Friday, May 1, 2009

South's U-turn on parliamentary polls

People stay away from elections

NASEER A GANAI/KHALID GUL

Islamabad, Apr 30: In contrast to the Assembly elections, Islamabad parliamentary constituency presented a different scene today. There were no long queues outside the polling booths, the politicians were not seen anywhere, and people didn’t show any interest in voting. The polling staff in almost all polling booths in Islamabad, Kokernag, Bijbehara and Mattan had a leisure time and kept waiting for voters.

Islamabad town supported the boycott call, while the rural areas remained indifferent to polling. In booth number 42, Qazibagh, situated in Women Degree College only 16 votes were cast out of 631 till 10:10 a.m. In booth no 42-A situated in the same polling station 23 votes were polled till 10:12 a.m, while in the booth no 43 and 43 A, four and 14 votes had been cast respectively till 10:15 a.m.

“Anyone interested in polling usually come to exercise their vote early in the morning. I think very few people would come out now,” said an elderly person, Abdul Jabbar sitting outside the gate of the Women’s College. He said he voted once in his lifetime, for the Muslim United Front in 1987 Assembly elections. Jabbar said some of his neighbors voted in the recent Assembly elections, he didn’t and will not till Kashmir issue is resolved.

In the most sensitive areas of the town, Malakhnag, Hazratbal, Cheeni Chowk, Reeshi Bazar and Lal Chowk there were anti-election protests and stone pelting on the polling stations. The polling station at Government Central High School, Hazratbal, which had to be shifted after youth resorted to stone pelting a day before, once again became the target of the agitated youth, who pelted stones and bricks on the polling booth. Police and CRPF then swung into action, chased the protesters and cordoned the whole area and were seen deployed in every lane and by-lane of the old town. However, more troops were then deployed in and around the polling booth.

Till 2 p.m in 61-Hazratbal-A polling booth only 70 votes were polled out of 648. The situation was same in other polling stations. In 62 Hazratbal-B, 56 votes had been polled out of 623 till 2:05 p.m and in Hazratbal 62-A, 31 votes were polled out of 582.

Muhammad Shafi Baig, the polling agent of the National Conference, said during the Assembly polls there was huge rush in the polling booth. He said people were not showing any interest in the election process. The residents outside the polling booth, however, said they were for the boycott. There was large contingent of police and security personnel in the polling station.

Outside, the situation was very tense though some youth were sitting in groups and discussing the voting percentage in different areas.

When asked if they have voted, they shouted, “We are for boycott. In the Assembly elections too people in this old town area of Islamabad boycotted the polls.”

Stone pelting incidents were reported from Laizbal polling booth where a woman political worker was injured.

The situation in other major polling stations, Government Girls Higher Secondary School Kadipora and Middle School Syed Sahib, Kadipora, was no different. While in the former only 91 votes were cast out of the total 894 till 3:50 pm, in the latter 98 were polled out of 938 till 3:00 pm.

Most of the people here said that those who voted were either close associates or relatives of the candidates or workers of the political parties.

Some youth reportedly pelted stones on security personnel when they were returning from Mattan Chowk, Cheeni Chowk, Reeshi Bazar, Achabal Adda, Malakh Nag and Lal Chowk in the evening.

Clashes were going on till last reports came. Several troopers were injured.

In 27-Bijbehara polling booth stationed in the Islamia high school there was no queue at 9:30 a.m. The polling station had 844 votes and only 84 had been polled till 9:30. In 90-A Bijbehara only 52 votes had been polled out of 936 till 9:40 a.m. The former chief minister and the PDP patron had to cast his vote in this polling station. However he stayed away from the polling and didn’t cast his vote.

