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Bypolls in Kashmir: A prolonged protest

The by-elections in Kashmir were marked by a mix of indifference and violent anger

April 12, 2017 12:02 am | Updated December 03, 2021 12:46 pm IST

An election that isn’t free is not fair either. With violence by political protesters marring the by-election in the Srinagar Lok Sabha constituency, resulting in the lowest-ever voter turnout of around 7%, the Election Commission was left with no choice but to put off the by-election in Anantnag. After ignoring the advice of the Union Home Ministry against the conduct of elections in the Kashmir Valley, the EC had to perforce go by the report of the State administration that the law and order situation in Anantnag constituency was not conducive to holding of polls on April 12. Certainly, the EC is right in maintaining that it was not bound to consult the Union Home Ministry before deciding to conduct elections, but as demonstrated by subsequent events, the Centre had called this matter correctly. The security forces were unprepared for the scale of violence, and failed to ensure conditions for free, unrestricted polling. Whatever the reasons or provocations for the violence in Srinagar, which left eight people dead and more than 170 injured, the end result was that most voters chose to stay away from polling stations. One polling station was set afire; many were temporarily shut following attacks. Unlike a general election, where a change of government is possible, a by-election does not interest voters to any great degree. And, unlike in a general election protesters find it easier to disrupt the polling process in a by-election. For voters, the political stakes are low and the physical risks high. Whether they were too scared to vote or they heeded the calls for a boycott of the poll process, the by-election appeared like an elaborate farcical exercise that was robbed of all political legitimacy.

 

After the higher voter participation in recent years in the Valley, the way the Srinagar by-election unfolded is indicative of a dramatic slide in the political situation. The killing of Burhan Wani, a ‘commander’ of the Hizbul Mujahideen, by security forces in July last year set off a new cycle of violence in Kashmir that does not seem to have ended to this day as stone-pelting is met with pellet guns. In these circumstances, by-elections may have no political meaning. In any case, without free re-polling in all the booths that witnessed violence, the result in this election counts for little. Ideally, re-polling in Srinagar too should be put off by a few weeks. But Kashmiris will also need a larger political motivation to go to the polling booths, a belief that they are in charge of their own lives and that their vote will count for something. Otherwise staying at home might seem the better option to facing the stones of protesters and the guns of security forces. Time alone will not heal wounds.

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