On the morning of December 16, Nisar Ahmad had left home in the biting cold. By 8am, he was at the polling station in Naidkhai village in North Kashmir’s Bandipora district. He meant to vote.

At 1pm, Ahmad had still not cast his vote. “The line is just not ending,” he said as he waited for his turn in a queue stretching nearly 200 metres from the polling booth. “We know polling is scheduled to end at 2pm but the officials assured us that everyone will be given a chance to cast their ballot. We will wait till dark to cast our vote.”

Ahmad was voting in elections to set up district development councils, the newly created third tier of local government. Held in eight phases concluding on December 19, they were the first direct elections in Jammu and Kashmir since August 5, 2019, when the former state lost special status and was split into two Union Territories.

Since the summer of 2016, when the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen militant Burhan Wani had triggered anti-government protests, voter turnouts in the Kashmir Valley have been pitiful. In the violence-scarred Lok Sabha bye-elections of 2017, it was a little more than 7%. In the Lok Sabha elections of 2019, the Valley saw an average turnout of 19%, with some districts of South Kashmir recording 2-3% turnouts. In the municipal polls held in 2018, it was about 4%. For the panchayat elections held that same year, only 30% of the panchayat halqas – village clusters that form the first tier of local government – even saw polling.

This time, Kashmiris turned out in larger numbers. Jammu and Kashmir saw 51.47% voter turnout over eight phases. The Valley itself recorded an average turnout of 34.11%; in one phase it was close to 40%.

What caused this change? Conversations with voters reveal several reasons: fears that the Bharatiya Janata Party will take over district level governance institutions, registering protest against the August 5 decisions, the need for accessible representatives who can address civic problems.

‘Vote for self-respect’

A National Conference loyalist, Ahmad had skipped work to ensure that the district development council seat in his village is not won by the BJP. “We don’t want to give them this space,” he said. “If they win, BJP will sell it as a validation of the August 5, 2019, decision.”

The National Conference is a member of the People’s Alliance for the Gupkar Declaration, a conglomeration of mostly Kashmiri parties that aims to restore statehood and special status for Jammu and Kashmir. Most of its leaders had been imprisoned for about a year after the Centre announced sweeping legislative changes on August 5, 2019. In November, the alliance had said it would “fight the DDC elections unitedly” so as to keep the “democratic” space from being “invaded and marauded by divisive forces.”

“Voting for the Gupkar Alliance candidate is a vote for self-respect of Kashmir,” said Bilal Ahmad Lone, son of Mohammad Akbar Lone, member of Parliament and senior National Conference leader. “We want our statehood and special status back and our win will be a slap on Bharatiya Janata Party’s face.” said Lone, who is also from Naidkhai village.

According to Lone, if the Gupkar Alliance wins these elections, it will get the legitimacy to fight for the restoration of special status. “Jammu and Kashmir right now is like a body whose head has been decapitated,” continued Lone. “Earlier, people understood that special status was only taken away from pro-India mainstream leaders. Now, everyone realizes that the decision of August 5, 2019 hurts each and every Kashmiri. That’s why they are voting against BJP.”

Long queues at the polling booth in Naidkhai village in Bandipora. Picture credit: Safwat Zargar

‘Roads like paddy fields’

Others have more everyday concerns. In the Kathpora locality of Hajin constituency, also in Bandipora district, better roads and electricity distribution is a popular demand.

“Our roads are so bad that after rainfall they look like paddy fields,” complained Ghulam Hassan Dar, a carpet weaver. “You can literally sow paddy saplings in it.”

Another local resident, Adil Rasool, recounted how a light spell of snow recently had shut down the electricity distribution system in the village. “Electric poles in our village are as old as 50 years,” said Rasool, a tailor. “In some places, we don’t have poles, the electric wires are hanging on trees. So many elections and leaders have passed, but there’s been no change in our village.”

Voters here flocked to the polling booth on December 16 even though they do not have high political expectations. “We are voting for a local candidate from our village,” explained Mohammad Yusuf Rather, a businessman. “He hasn’t promised us anything. All he asked is to give him a chance.”

Unlike representatives in state assemblies and the Parliament, district-level representatives would be accessible, Rather reasoned. “When MLAs or MPs get elected, they go to Srinagar and Jammu, live there and forget about the people who voted for them,” he said. “They even refuse to recognise you when you try to meet them. But if we have a local representative who until yesterday was like any other ordinary man in the village, we can hold him by the collar and seek answers.”