In Mattan, the polling stations were giving a deserted look. In 58-A Mattan, 140 votes were polled out of 1038 till 10:25 a.m and in 59-Mattan B, 52 votes had been polled out of 1082. The polling booth 58-A has 40 minority votes. However the minority didn’t cast any vote. “There is nothing in these elections. Besides, I don’t have a vote,” said a Pandit who didn’t wish to be named. The polling staff in both these polling stations was leisurely sitting waiting for the elusive voter. The low poll turnout had dampened the spirits of the polling agents as well. They said the parliamentary elections were different from the Assembly elections and people don’t have stakes in it.

In Zalagam polling booth of Kokernag constituency that witnessed 70 percent voting in the Assembly elections, the voter turn out was low. In 28-Bindoo Zalangam, 241 votes had been polled out of 1141 votes till 1:15 p.m. There was no queue outside the polling booth. And like other polling booths the staff here too was waiting for the voters. The polling agent of Lok Janshakti party, Nisar Ahmad, when asked about the name of his candidate, said he didn’t know.

In Kadipora Islamabad the residents said that they were not interested in the elections. “There was low percentage of voting from this area during Assembly elections too and this time it is very very low,” said a resident. He said the people were not interested in the polls as the elected members have done nothing for them during past three months. Asked aren’t three months too short, he said, “No.”

In Dooru constituency, high turnout was reported from Check Wangun. It had polled 405 out of 900 votes, a total of 45 per cent at the end of the day. Stone pelting incidents were reported from Nathipora and at two booths in proper Dooru. Eyewitnesses said that clashes started after some youth taunted people who were casting votes. The CRPF and police posted there chased the youth, who responded by pelting stones.

In violation of the modal code of conduct in Achbal, a government gypsy number JK02S-1448 was seen ferrying veiled women to polling booth at Achabal chowk.

 

Low turnout in Shopian, Pulwama

Unlike the assembly elections, the parliamentary polls for south Kashmir seat in Pulwama and Shopian districts was a low key affair Thursday.

Apart from a handful of people who came out to cast their vote, majority stayed away from the polls for varied reasons. At Kakpora, Pulwama, a large number of people, especially youth, preferred to stand on a roadside outside the polling station debating mundane issues rather than casting their votes.

“We don’t want that anyone should misinterpret the voter turnout here. India projected last year’s turnout in assembly elections as if it were a referendum,” said the youth, while citing reason for not taking part in elections.

At main chowk Pulwama, police and paramilitary troopers patrolled deserted roads as people stood on the shop fronts. Asked why didn’t they cast ballot, they responded, “We chose our representative for the legislative assembly during the assembly polls last year. Parliamentary polls are not that important,” said a group of youth.

“People find resolution of local issues in assembly, not in parliament,” remarked a youth. In a nearby polling station, three and five votes had been cast in the two booths.

At polling stations in Paho, Pinglina, Hall and Bandzoo, police and paramilitary troopers guarded the deserted polling stations as only a few people turned out to cast vote. According to the officials, 12 percent voter turnout was recorded till 3 pm.

The scene was no different in Shopian district. In Shopian town, polling stations saw very few voters casting votes as people stayed away from the polls. At a number of places youth could be seen playing cricket on the roads while elderly people, both men and women, remained busy with their routine work in orchards and farms.

In the polling booths in town hall in Shopian town, out of 881 and 637 votes 17 and 42 votes were cast respectively till noon.

“It is typical of parliamentary polls,” remarked a polling agent outside the polling station.

Similarly, in Trukwangam, out of 1169 and 831 votes 41 and 17 votes were cast respectively till afternoon. Till 3 pm, officials said, 13.50 percent turnout was recorded in Shopian district.

The residents of Tengpora village in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district in particular, and people of Kashmir in general would watch Wali Muhammad entertaining them on television with his humorous theatrics. But on Thursday, the 50-year-old dwarf person performed live in the village, entertaining voters and polling staff of a polling booth.

“Wali Muhammad reached this polling station at 8 am. Since then we have asked him to stay with us before casting his vote. He entertained us a lot,” said the polling and presiding officers of the polling booth. “We won’t allow him to go home till evening. We are performing our duty, but at the same time listening to his dialogues which are extremely humorous,” they said.

