No Surprises This Time, Bandipora Increases Polling Tally, Records 75% Turnout

25 November 2014
Greater Kashmir
Muddasir Ali

Bandipora: The Monday of 2008 repeated itself Tuesday in this north Kashmir district, exactly six years and eight days later. However, there were no surprises this time. In 2008, the mood of people here had changed overnight after participating in the three-month long agitation across Kashmir over transfer of forest land to the Amarnath Shrine Board. This time around, the indicators of massive polling were visible a fortnight before. Tactically, the Election authorities, as was the case in 2008, again selected Bandipora to start the 2014 Assembly election process in Kashmir. And when the dawn struck the district today, people picked up the voting process from where they had left it in 2008. The biting cold didn't stop men and women, elderly and young, from coming out of their houses early in the morning-at some places much ahead of the scheduled polling time-to cast their vote. Nor did a few 'mysterious blasts' deter voters from exercising their franchise. At many places, under-age children shivered outside polling booths as they witnessed the exercise for fun. By the time the sun shone over Bandipora early afternoon, the voting percentage had already crossed 30 of the total electorate of 215380 in three constituencies of the district-Bandipora, Sonawari and Gurez. It was an indication of what would come next: the record-breaking polling percentage of 75.76 and outright rejection of poll boycott call by separatists. In 2008, the district recorded 58 percent voting, taking mainstream parties and political pundits by surprise, especially in the wake of killing of 60 youth in Kashmir in the Amarnath land row. Today, the first sign of brisk polling was visible at SariaDangerpora, which is a part of Sonawari constituency on Srinagar-Baramulla highway. In the past, Dangerpora-then separatist stronghold located just 10 kilometers away from Srinagar-would side with pro-freedom parties. This morning, almost every media crew on way to Bandipora stopped at the village to catch the jubilant polling mood. By every minute, queues of voters grew longer. Muhammad Imran and his friends had arrived an hour before voting began at 8 am to cast their vote. But they were left disappointed by the authorities conducting the elections. 'The voting machine has developed some snag and polling has slowed down,' Imran said. Inside the booth, the presiding officer said 35 votes had been cast in less than 10 minutes. Abdur Rashid came up with an argument for voting. 'Even if we boycott elections and only 10 votes are polled, we will still have a new government in place. So what is the fun of boycott?' he asked. At Wangipora polling booth, 160 out of 820 voters had cast their vote within half an hour of polling. Waiting for their turn, women sat on ground as men, in nearby queues, jostled for space to enter the booth. The situation was similar in almost all booths in Sonawari constituency late afternoon. 'We no longer see pro-freedom protests here and the boycott call has no takers,' said Muhammad Amin at Safapora. He said he voted for National Conference. Sitting MLA from NC, Muhammad Akbar Lone, faces a challenge from Peoples Democratic Party's YasirReshi from Sonawari, which was one of the worst affected areas in the September floods. Residents of Wangipora slammed the government for failing them in the flood crisis. 'We didn't see any development for the past six years, nor did the government reach us during floods,' said Hashim Muhammad, who had cast his vote for the PDP candidate. The polling scene was equally festive in Bandipora constituency, which was once a stronghold of militants. At SaderkotBala, a village on periphery of the constituency which was known for nurturing pro-freedom sentiment, the villagers had lined up outside polling booths, with women outnumbering men. 'This election will break all voting records,' said Shakeel Ahmad. He said people in the village have no regrets about development 'never reaching us.' 'But this government continued to rule us even after killing of 120 youth in 2010 unrest and hanging of Afzal Guru,' said Ahmad. 'We want to see this government out and that is why I have voted for a new candidate.' A senior official tried to explain the reasons behind brisk polling across Bandipora. 'The floods have left people helpless and now they expect a new government to address their sufferings. Besides, the threat of stone pelting youth and those who would indulge in protests was taken care of much earlier by the police,' he said. 'At least 30 to 40 youth have been taken into preventive custody in Bandipora alone.' Another factor, the locals said, has been changing of sides by 'large percentage of pro-freedom protesters who this time campaigned for PDP and Congress candidates.' 'This made a huge difference,' he said. A crackdown on separatists to prevent them from running their boycott campaign only ensured smooth polling. All these factors, according to locals, played in Ajas-another stronghold of militants in yesteryears. 'One of my friends was killed in 2010 unrest but we didn't see any pro-freedom leader visiting his house. Now, we have decided to move on,' said Muhammad Muzaffar, a local. By late afternoon, the festive mood in main town of Bandipora constituency, which is witnessing a direct contest between sitting MLA Nizam-ud-Din Bhat of PDP and Usman Majeed of Congress, had reached its peak. Even a 'mysterious blast' outside Nowpora government school booth did not deter voters from queuing up to cast their vote. 'Yes, some kind of a blast was heard and some splinters fell in the backside of the booth. But, nobody was injured,' said a CRPF official on duty. A senior citizen, GhulamRasool Mir, said the brisk voting registered in the main town was a 'record'. 'This has happened for the first time in past 25 years,' Mir said. On backside of Nowpora, the business hub of Bandipora town and GulshanChowk, once the symbol of separatist resistance, saw heavy presence of men-in-uniform standing guard in front of shops. But elsewhere, village after village, the security personnel on duty outside polling booths had a relaxing time today as polling went incident-free in the entire district. The only visible sign of polling of yesteryears in the entire district was closure of all roads connecting Bandipora with Sopore, by police.