Every district council will have five standing committees – one each for finance, development, public works, health and education, and welfare. While they might look after the day to day and developmental needs of the district, members of the council have no say on larger political issues such as special status, land laws and industrial policy. Voters in Hajin recognise this.

“These votes are for our development needs and governance,” explained Mohammad Afzal, a farmer in Baharabad village of Hajin. “Unlike previous MLAs and leaders, they are not promising us peace or the resolution of Kashmir issue. In their campaign, all of these leaders talked about basic issues like roads, hospitals, drainage.”

‘A boycott village votes’

When droves of local residents rushed to the polling booth in Baramulla district’s Singhpora village on December 16, many were amused. “This is a boycott constituency,” said a local boy who is campaigning for an independent candidate and did not want to be named. “In earlier elections, nobody would dare go out to vote. The polling booth itself would be stoned by boys and they would also keep an eye on who voted.”

This resentment against elections was widespread in Kashmir after the assembly polls of 2014. That year, the People’s Democratic Party won votes after a campaign in which it had vowed to keep the BJP out of Kashmir. Then it formed a coalition government with the BJP. Since then, a disillusionment with electoral politics had set in. Separatist groups such as the Hurriyat as well as militant groups issued diktats to boycott polls. These were studiously followed.

Many saw the waning faith in electoral politics as a reason for growing support for local militancy. After the 2016 mass protests, the disillusionment deepened. In April 2017, bye-elections for the Srinagar Lok Sabha seat triggered stone pelting and protests. At least eight civilians were killed as security forces opened fire. The bye-election for South Kashmir’s Anantnag constituency could not be held. The Lok Sabha seat, which spans the four South Kashmir districts at the heart of the local militancy, finally went to polls in 2019. Elections had to be held in three phases because of security concerns.

Some residents in Singhpora had their own reasons for setting aside their resentments to vote. “We are voting against discrimination against our sect by our MLA,” explained Nazir Ahmad Khan, a tailor. Singhpora falls under the Pattan constituency, a traditional stronghold of the Ansaris, an influential Shia political family. Khan is a Sunni Muslim.

“Pattan is a Sunni-dominated constituency but a Shia leader always wins because Sunnis boycott the polls,” said Khan. “Over the years, all the benefits have gone to Shias only. That’s why we have decided to choose a local Sunni candidate.”

There are 16 candidates standing for elections In the Singhpora district council constituency. Thirteen belong to the Shia community. “The Shia vote will get divided while Sunni vote will be consolidated,” Khan said.

But for Mohammad Shafi, another voter in Singhpora, it was the lack of basic facilities – drinking water, the poor condition of government schools and healthcare – that had driven him to the polling booth. “Do you know why there weren’t many Covid-19 infection cases from our area?” asked Shafi. “It’s because all these years we have become immune to infections and viruses by drinking polluted water.”

While district-level development was a major concern for voters in both Singhpora and Hajin, they admitted that the absence of boycott calls by separatist groups and threats from militants had also encouraged them to venture to the polling booths. Most Hurriyat leaders and cadres in Kashmir are behind bars, which might explain the silence.

Relief for the detained

Among the voters are youth who participated in anti-government, pro-freedom protests of past years. Some had been jailed or held for months under the Public Safety Act, a preventive detention law.

Take Asif Ahmad Malik of Singhpora, who was a minor when he was detained under the Public Safety Act in 2016. For six months, he was imprisoned in the Baramulla sub-jail for participating in protests. On December 16, Malik was among the first to cast his vote.

“When I was detained, there was no leader who intervened on my behalf or put a word to seek my release,” explained 19-year-old Malik. “There are scores of boys like me from this area. We are looking for a leader who would give us an opportunity to live a normal life and develop our area.”

It is an old practice in Kashmir, where detentions and mass arrests are common. Pro-India leaders and parties have managed to create pools of support by getting youth released. After August 5, 2019, this local leadership was silenced and there was no one to plead the cause of the hundreds who had been detained in police sweeps.

These concerns had prompted Ghulam Ahmad Hurra, resident of Naidkhai village, to go to the polling booth on December 16, even though he believes voting hurts the “tehreek” – the pro-freedom movement.

“Thousands of our young boys are rotting in jails,” Hurra said. “There should be someone who can talk and negotiate with the authorities on the behalf of people. We hope these representatives will help lessen our suffering. They must be able to provide timely relief for oppressed Kashmiris.”