Though the village didn’t record much polling till 10.30 am, several youth outside the polling station were seen cracking jokes with Wali Muhammad. “We often see him on television delivering humorous dialogues, but today we got a chance to listen to him live. The entire village respects him a lot,” said the youths.

When Wali Muhammad, barely 3 feet tall, came out after casting his vote, he raised his finger having ink mark. “See I have cast my vote,” he said. “But I will stay here for sometime to monitor elections.”

Asked what for he voted, Wali Muhammad said, “I voted for development of roads, proper drinking water and better health and civic facilities. Every person has a dream to live a comfortable life. I also have the same dreams.”

He added, “The condition of our roads is not that good. The power and water supply in the village is erratic. Proper health and civic facilities are absent. I believe the politicians can provide all this.”

The residents however stayed away from polls citing the poll boycott campaign announced by the pro-freedom leaders and “lack of interest” in parliamentary elections. In Tengpona polling booth, only 40 votes had been cast out of 1223 till 9.30 am. “There are more good things to be done than voting,” said Zaffar Ahmad, a villager. “Here MLAs failed to provide bijli, pani and sadak. What will the parliament members do? So 80 percent villagers stayed away from polls because of the boycott call given by Geelani sahib and lack of interest in the elections,” he added.

Freedom camp happy

The pro-freedom leadership today seemed to be buoyed by the low voter turnout in Islamabad parliamentary constituency.

At a hurriedly called press conference, The Hurriyat Conference (G) chairman, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, congratulated the people of south Kashmir for ‘boycotting the parliamentary elections.’

Reiterating his call for protests after Friday prayers, Geelani said, “We appeal that people also take out peaceful protests against the imprisonment of Kashmiris in jails throughout India after Friday prayers. We appeal the people of Kashmir that they should take cue from the people of Islamabad and stay away from polls in the next two phases of elections.”

Hurriyat (M) chairman, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, who had called for a poll boycott after an initial flip flop on the issue, said, “It is good if people show solidarity, it shows elections can never be a substitute to referendum. People have shown resentment and we believe it has proved to be an eye opener to all those who said that the Azadi sentiment is dead.”

“The sentiment is alive and it cannot be bogged down. We are on right track. Some people have vested interests and therefore hundred percent boycott is not possible.”

The chairperson of Dukhtaran-e-Millat, Aasiya Andrabi, in a statement said, “Today’s boycott shows that majority of people of Kashmir have never been with India. Our people in the field said that there was a 95 per cent boycott in most areas. The Government figures are fudged so that government can save face.”

The provincial president of the Hurriyat (M), Nayeem Khan told Greater Kashmir, “As per UN resolutions on Kashmir, elections have no bearing on the Kashmir issue. And the first Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had stated that elections are not referendum.”

Villagers of Khaigam demanding for past several months removal of a local CRPF camp whose troopers murdered a carpenter in his home in March on Thursday boycotted the parliamentary polls, accusing the government of failing to remove the camp.

Of the total 488 votes, only one was cast when the polling ended at 4 pm. The villagers have been demanding the camp of 181 Battalion of CRPF should be removed from the area, as a government probe indicted the troopers for murder of the carpenter Ghulam Mohiuddin Malik.

“We wanted to vote, but we stayed away because the government didn’t respect our sentiments and demand. All we wanted is the removal of the camp from the area which has become a source of harassment for us. But when government can’t fulfill our basic and important demand why should we vote,” said the angry villagers.

The villagers had on Wednesday decided to hold anti-election and anti-government demonstrations on Thursday. But, they said, some “policemen in civvies” approached them on Wednesday evening, asking them not to hold any protests even if they wanted to boycott the polls. “The policemen asked us not to demonstrate. We were not frightened by their words, but we thought by boycotting polls we can show our resentment in a better way,” said a villager Abdul Rashid.

