Anantnag: In the deadly backwash of Pulwama

Simmering discontent and travel curbs are likely to mar polling next week.

Bulletproof, anti-mine bunker vehicles line the roadside at regular intervals. Several roads connecting parts of Pulwama, Tral and Awantipora in the Anantnag Lok Sabha constituency to the 300-km Srinagar-Jammu National Highway have been dug up for security reasons. The vehicles of security forces outnumber those of the contesting parties.

With just three days to go for the polls, unease and disinterest among the voters is palpable in south Kashmir.

Asha Begum, 58, of Kumar Mohalla on the highway lives close to the spot at Lethpora where a local Jaish-e-Muhammad suicide bomber detonated a vehicle to kill 40 CRPF jawans on February 14.

The blast damaged around 20 houses.

“We still have gaping holes on our roof and cracks on windowpanes. I have never heard such a blast or seen carnage. The memory is haunting me. People are dying in south Kashmir. Can elections happen when a place is in a state of mourning and shock,” Ms. Begum asks.

Rising casualties

Anantnag is going to the polls amid a grim upward graph of militancy. Over 80% of the 169 people killed so far this year, were from Kulgam, Pulwama, Shopian and Anantnag districts falling within the Lok Sabha constituency.

The numbers include 22 civilians, 87 security personnel and 66 militants, including several “commanders” like Al Badr’s Zeenat-ul-Islam who carried considerable clout in the area.

For the first time, the Election Commission has decided to split polling into three phases for the one Lok Sabha seat — Anantnag district will vote on April 23, Kulgam district on April 29 and Shopian-Pulwama districts on May 6.

Travel ban fuels boycott

The recent ban on civilian traffic twice a week on the national highway to ensure safe passage for movement of security forces in south Kashmir has further angered and alienated local people, only adding to the chances of a boycott.

“I have over ₹10 lakh worth of apples in a cold storage. They are waiting to be shipped. The highway ban has put my produce on the verge of perishing. The ban was aimed to destroy our economy,” said Ashraf Ganai, an orchard owner from Shopian.

Anantnag is witnessing a triangular battle between Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) candidate and former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, 59; Ghulam Ahmad Mir, 55, of the Congress; and National Conference’s new entrant Hasnain Masoodi, a retired judge.

Mr. Mir, who is the Congress State president, was among the leaders who opposed a joint candidate with the National Conference. He is banking on a likely boycott in PDP bastions to sail through the polls.

In 2014, the Congress’s Hilal Shah had emerged the runner-up with 5,600 votes and the party is hoping to build on this.

Pockets of possible high voter turnout such as Dooru-Shahabad, Kokernag, parts of Kulgam, Devsar and Pahalgam are strongholds of the National Conference or the Congress. The Congress has sharply focussed on the PDP’s disastrous alliance with the BJP to woo voters.

“Anantnag will teach the PDP a lesson for the loss of precious lives and injuries to thousands of youth. People will never forgive the PDP for ensuring inroads of BJP and RSS in lieu of the Chief Minister’s post,” Mr. Mir said.

Ms. Mufti, a two-time MP for Anantnag, her home town, is banking on regionalism and soft separatism to make up for the dent in her image following the tie-up with the BJP. She has already visited the families of militants — both those killed in encounters or those arrested in Pulwama — to seek justice in a hostile security environment. Her every tweets attack Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speeches or policies.

Jamaat factor

Several pockets such as Kudwani, Tral, Shopian town and Qaimoh are bastions of the now-banned socio-religious group Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI). It’s believed that a section of the JeI favoured the PDP in the 2002 Assembly polls to dislodge the NC from south Kashmir.

Ms. Mufti is using the ban to galvanise support. In her rallies, she has spoken against the ban, and described the JeI’s contributions to education as “unparalleled”. However, the JeI’s anger over the PDP alliance with the BJP and unprecedented operations and damage to property during her tenure in Jamaat-dominated areas is unlikely to win her much backing.

However, Ms. Mufti only trick to win the seat will lie on how she galvanises voters from her former bastions like Pulwama, Pampore, Rajpora, Tral, Shopian, Wachi, Bijbehara, Anantnag and Shangus, where other parties have less clout.

Mr. Masoodi is known for his unflinching stand on J&K’s special status with several articles in local newspapers on the systematic erosion by the Centre of the privileges granted under Article 370.

With a Master’s in Law from Harvard, Mr. Masoodi has emerged as a champion of human rights in the conflict zone and could cut into Ms. Mufti’s waning support.

Though the NC has no credible faces to campaign in many pockets, where the contest has always been between the PDP and the JeI, Mr. Masoodi hopes to build on his son Yawar Ali Abbas Masoodi’s foray in the 2014 Assembly polls.

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