Winning over voters in ‘boycott capital’ Srinagar

Selfie points, street plays, musical shows, and awareness campaigns in volatile pockets are the Commission’s first-of-its-kind attempts to bring voters to polling booths

May 05, 2024 02:05 am | Updated 02:05 am IST - SRINAGAR

A man poses for a picture at an Election Commission selfie booth at the Tulip Garden in Srinagar.

A man poses for a picture at an Election Commission selfie booth at the Tulip Garden in Srinagar. | Photo Credit: Nissar Ahmad

Irfan Ahmad, 45, a banker, came out to experience Jashn-e-Jugalbandhi, a musical show, at the decked-up pedestrians-only market, Polo View, Lal Chowk, Srinagar, on May 2. “I have never seen election-related shows in Srinagar in my lifetime. It is a spectacle this year,” Mr. Ahmad, who has never voted, said. He’s still unsure if he’ll vote in the Lok Sabha elections this year but he’s certainly considering it.

The Election Commission (EC), through the Systematic Voters’ Education and Electoral Participation (SVEEP) programme, is making an unprecedented attempt to reach out to different sections of society in the three constituencies — including the Srinagar seat — of the Kashmir valley that will go the polls on May 13. All the three constituencies in Kashmir remain low-voter-turnout seats. In 2019, Srinagar recorded less than 14% polling, Anantnag 13.61%, and Baramulla 38.9%. It was in Srinagar thatseparatists called for a boycott that caused many people to skip the ballot last time.

“The late-evening musical event at the Polo View market was a success. Our intention is that ballots and not bullets should decide the elections. One more musical event, where popular singer Kabul Bukhari will perform, is slated for May 7. We are buoyed by people’s response,” Nodal Officer Sapna Kotwal said. At the market, people tapped their feet to Sufi songs like Sanson ki Mala, Chhaap Tilak Sab and Dum Gutkoon.

Enthusiasm abounds now

In May 2017, hundreds of students of the Gandhi Memorial College, Srinagar, in the old city’s Baba Dembh area, clashed with security forces and raised ‘azadi ’ (freedom) slogans. The trigger was the arrest of a student by the police. Cut to May 2024, the departments of Political Science and History organised a question-and-answer session on voting as part of the Mera Pehla Vote Desh Ke Liye programme. Prof. Samir Ahmad Bhat, who heads the Political Science department, addressed students’ questions and elaborated on “the importance of voter identity cards and the process of casting postal votes”.

Students perform at the Tulip Garden in Srinagar during the Systematic Voters’ Education and Electoral Participation campaign to bring awareness about the Lok Sabha elections .

Students perform at the Tulip Garden in Srinagar during the Systematic Voters’ Education and Electoral Participation campaign to bring awareness about the Lok Sabha elections . | Photo Credit: Nissar Ahmad

A place that had been seething with anger for three decades over the political situation of the State, the campus of Kashmir University is now bustling with campaigns to draw first-time voters to polling booths. The School of Law, this week, organised expert-driven lectures under the title ‘Your Vote, Your Voice: Empowering Democracy’.

“India is a young country as the majority of its population comprises youth who play a crucial role in nation building. They steer its development, policy, and economic goals. Young men and women should participate in the electoral process. This is an opportunity to lead the nation towards achieving its goals of development and healthy governance,” Prof. Mohammad Hussain, Dean and Head of the Law department, told the participants.

Ms. Kotwal said the EC has lined up similar programmes in 16 major colleges of Srinagar “to raise awareness about elections”. Henna art competitions were held among female — mostly first-time — voters, in volatile pockets of Srinagar, including Women’s College, Zakura; Government College for Women, Nawakadal; Sri Pratap College, M.A. Road, Srinagar; and Amar Singh College, Srinagar. “The henna competition featured participants showcasing their artistic skills. It was aimed at promoting voter education and engagement among students, combining creativity with civic awareness. Students expressed themselves artistically, while emphasising the importance of democratic participation,” she said.

Expanded reach

The EC’s exercise is not limited to the Srinagar seat. It also plans a street show in Teetwal in the Baramulla constituency, a point near the Line of Control (LoC), where the residents of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) can easily watch the show. Earlier, a selfie point was set up on the slopes of Affarwat in Gulmarg, just 11 km away from the LoC. “A selfie point and a mock polling booth inside an igloo on the Afarwat slopes were meant to raise awareness among locals as well as tourists. Such events are in itself a leap in Kashmir, given the past,” Ms. Kotwal said.

In the Anantnag-Rajouri constituency, which remains in the grip of militancy, the EC employed several innovative methods to attract voters. “We organised rafting on the Lidder river in Pahalgam. All participants were carrying placards asking people to come out and vote. In the famous Betab Valley, pony-wallaswere roped in to raise awareness. People are eagerly waiting to cast their vote,” Ms. Kotwal said.

In Kulgam, the authorities organised rangoli and mehndi competitions among female students. “Plantation drives were held at all 380 polling stations in Kulgam,” she added.

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