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10 Apr 2017

Blood and stone rip veneer - Eight youths killed in Srinagar, voter turnout at all-time low of 6.5%

Parts of electronic voting machines adrift in a river after protesters
attacked a polling station at Kanihamma in Srinagar. (PTI)
Muzaffar Raina, TT, Srinagar/Budgam, April 9: Kashmir today witnessed its most tumultuous election in memory, with unprecedented violence leaving eight young men dead and dozens injured across Srinagar parliamentary constituency amid an all-time low turnout of 6.5 per cent.
The deaths, caused by the security forces' bullets during clashes, left the Valley staring at fresh turbulence and the authorities fearing even more violence on April 12 when the Anantnag Lok Sabha constituency votes in the next round of by-elections.
Whoever wins today's by-election, the abysmal polling percentage is a setback for the pro-India parties in Kashmir, already struggling to connect with the people after last year's unrest left nearly 100 dead and thousands injured.
State chief electoral officer Shantmanu was candid that Anantnag, the nerve centre of last year's unrest, is a "much bigger challenge".
"Today was not a good day for us.... There were more than 200 incidents in the constituency, particularly in Budgam district," he told reporters in Srinagar.
"The incidents include stone-throwing, petrol bomb attacks. One of the polling booths was set on fire and there were similar attempts on other booths too. We had to temporarily close these booths."
Shantmanu said that state transport corporation vehicles and private cars were torched and electronic voting machines damaged.
Kashmir has traditionally been lukewarm to parliamentary elections, often recording half the turnouts seen during Assembly polls or even less than that. Shantmanu said 80,000 of the 12.6 lakh voters -- 6.5 per cent --- voted today, against 26 per cent from the constituency in 2014.
More stones than votes rained at the booths as rampaging mobs made numerous attempts on the polling stations and the forces despite the massive security. Internet services had been suspended since last night to prevent the spread of rumours.
It was not just about the stone-throwers, most people were indifferent to the election anyway.
"Tell me, how has our participation in polls helped us in the past? Our youths are being killed or blinded over minor provocations. All these pro-India parties have been fooling us," said Gulzar Ahmad, a young man in Shia-dominated Budgam, who had voted in 2014.
Much of the violence took place in Budgam district, which by Kashmir's standards has little history of clashes between the forces and protesters, proving that such skirmishes have become a Valley-wide trend.
Most booths across the constituency were deserted and many failed to see even a single voter. Police sources said that polling staff and the forces had to abandon booths at half-a-dozen places to escape the fury of the stone-throwers.
At one place in Budgam, several personnel were taken hostage by a mob and handed over to the police.
The Srinagar seat covers the Srinagar, Budgam and Ganderbal districts. Without Ganderbal's 20 per cent turnout, the polling figures would have been even lower.
The separatists have called for a two-day shutdown against the firing deaths.
"We know that a hartal would not affect government policy towards us but it is the only option to express our collective grief," separatist leaders Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Mohammad Yasin Malik said in a statement.
The scale of the violence has prompted many to question the Election Commission's logic of holding elections when the Valley was seething against last year's killings. Officials said that many in the government had requested the polls be put off till the time was ripe.
Srinagar is witnessing a contest between Farooq Abdullah, the joint candidate of the National Conference and the Congress, and Nazir Ahmad Khan of the People's Democratic Party.
Farooq accused the PDP-BJP government of failing to provide a conducive atmosphere for peaceful elections. "The election should have been peaceful. That's what elections are all about," he said.

The election in Srinagar was necessitated by the resignation of People's Democratic Party MP Tariq Hamid Karra last year in protest at the killings by the forces. Anantnag fell vacant after Mehbooba Mufti quit to take over as chief minister last year.

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