Voters stand in a queue to cast their vote  at a polling station in Kathua district of J&K

Voter turnout may have been dismal in Kashmir but Lok Sabha polls passed off without any major incidents of violence, thanks to a slew of security measures

Srinagar: An unprecedented three-phase election in south Kashmir, clubbing of poll booths, special deployment of troops, a transport plan and mobilisation in local communities all contributed to the largely peaceful Lok Sabha elections in Jammu and Kashmir.

Unlike in previous years, the five-phase Lok Sabha elections in J&K, which concluded on 6 May, were by and large peaceful even though they were marked by a dismal voter turnout. There were sporadic instances of violence but no major incident was reported.

Security agencies had been concerned about holding elections in the Valley in wake of the Pulwama attack on 14 February and the heightened tension with Pakistan following the Balakot air strike on 27 February.

The apprehension had also been fuelled by the violence that marred the previous elections in the state — the by polls for the parliamentary constituencies of Anantnag and Srinagar in April 2017. Eight civilians were killed amid massive clashes that engulfed Srinagar on 9 April 2017, when polling was held for the constituency. It had prompted the Election Commission (EC) to suspend elections at Anantnag indefinitely.

Work Began Four Months Ago

Security forces in Kashmir, particularly the J&K police, began work on the elections nearly four months ago in January. The police began by forwarding a proposal, containing security measures that needed to be taken in the year and during the polls, to the state and the central administration.

The marked differences in the 2019 proposal were in the “transport plan”, “special deployment of troops” and “mobilisation in local communities”. Two other suggestions floated by the security forces, that were eventually adopted by the Election Commission of India, were holding of three-phase elections in Anantnag in south Kashmir, the hotbed of militancy, and the clubbing together of polling booths.

Both moves were intended to concentrate deployment of troops in key areas as well as removing some of the most volatile places from hosting the booths.

“The violence during the by poll election had raised a lot of concern within the security set-up. We did not want the scenario repeating itself this year and hence took a series of steps to ensure a peaceful election,” said IPS officer S.P. Pani, who took over as Inspector General of Police (IGP) Kashmir Range in February last year. “The results are there to seen and judged by anyone, but there is always scope for improvement.”

Officials said an elaborate election plan was drafted, especially for south Kashmir where 90 per cent of the polling booths were declared “hypersensitive”. In the Anantnag segment alone, 200 militants were killed in gun battles between 2017 and 2019 and 138 youth joined militant groups in the same period, according to officials.

Pre-Election Mobilisation

The three constituencies in the Valley — Baramulla, Anantnag and Srinagar — were first evaluated for their threat level, said a senior police officer.

“The three constituencies were divided based on threats posed by militancy and civilian protests,” the officer said. “In Baramulla, the threat level on both fronts was moderate. In Srinagar, the militant threat was moderate but the civilian protest threat was high. In south Kashmir, both kinds of threats were high.”

The J&K police initiated the police-community iterations couple of months ago in a bid to instill confidence among people as well as ensure some sort of guarantee that the elections will be allowed to go smoothly.

Officers from the police as well as the CRPF had a major role to play in this.

Senior paramilitary officers, who were brought in during the unrest following the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani, took the lead, said IG CRPF Zulfikar Hassan.

Massive Troop Deployment

According to officials, nearly 35,000 to 40,000 troops were posted in the Valley for election duty, the highest in the country, and due to the sensitive situation, most of them were those “familiar” with the terrain.

“The CRPF formed the major component of troops posted for election duties here. We were of the view that troopers brought to Kashmir specifically for election duties should have some familiarity with the terrain,” said CRPF IG Hassan.

“Kashmir is not like any other part of the country and situation can change at any given time. So we recommended troopers who were posted in the region during the 2014 elections be brought back to perform election duties as they would be familiar with the place and take less time to acclimatise.”

The next step was the actual deployment of forces when the days of polling neared. And in another unprecedented move, part of the transport plan, security forces used smaller private vehicles instead of government buses to travel to the extremely volatile belts in south Kashmir.

“Around five-six belts are considered extremely volatile and for these areas, big buses were avoided,” said IG Pani. “One, we wanted the deployment to be a bit more discreet and two, big vehicles are more vulnerable to stone pelting.”

In the last leg of the polls, the election staff along with EVMs for 39 polling stations in Anantnag were airlifted in helicopters from the district police lines in Shopian and dropped off at Zainapora sub-division.

While the security forces banked heavily on the newly-introduced measures, the conventional tricks of the trade were also followed — including a massive crackdown in south Kashmir. More than 300 youth were detained ahead of the polls in Pulwama and Shopian.

“The detentions take place based on adverse reports about the concerned individual trying to foment trouble,” another senior police officer said, requesting anonymity.

The End Result

Even though the election did remain largely peaceful, both phase one and phase two witnessed 35 to 40 violent incidents. South Kashmir witnessed 15 to 20 violent incidents in each of the polling phases.

Barring the killing of a youth in Handwara of North Kashmir, however, the situation remained largely under control.

Although the elections were a success for security forces, they should have the political class worried.

In Kashmir, the total polling percentage stood at 19.12 per cent as compared to 30.95 per cent in 2014 and 31.13 per cent in 2009. The highest voting was at Baramulla with 34.90 per cent, followed by Srinagar (14.27 per cent) and Anantnag (8.76 per cent).