In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the administration in Shopian, 52 km south of Srinagar, pressed an army chopper into service to ferry the polling staff to Zainapora subdivision from the district headquarters.

It was believed to be dangerous to send the election staff and poll material by road to the area, which is a 35-minute drive from district headquarters, given the sensitive security situation.

The area was hit by militant activity, ignited by the influence of Hizbul Mujahidin commander Burhan Wani, who was shot dead by security forces in 2016, spurring a wave of violent protests across the valley.

During the polls, the candidates and their supporters almost steered clear of campaigning, with militants and separatists issuing boycott calls.

However, there seems to be a pronounced shift now.

Since 1989 Lok Sabha elections, which marked the onset of militancy in Kashmir, it is the first time that the political rallies in the Valley are witnessing huge participation of people.

Villages and localities, particularly in the southern parts, which were hitherto engulfed in silence and fear, are now seen decorated with buntings, hoardings, and banners of different political parties.

Political leaders and contestants, accompanied by minimal security details, are freely moving across every corner of the Valley.

Reclaiming the space

Soon after the Pulwama attack in 2019, the Central government began dealing with the separatist groups with an iron fist. On February 28, 2019, the government declared an influential religio-political Jamaat-e-Islami as an unlawful organisation for fuelling separatism in Jammu and Kashmir. It was followed by putting a blanket ban on other separatist organisations like Tehreek-e-Hurriyat, founded by Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Yasin Malik-led Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, Jammu and Kashmir Freedom Party, and Muslim League under Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act ( UAPA).

These measures have significantly reshaped the political landscape in the region.

“These are the first elections over the past 35 years where we don’t see boycott diktats from the separatists or militants,” said a senior Valley-based journalist who refused to be named.

Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Kashmir’s chief cleric and Hurriyat chairman, said in a recent statement that the poll boycott calls did not make any sense under the changed circumstances.

Amidst an altered political landscape, the mainline political parties are reclaiming the space dominated by separatist leaders following the eruption of militancy in the region. Even certain downtown areas of Srinagar city, which were earlier almost an undeclared off-limits zone for  mainstream political engagement and served as an epicentre of stone-pelting, are now teeming with political activits.

Jammu and Kashmir Apni Party Chief Altaf Bukhari became the first mainstream political leader to visit the grand mosque located in the area since the inception of militancy.

A high voter turnover expected

Since the eruption of militancy, the electorate in the valley has largely chosen to stay away from the polling booths. In 1989, Lok Sabha polls, Baramulla and Anantnag (now Anantnag-Rajouri seat) recorded just over 5 per cent polling, while Srinagar constituency did not see polling at all as the National Conference candidate was elected unopposed.  In the last general elections, the Valley saw a low turnout, with Srinagar recording 14 per cent, while the troubled south Kashmir districts—Shopian and Pulwama — witnessed less than 3 per cent polling.

However, this time around, there appears to be a significant surge in enthusiasm among the people to cast their ballots.

Gul Mohammad Wani, an expert in South Asian politics and former professor at the University of Kashmir, told businessline that the growing disillusionment with Hurriyat and Pakistan could be a dominant reason motivating people to vote in these elections. 

“There is  a larger realisation among  people to be politically pro-active to seek some safeguard vis-à-vis land and jobs,” he said.

The academic also pointed out that the people were equally disappointed with the new nationalism that has emerged in the country under the current dispensation.

“They wanted to fight against such a political system through the electoral process,” he added.