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Vote for a change: On the voter in Kashmir​

Kashmiris have sought to use the ballot box to seek change from the status quo​

The voter turnout in the Srinagar and Baramulla constituencies in the Kashmir valley — Anantnag-Rajouri is to vote on May 25 after the Election Commission of India postponed the election — is well below the national average. While Srinagar registered only 38.5%, preliminary figures from Baramulla indicate a turnout of 59.1%. The national average for the first four phases was 66.95% and 61.61% in the fifth phase, according to early trends. Yet, these numbers in the Valley are salubrious compared to the past — 13% in Srinagar and 34.6% in Baramulla in 2019. Baramulla registered its highest turnout since 1984 (61.1% participation). In the last six years, the elected Assembly was dissolved, the erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir bifurcated into two Union Territories, the special status of the province abrogated by the BJP-led Union government, and the Valley subjected to months of Internet shutdowns. Scores of politicians were also arrested. Kashmir still remains India’s most securitised region with recurring militant violence. While local body elections have been held since then, the general election is the first major poll with significant contestation involving the Valley’s mainstream polity.

Should the increase in turnout be read as a significant reduction in the alienation of the Kashmiri people? The answer is not unambiguous. A substantive section of the voters who turned out have sought a change in the status quo. The limitations on political activity in the Valley since 2018 have constrained citizens who have had little recourse to airing their grievances due to the absence of legislative representation in the Assembly. Thus, livelihood concerns have not been sufficiently addressed, and the greater electoral participation now reflects the need for representation of the electorate’s voices. Union Home Minister Amit Shah has stated that the higher polling in these two constituencies is the “greatest testament to rightness” of abrogating the special status that was enshrined in Article 370 — a statement devoid of reason. A truer reflection of the support for the abrogation would have been a favourable mandate for parties endorsing the move, but the BJP did not even field candidates in the Valley. It is clear that it saw the writing on the wall in terms of how it was perceived in the region. Mr. Shah and the BJP should not misinterpret the reasons for the increase in voter participation. The voices in the Valley have given way to some using the ballot box as a medium to get the region out of its political morass. The Indian state must listen and make amends.
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