Hilal Ahmed Shah, an election officer at the deserted Dialgam polling booth in Kashmir’s Anantnag constituency, did not want to be there. The previous night, travelling from Anantnag town to Dialgam, he and fellow polling officials had to wait for an hour in their vehicle on the road. “We were very scared. We got information that there was trouble ahead,” he explained. “We feared some miscreants might pelt stones on us. The location of the polling booth was also changed at the last minute.”

The Dialgam booth was set up in a government school and the polling staff had been shipped from the distribution centre in Anantnag town under heavy security on April 22. After the end of polling on April 23, they would be dropped back at the centre. From there, they faced a perilous journey back to their villages, without security.

Shah kept getting calls from anxious family members in Dooru, around 20 km from Anantnag town. “At first, my family did not want me to go for election duty,” he said. “Finally, my parents said do not tell anyone you are going for election duty. Say you are going on an excursion.”

There were still “interrogations” by fellow villagers to contend with. “We are under a lot of psychological pressure,” he said.

Shah works for the state’s education department so when he was called for election duty, he had no option but to turn up. “I feel the education department should be left out of it,” he said. “School buildings are occupied and children suffer.”

He has only ever voted once, years ago. “I was playing in a field,” he recalled. “The Army came and told us to vote. They rounded up all the players and took us to the booth.”

Fortified polls

For the first time in India’s electoral history, a single Lok Sabha seat will go to polls in three phases. The Anantnag constituency consists of Anantnag, Shopian, Kulgam and Pulwama, the four districts at the heart of the local militancy that has gathered steam in Kashmir over the last few years.

Anantnag district was covered in the first phase on April 23. It was a massive security operation with hundreds of security personnel lining the streets and standing guard in mustard fields, armoured vehicles blocking entrances to villages deemed volatile.

The district remained mostly shut through the polling day. Shops were shuttered and there were few people on the streets. In some areas, soldiers appeared to outnumber civilians.

“In total, we had set up 714 polling booths for the six Assembly constituencies that fall in Anantnag district,” said Syed Nazir Ahmad, deputy district election officer, Anantnag. “All the polling stations were critical in terms of threat perception. However, 40 hamlets in the district were designated as vulnerable.”

In other words, the danger of attacks in these 40 villages was considered especially acute.

“The threat assessment was jointly carried out by the security forces and the civil administration,” Ahmed added. “We also took political parties on board in deciding the location of polling booths.”

It was also a massive bureaucratic exercise, with 2,856 polling officials deployed and 630 kept as reserve.

Polling officials wait for voters to turn up at an empty polling station in Anantnag. Photo credit: Reuters

Empty polling booths

Voting closed at 4 pm with a turnout of 13.61%. Most polling officers, keeping vigil at empty booths, were chatty. Many had been brought in from as far away as Jammu the night before.

Giridhari Lal Bhatt, who works with the education department, manned a booth at Gund Fatehpura. Originally from a village in Anantnag, Bhatt fled to Jammu during the Kashmiri Pandit migration of the 1990s. Election duty meant he had to skip voting himself. “We have migrant votes,” said Bhatt. “Special booths are set up in Jammu for migrants.”

Riyaz Ahmed, another polling officer at the same booth, felt there was a better way to conduct polls. “It would have been best to have online polling, linked to Aadhaar,” he argued. “You would have saved money spent on all this security. More people would have voted and nobody would have known. Right now, maybe some people are not voting out of fear.”

‘We don’t want BJP to win’

There was scant voting in Anantnag town and its outskirts as well as in Bijbehara, the hometown of former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, who is contesting for the People Democratic Party. But at a polling station in Dooru, home turf of state Congress chief Ghulam Ahmed Mir, there were signs of life.

Voters here were largely split between the Congress and the Peoples Democratic Party. But there was one binding theme: theirs was a vote against the Bharatiya Janata Party.

“We are voting for change,” said Mohammad Ibrahim Bhat, who owns a hotel in Dooru. “Come what may, we don’t want the BJP to win. Getting rid of the BJP will give a sense of relief to the people of Kashmir. Neither Kashmiri students nor Kashmiri businessmen are safe in India. We saw how they were attacked last time and their goods were thrown out.”

Latif Ahmed Shah, a shawl trader, was largely in agreement. “Look at the situation today, we cannot go out after 6 pm,” he said. “Our patients are dying because the highway is closed for civilian traffic and they cannot reach hospital on time. The BJP just doesn’t like peace. Last time, the PDP committed a mistake by aligning with the BJP. They thought the BJP was like any other party.”

He also had more pragmatic reasons to vote, though. “Let me tell you honestly, we are just voting to develop a rapport with the candidate so that they can help us tomorrow when we are in trouble,” he said, inviting nods of approval from other voters. “There is a competition here. When people see their neighbour voting, they also go and vote. So that tomorrow they too can ring up the candidate and ask for favours.”

Also read: ‘We will never vote’: Why South Kashmir’s Anantnag seat needs three-phase polls

From Jammu to Kashmir, a ban on civilian traffic on the highway leaves a trail of rage – and despair