Tuesday afternoon. Barricades, barbed wires and check posts were erected across the Srinagar city and policemen in riot gear stopped every second vehicle passing by. By putting the public to immense inconvenience, gun-toting policemen ensured that residents returned to their homes as soon as possible.
Many routes were closed down by policemen and people had to take arterial, long and potholed roads to reach their homes.
I was standing at Bemina by-pass crossing and witnessed how, within a spate of less than 20 minutes, the air was filled with tension: gun-toting policemen shouting at commuters, drivers cussing the Indian State and the elections, fruit vendors who were chased by policemen were cursing the scourge of elections.
Most of the shopkeepers at the busy Lal Chowk in the heart of Jammu and Kashmir’s summer capital Srinagar downed their shutters hours before daybreak. The capital wore a deserted look at around 6:30pm and everybody tried to catch an early bus home.
From a busy and a bustling market in the forenoon, the City Centre resembled a ghost town with policemen calling the shots. All the posts manned by traffic police were now being controlled by armed policemen. Messing up, and not managing, the traffic was their priority and they proved they were best at it.
The same can be said about the rest of the city markets and neighbourhoods. As public transport went off the roads, large gatherings of people could be spotted at various intersections across the city. Many people had to walk miles to reach a bus stop so that they can make the further journey.
Polling staff escorted by a battery of troopers from the paramilitary CRPF and J&K police set up their camps in various schools and colleges. A fruit vendor at Batmaloo told me that they are made to lose their livelihood for an ‘exercise nobody is interested in’. “It is only 6pm and I am being forced to close my business. It would be closed tomorrow as well,” the fruit vendor told me. “Nobody wants to leave early today but they (police) are creating conditions that force us to leave early for home.”
Local newspapers reported that over 600 youth were detained by various security agencies days ahead of the polling for the Srinagar constituency. Fearing that these youths would organize demonstrations, the police chose to stick to their trusted method of detaining them.
Come the polling day and voters chose to stay indoors at maximum places. Except a few pockets where people queued to vote for their candidate, most of the people chose boycott over ballot. I travelled to some areas at around 10am and on my way I saw only policemen and CRPF personnel manning the polling stations and check posts. The shops were closed, youth were playing cricket while others chose to remain indoors.
Throughout my journey I could sense an environment of fear and tension. I had even thought of a reason of not voting if policemen stopped me on the way. Though this time around people were not forced to vote, but Kashmir has witnessed such days when army men barged into houses and forced people to vote. So I had to keep a back up plan ready. Otherwise receiving a beating is guaranteed.
In the evening I heard about the death of Bashir Ahmad Bhat from Nawa Kadal in old Srinagar city. The 24-year-old was shot dead after CRPF men fired at a protest demonstration organized against the holding of elections in the state and keeping people hostage in their houses.
The killing didn’t make big news in Indian national newspapers next morning, but in Kashmir the death became a headline and thousands of people laid Bhat to rest amid pro-freedom slogans.