On May 25, Mohammed Yousuf and his two friends, all in their early 40s, stood in a queue before a polling station in Manzagam village, roughly 22 kilometres from district headquarters Kulgam. This is the first time in their life that the three friends had exercised their franchise.

Flushed with excitement, Yousuf talked about his experience. As the queues moved, he told businessline: “I can’t describe how I feel. This is the first time I am voting.”

All three friends had become eligible to vote over two decades back. But they had been too scared to vote because of constant election boycott threats by militants.

Boycott and low turnout

Boycott calls by separatists and militant outfits over the last 35 years of turmoil in Kashmir kept a large number of common Kashmiris away from the poll process.

In the 1989 Lok Sabha elections, the voter turnout for Anantnag and Baramulla seats was 5. 07 and 5.08 per cent respectively while the Srinagar parliamentary constituency saw no polling, resulting in the sole National Conference candidate being declared elected unopposed.

In the 2002 assembly elections, the Valley recorded 29.64 per cent voter turnout. At least six assembly segments recorded less than 5 per cent voter turnout. Similarly, in the 2019 LS polls, the Srinagar LS seat recorded 14 per cent voter turnout, while it was 8.76 per cent for Anantnag constituency.

Excitement & realisation

But the situation has entirely changed in the 2024 elections.

Like Ahmad and his friends, excitement among the first-time middle-aged voters was palpable all around in the Kashmir Valley, reflecting a sense of participation in the democratic process. 

Riyaz Ahmad (41) a voter from Chitragram block, who showed up at a polling station on May 25 during the penultimate day of voting in the LS polls in J&K, said that he had been looking forward to the day for a long time.

Ahmad said that he voted to elect his own representative, who could voice the concerns of the local population.

“Since abrogation of Article 370, the region has been reeling under a bureaucratic rule and we wanted to have our own elected representatives,” Ahmad told businessline.

“There has been a larger realisation among the voters that boycotting polls is neither relevant nor a solution amidst a changed political landscape. Participation in the democratic process could lead to more accountability,” said a Valley-based political observer.

The improved security situation following the abrogation of the special position of Jammu and Kashmir on August 5, 2019, is also viewed as one of the key reasons encouraging people to vote.

Over the last 35 years of turmoil, both political parties and their supporters were systematically targeted and killed by militants. National Conference claims that nearly 4,000 workers of the party have been killed by militants during this long-drawn-out phase of militancy.

In the 2019 LS elections, militants killed a first time voter Irfan Ahmad (19)  in  Zainapora village, some  67 kms south of Srinagar, while injuring another for choosing to vote and participate in elections.

Aijaz Ahmad Mir, a former PDP MLA, who represented the Zaipora assembly segment, said that his party had borne the brunt of militancy.

“During the last LS elections, at least 50 workers of our party were tortured for participating in the electoral process”, he said.