Allah keeps everyone safe,” said Shahzada, 45, from Srinagar. “We have seen enough bloodshed. I hope this phase passes off peacefully.”