Did Article 370 abrogation push Kashmiris to vote in large numbers?

Kashmir recorded its highest turnout in 40 years

26-Women-queue-up-to-vote-in-Budgam Changing times: Women queue up to vote in Budgam | Bilal Bhadur

The Lok Sabha elections marked the first major political exercise in Jammu and Kashmir after the abrogation of Article 370 and the reorganisation of the state into two Union territories. The elections got over with the sixth phase of polling on May 25. In Kashmir, the turnout went up to 58 per cent, surpassing the previous highest of 49 per cent in 2014.

Across Kashmir, many people said the abrogation of Article 370 was a significant reason for them to vote.

“It is the highest turnout for these five constituencies in the last 40 years,” said chief electoral officer P.K. Pole. It marks the end of the election boycott in Kashmir since the eruption of militancy in the late 1980s, paving the way for greater participation of people and separatist groups in the assembly elections later this year.

The three constituencies in Kashmir―Srinagar, Baramulla and Anantnag-Rajouri―saw a record turnout. Srinagar, known for poll boycotts, recorded 38 per cent, the highest in 25 years. In Baramulla, 59 per cent of voters cast their ballots, beating 46.65 per cent in 1996.

In 2019, when Rajouri and Poonch were not part of the Anantnag Lok Sabha constituency, voter participation stood at a mere 8.9 per cent. The Delimitation Commission expanded the constituency’s boundaries across the Pir Panjal to include Jammu’s Rajouri and Poonch, in 2022. These areas are largely inhabited by the Pahari community, tribal Gujjars and Bakerwals. On May 25, voter turnout here climbed up to 54.3 per cent.

The surge in turnout can be attributed to several factors. There has been a political void because of the absence of a representative government following the collapse of the PDP-BJP alliance in June 2018. Second, there is a strong feeling of disempowerment among the people following the revocation of Article 370. Finally, the influence of separatist groups advocating for election boycott has waned.

Across Kashmir, many people said Article 370 was a significant reason for them to vote. At Fateh Kadal in downtown Srinagar, a young voter said he voted for the first time to express his opposition to the abrogation of Article 370. “By nullifying Article 370, they attacked our identity,” he said. “Now our future is not safe. Anybody from outside can apply for jobs in Kashmir.”

A few kilometres away at Batamaloo, Bilal Ahmed, a shopkeeper, said he was voting for the first time in his life. “I am 45 and I voted for the first time to show my anger against the abrogation of Article 370 and the imposition of new laws,” he said. “I also urged my mother to vote, and she did, after several decades.”

Apart from the issue of Article 370, voters are also worried about inflation, unemployment and the lack of political agency to seek redressal of their problems. For Mushtaq Ahmed, 48, a farmer from Khan Sahib in Budgam, which is part of the Srinagar Lok Sabha constituency, the need for a bridge over the stream in his village, apart from high electricity tariffs and employment for educated youth seemed bigger motivations to vote. “This is the second time I am casting my vote,” he said. In the neighbouring village of Gurwait, Farhana Jan said she voted so that government schemes for young women reached her village, too. “Right now, there is no one we can approach for help,’’ she said.

As the focus shifted to the Baramulla constituency on May 20, Sopore, a separatist stronghold known for its history of boycotting elections, experienced a significant shift, with voter turnout exceeding 44 per cent, a ten-fold increase compared with the 2019 elections.

Some people expressed their motivation to vote as a means to advocate for the release of incarcerated individuals. Several young voters voiced their support for Awami Ittehad Party leader Engineer Rashid, who was running for office from jail. Rashid was arrested by the National Investigation Agency in 2019 on charges of money-laundering. His two sons, Asrar Rashid and Abrar Rashid, led an emotionally charged campaign on his behalf, eliciting sympathy from many, particularly the youth.

Voting in Anantnag-Rajouri, the last of the five Lok Sabha constituencies, was held on May 25. Showkat Ahmed Ganie, a voter from Mattan, expressed concerns over the revocation of Article 370, highlighting its impact on the identity of the people. “It is the second time in my life I have come to vote. The first time I voted was in 1987,’’ he said.

At Damhal Hanji Pora in Kulgam, Yasmin Ganai said Kashmiris did not have anyone to discuss their problems with. “There is growing unemployment and youth are falling prey to drug addiction. We want our MPs and government so that we can talk to them about our problems,” she said. Friends Fayaz Ahmed and Muhammad Akram said issues related to livelihood and security were their main motivations. “I am getting a huge power bill that I can’t afford to pay,” said Ahmed. “There is the issue of security also. When someone is arrested, we have no one to turn to for help.”

What made this election even more distinct was the participation of separatists, like Mukhtar Waza. A member of the Hurriyat Conference, Waza said he voted to strengthen democracy. “The Hurriyat Conference believes in peace. All issues are resolved in Parliament and assembly and by holding talks across a table,” he said.

The development comes in the wake of members of the banned Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), one of Kashmir’s prominent socio-religious organisations, actively participating in the electoral process. The JeI expressed its willingness to contest the forthcoming assembly polls if the Centre lifts the ban on the organisation. “At present, the Jamaat is a banned outfit and cannot participate in elections. We cannot even participate in social activities,” said senior JeI leader Ghulam Qadir Wani who voted in his hometown Pulwama in south Kashmir. “We are talking to the Central government. We want to get this ban lifted so that we can play our role in society.”