After massive protests, a government probe into the carpenter’s murder led to suspension of the assistant commandant of 181 Battalion and his two troopers. The assistant commandant told the inquiry officer that the accused troopers had fired at the carpenter without his permission.

“What are we getting in return of votes? We are being killed?” said the relatives of Malik. “We have nothing to do with voting. All we want is the killers of Mohi-ud-Din punished and the CRPF camp shifted from here,” they said.

The villagers have threatened mass migration from May 5 if the government failed to shift the camp.

Srinagar, Varmul observes shutdown

Normal life was crippled in Srinagar on Thursday due to curfew imposed by the authorities on second consecutive day, even as a complete shutdown was observed by people in rest of the Valley against the elections in response to the call by pro-freedom leaders. People in old city accused CRPF troopers of forcibly entering several houses and beating the residents.

Thousands of policemen and CRPF troopers restricted movement of people and traffic in most of the areas of the city, and a strict curfew enforced in the old city restricted the people to their homes. The troopers had sealed off Nowhatta, Bohri Kadal and Kawdara and several other areas with barbwire.

A few civilians who walked or drove cars in and around Lal Chowk were frisked by the police and the troopers.

Fayaz Ahmad of Nowhatta told Greater Kashmir that police didn’t allow them to buy bread and milk and other essentials in the morning.

“The door of my house opens directly on the street and for second consecutive today I was not allowed to venture out of my house. Troops are right at our door steps,” a resident of Khanyar told Greater Kashmir.  

Anti-election demonstrations were held in Nowhatta, Rajouri Kadal, Nawa Kadal, Basant Bagh, Mandir Bagh and Maisuma areas where youths pelted stones at police and troopers who disrupted the peaceful protests. The troopers retaliated with lathicharge and firing tear smoke shells.

Witnesses told Greater Kashmir that CRPF troopers entered the houses in Nowhatta and Rajouri Kadal and beat up the residents ruthlessly.

The authorities imposed curfew in the entire valley after the senior pro-freedom leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani called for 50 hour strike against elections. The strike call was supported by all factions of the separatist camp in the Valley. The call evoked an immediate response on Tuesday evening when scores of youth took to streets, shouting anti-election and pro-freedom slogans. The situation, however, took a violent turn after the troops used lathicharge and tear gas shells to quell the protests. The protesters set ablaze a Sumo car ferrying CRPF personnel.

Police, however, refused to comment on the situation. “The IG police is in a post-election press conference, ask him,” senior superintendent of police, Syed Afadul Mujtaba, said.

For the second consecutive day today, almost all the areas in North Kashmir observed complete shut down against the parliamentary elections. A young protester was seriously wounded when police beat him up in Varmul.

A complete shut down was observed in Bandipora, Ajas, Sumbal, Varmul and Sopur, and violent clashes between youth and troopers erupted late in the evening in Old Varmul town. The troopers resorted to lathicharge and firing tear gas canisters to quell the protests. Eye witnesses said a youth was ruthlessly beaten by the troopers and he was immediately taken to SKIMS.

“He had a head injury and he has been admitted in SKIMS,” they said.

Even though there were no announced restrictions on civilian movement, the authorities did not allow any vehicular movement towards Srinagar.

“The troopers at Sumbal sent us back saying there is curfew at Srinagar,” said a resident of Bandipora.

While all offices, school, colleges and business establishments remained completely shut, people remained indoors throughout the day.

Eyewitnesses said police arrested at least seven youths for taking part in demonstrations.

 

 

Official Claim

On a day when people largely stayed away from the polling booths, authorities claimed 26 per cent voter turnout in south Kashmir’s Islamabad parliamentary constituency in the third phase of elections on Thursday. Though the numbers were higher as compared to the 2004, Lok Sabha polls, the graph showed a downward trend in comparison to the last year’s assembly polls.

The chief electoral officer, B R Sharma, told a press conference here that 25.5 to 26 per cent of people exercised their franchise.

“The figures are higher than 2004 Lok Sabha elections when 15.04 per cent of turn out was recorded in the constituency,” Sharma said.

