It is perhaps first time in many years the security establishment finds itself in a state of anxiety over the way things have been going in the Kashmir valley in the last several months.
The elections to the Srinagar and Anantnag constituency, as a consequence, are overhung with uncertainty about how many people would come out to vote and whether militants might strike against the poll process.
The boycott call has been given by the separatists and it was supported by militant outfits, too. Yet, the police chief S.P. Vaid said the police will make ample arrangements to ensure polls are conducted in a free and fair manner.
“Elections in such situations have been held in past too. We will see that everything goes well. Though threat perception is always there but we are well prepared,” he said. Hundreds of fresh paramilitaries have been brought in from India to support the already thousands of police, paramilitaries and army troopers to give security for the poll process. Apart from that protest demonstrations, the authorities are also concerned about the number of people joining militancy in the recent past. As per official figures, 88 youth have become militants in 2016, the highest in last six years. A senior Army official posted in south Kashmir said the figures are really alarming.
In view of the heightened political tension and separatist boycott call, the upcoming parliamentary elections have become a challenge for everyone. While the ground situation points suggest that voter turnout might be less, past records are witness to how things change on the day of elections. Last year, around 34 per cent people cast their vote in the by-elections for Anantnag assembly constituency despite the boycott calls and the overall public anger towards the PDP. But the Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti won the seat convincingly.
The Chief Electoral Officer (CEO), Jammu and Kashmir, Shantmanu said that considering the overall situation in the constituencies, all the 3,194 polling stations are either ‘sensitive’ or ‘hypersensitive’.
In Srinagar, the Returning Officers have informed the CEO that 1,559 polling booths were “hypersensitive” and “sensitive”. The remaining over 1,600 polling stations in south Kashmir’s Anantnag parliamentary constituency also fall under the same categories. Shantmanu said that “necessary arrangements” have been made to conduct the parliamentary by-polls in a “free and fair atmosphere”.
More than 13 lakh voters will cast their votes in Anantnag-Kulgam-Pulwama Lok Sabha seat. Of these assembly segments, south Kashmir’s Pulwama, Shopian, Kulgam and some areas in Anantnag present a challenge to the security forces as well as politicians. These assembly segments witnessed huge and unrelenting protests during the 2016 uprising. Pulwama, Tral, Wachi in Shopian and Kulgam’s Homshalibugh assembly segments have been witnessing protests during gunfights between militants and government forces. In the last two months, at least three civilians have been killed during clashes that erupted between protesters and forces while the gunfights were going on. Eleven militants have been killed by the forces during four encounters in these districts. These clashes between civilian protesters and forces erupted following attempts by people to help escape militants during gun-battles.
The increase in militancy incidents affected candidates campaigning as political parties seem reluctant to hold election rallies in central and south Kashmir. National Conference and Congress are fighting the elections together. Their main challenge comes from the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP).
The PDP has this time fielded Nazir Ahmad Khan, who defected from the Congress to join the ruling party. Compared to Khan, Farooq Abdullah is a political heavyweight but the Goliath's victory in Srinagar is by no means a foregone conclusion.
The Anantnag seat fell vacant after Mehbooba Mufti became the chief minister last year following the death of her father and predecessor Mufti Muhammad Sayeed.The PDP has fielded Mehbooba's brother Tasaduq Hussain Sayeed – a debutant in politics – from Anantnag.
Anantnag is the home constituency of the Muftis and the PDP represents 11 of the constituency's Assembly segments. National Conference and Congress hold two assembly seats each and CPI-M one.
Statistically, it should have been a cakewalk for Tasaduq. Unfortunately for the PDP, Anantnag is no longer the same place politically from where the Muftis rose to power.The 2016 unrest has eroded most of the PDP's political base in south Kashmir areas which form the Anantnag parliamentary seat.
Not that National Conference or Congress has made any inroads in south Kashmir to claim the PDP's lost ground. A PDP election meeting in south Kashmir's Kulgam district was disrupted by stone-pelting youths. Three PDP workers were injured in the incident but the meeting continued as per schedule.
The other big headache for security forces is to provide extra security to the employees assigned to poll duty. Official sources said that the Election Commission of India (ECI) has asked police to consider giving adequate security to the polling officers and other staff during the parliamentary by-polls. “The security of polling officers is being deliberated upon. Accordingly, adequate measures will be taken to ensure the safety of employees such as polling officers, drivers, or labourers,” they said.
During 2014 parliamentary polls, many attacks on polling station were reported across the valley, injuring several officials. One polling officer was killed and five others injured in a militant attack in south Kashmir in 2014, when they were returning from polling duties to their respective places. Polling stations were also attacked in Baramulla and Pulwama.
Keeping in view the current volatile situation across Kashmir, Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and Jammu and Kashmir Police have also intensified their patrolling and checking to foil any militant attack. Forces have put up nakas at several places in South Kashmir districts which is volatile.