SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Kashmir: Why the women voted

KALPANA SHARMA

BY the time this appears in print, the four phase elections in Jammu and Kashmir will have concluded. Everyone waits now for the result. To the political parties that participated, the outcome is important. But to a large number of people in Jammu and Kashmir, and particularly in the Kashmir Valley, the results are of little interest.

If there is one thing the elections have shown us, it is that the Indian Government has lost the battle for the hearts and minds of the people of Kashmir. Election turnouts and voting figures do not tell the real story of what has been happening in that State during this past month. But the extensive media coverage of the elections, and particularly the presence of the electronic media, has brought the voices of ordinary Kashmiris into our drawing rooms. None of us can now ignore the deep disillusionment with the political process that many Kashmiris feel. Regardless of the images of scores of happy smiling men and women going out to vote, no one can ignore the sullen faces, the closed shops and deserted streets and the mounting death toll during the last four weeks. No one but the most obdurate can fail to acknowledge that the main politicial problem that has convulsed this beautiful State is still a long way from being resolved. I went to Kashmir two weeks before the election process began. My mission was to seek out the views of women. And even the most militant of them, women who wanted "Azadi" and made it a point to state that my country was "Hindustan" and theirs was "Kashmir", did not hold back in their hospitality and warmth. They insisted that regardless of the political problems, there should be no barriers between people.

But in the vitiated atmosphere of the elections, I was shocked to find that even these human relations can sometimes disappear. In the first phase of elections, on September 16, as we drove into Sopore town, we were stopped by a group of people. Seeing the "press" sticker on the car, they wanted to complain about the army and their attempts to get people to go and vote. It was mostly men who surrounded the car, but I could see a group of women in the distance standing at the head of a narrow lane. I got out of the car to speak to them.

Yet, talks with other women produced many varied responses. For instance, early morning in the village of Watrigam in the Rafiabad constituency, the sand-bagged polling booth was deserted. Armed men guarded it while the polling officer sat inside one of the classrooms of the school wearing a bulletproof vest. The school itself was located in a clearing. Anyone standing in the village square could see people come and go to the school. Given the atmosphere that prevailed during the elections, it would have required tremendous courage to be the first to cross that open ground and cast a vote.

Across the open ground was a small stream and a group of women were filling their urns from it. On the other side, in the village square, groups of men stood around, watching. The women were eager to talk. One of them asked me to tell the men to leave so that they could speak freely. I had to literally push the men, who were by then crowding around us, back before the women spoke. Many of the women openly told us that they would vote. They knew the name of the candidate they wanted to support, they said they wanted him not just to win but to become a minister so that he could really do something for their area. And what were their needs? Water, health care and education, in that order. Yet interestingly, even as the women said this, and also indicated that they would go and vote once they had completed their chores, the men came back and shouted at them for saying this to us. "We want talks between India, Pakistan and Kashmiris," shouted one of these men. "These elections will serve no purpose." And this is what almost every man I met stated.

So, is there a gender divide on the issue of the elections in Kashmir? It is important not to generalise because for every one woman, like those in Rafiabad, who wanted to vote, there were an equal number, like the woman in Sopore, who saw no point in the election. Their reactions varied greatly. But what was different was that the women were able to separate the politics connected with their immediate needs from the larger politics of the future of Kashmir while the men on the whole either could not, or would not, do this.

It is also interesting that women even outside such politically volatile places like Kashmir or the NorthEast often make this kind of distinction. I found, for instance, that in a place like Dharavi, the huge slum located in the heart of Mumbai, Muslim women were prepared to vote for a Shiv Sena corporater because he had used municipal funds to build a toilet for the people in the locality. For women who are worse affected by the absence of sanitation, this was far more important than the politics of the party to which the man belonged.

Similarly, in Kashmir too, we should not conclude that the men and women who voted, and particularly the women who were seen going enthusiastically to vote in some constituencies, supported the politics of the National Conference or the other parties. What is evident from conversations with ordinary voters is that they wanted to have a say in local governance and that they saw no contradiction between voting in an election and at the same time demanding "azadi".

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