Comprising four districts- Islamabad, Kulgam, Pulwama and Shopian, with 16 assembly segments, the parliamentary constituency was the first among the four in Kashmir division which went to polls today. Thirteen candidates including National Conference’s Dr Mehboob Beg and Peoples Democratic Party’s Peer Muhammad Hussain are in the fray for the seat.

Sharma said Tral assembly constituency in Pulwama district recorded the lowest turn out of 2.83 per cent followed by Pampore with 4.65 per cent, while Noorabad in Kulgam district recorded the highest participation with 54.37 per cent of voters casting their vote.

Giving details of other constituencies, Sharma, who was flanked by the divisional commissioner, Masood Samoon, the inspector-general of police, Dr B Srinivasan, said 14 per cent polling was recorded in Pulwama, 13 per cent in Rajpora, 19.65 per cent in Wachi, 17.92 per cent in Shopian, 18 per cent in Kulgam, 25 in Homshalibugh, 33 per cent in Devsar, 21.29 per cent in Islamabad, 25.65 per cent in Dooru, 33.73 per cent in Kokernag, 39.14 per cent in Shangus, 34.08 per cent in Bijbehera and 47 per cent in Pahalgam.

In the assembly elections last year in which an overall turn out of more than 45 per cent was recorded, Tral had recorded 48.78 per cent, Pampore. 43.42 per cent, Pulwama 40.83 per cent, Rajpora 50.61 per cent, Wachi 48.54 per cent, Shopian 52.71 per cent, Noorabad 74.19 per cent, Kulgam 61.59 per cent, Homshalibugh 54.16 per cent, Devsar 68.55 per cent, Islamabad 41.32 per cent, Dooru 69.77 per cent, Kokernag 70.19 per cent, Shangus 69.48 per cent, Bijbehera 60.75 per cent, Pahalgam 70.26 per cent.

It was a general trend that people participated in lesser numbers in the Lok Sabha polls as compared to the assembly elections, Sharma said.

“Assembly elections always witness large participation as local issues and interests are associated with the polls in comparison to parliamentary elections,” he said.

The trend, Sharma said, was also observed in Jammu region where more than 70 per cent participated in assembly elections respectively in Jammu and Udhampur. “However, the numbers were only 49 per cent and 45 per cent during parliamentary polls,” he said.

Terming the polling as peaceful, the CEO said no untoward incident was reported from anywhere in the constituency. To bring in “greater transparency” in the process, he said, certain “add on features” had been introduced this time.

“We insisted on mock poll certificate from the presiding officer and asked zonal and sectoral officers to complete mock poll before 7 pm”, he said, adding that wherever poll agents were absent, the presiding officer diaries would be scrutinized to ensure free and fair polls.

He said though eight complaints were received from various political parties, they were found “baseless.”

“We have a polling station-level communication plan in place which allows us to track complaints and have them enquired in real time”, he said, adding that 11 complaints about EVM malfunctioning were received following which ballot units were immediately replaced.

To ensure free and fair elections, the CEO said three election observers and 160 micro observers were deployed, besides installation of 32 video cameras.

Giving details about migrant voters for whom 13 polling stations which had been set up in Jammu and Udhampur districts, Sharma said 2,128 cast their ballot out of 10,203 registered voters.

“No vote was cast at four polling stations set up for migrants at New Delhi,” he added.

Giving details about security measures, the IGP said two minor incidents of scuffle were reported in the constituency in which three persons were injured.

 

SIDELIGHTS :

● Mufti Sayed didn’t cast his vote

● I don’t know who is the candidate of my party: LJP polling agent in Kokernag

● Pandits in Mattan too abstained from voting. “I have no interest in these elections,” said a Pandit teacher.

● A policeman at Khanabal chowk refused entry of a Maruti car carrying a family in Islamabad town, saying, “I don’t know who these people in the vehicle are. They could be Hurriyat activists.”

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