Why are Kashmiris voting in Indian election they’ve long boycotted?

The Modi government’s abrogation of Kashmir’s special status means many in the region see voting as the only way to be heard.

aheem Alam, a 38 year old web developer after casting his vote. Photo by Umer Asif
Faheem Alam, a 38 year old web developer after casting his vote in Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir, on May 13, 2024 [Umer Asif/Al Jazeera]

Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir – Haroon Khan huddled with his friends on the lawn of a polling station in the heart of Nowhatta, a part of the city of Srinagar that is known for its anti-India sentiments. Khan had just emerged from a small room after casting his vote in the ongoing parliamentary elections in India.

For years, most people in Indian-administered Kashmir have boycotted elections, which many here have seen as attempts by New Delhi to legitimise – using democracy – its control over a region that has been a hotbed of armed rebellion against India since 1989. Rebel armed groups and separatist leaders have routinely issued boycott calls ahead of every election.

Yet, as India votes in its national elections, that voting pattern is changing. Five years after the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi revoked the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, abolished its statehood, and brought it under the direct control of New Delhi, 21-year-old Khan and his friends outside the polling booth chose a new form of protest: voting.

“We have not achieved anything from boycotts or choosing other means [stone pelting] of protests to express our dissent,” Khan said. “Many of my friends, neighbours are languishing in jails for years now, nobody cares for them.”

Khan is not alone.

The Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley’s three seats in the lower house of India’s parliament, the Lok Sabha, have been given three different dates for voting in the elections. Srinagar, the only city that has voted so far – on May 13 – saw a 38 percent turnout for the region. That’s the highest voting percentage since 1989. The figure stood at 14.43 percent in the last elections in 2019.

That is no endorsement of India or its policies, say voters and local politicians. Instead, they say, it is a reflection of a dramatically changed political landscape in the region that they feel has left them with no other option to show their dissent against New Delhi.

 Long queues in Naira village of Pulwama district. Photo by Umer Asif
Long queues of voters in Naira village of Pulwama district in Indian-administered Kashmir, on May 13, 2024 [Umer Asif/Al Jazeera]

‘Choose those who can speak for us’

Kashmir is disputed by India and Pakistan, both of which claim all of it, and parts of which each controls. The South Asian neighbours have fought three wars over the Himalayan region.

Since 1989, when the armed rebellion against Indian rule broke out, tens of thousands of people have been killed. A massive Indian army presence oversees most aspects of life in the part of Kashmir controlled by the country.

Still, the special status that Jammu and Kashmir enjoyed gave it some autonomy: Outsiders could not buy land there, for instance.

The 2019 abrogation of Article 370 – the Indian constitution provision that gave that special status – changed that, and things have worsened since then, said Khan. The region’s legislative assembly has not had elections since then either, so many Kashmiris feel they have no voice at all in the policies that shape their lives.

“The purpose I voted today was to choose my local Kashmiri representative who can speak on behalf of us to India. I want my friends to be released from jails,” said Khan.

NC candidate Aga Syed Ruhullah in an election rally in Srinagar. Photo by Umer Asif
National Conference candidate Aga Syed Ruhullah in an election rally in Srinagar ahead of the May 13, 2024, vote in the city [Umer Asif/Al Jazeera]

Voting for the ‘lesser evil’

For the first time in decades, separatist leaders and armed groups have not called for an election boycott – most separatist leaders are currently in jail.

Meanwhile, since the 2019 crackdown, traditionally pro-Indian parties have become vociferous critics of New Delhi. Their leaders have been arrested, and they have accused India of betraying the people of Kashmir through the abrogation of Article 370. Parties that were once treated almost as sellouts to New Delhi are now seen as potential voices of the people, according to voters and analysts.

Faheem Alam, a 38-year-old web developer who cast his ballot in Srinagar’s city centre, Lal Chowk, said his vote was for a “lesser evil”, alluding to the BJP, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, as being the “bigger evil” compared with other political parties.

“I am voting for the INDIA alliance,” he said, referring to the grouping of opposition parties that is challenging Modi’s bid to return to power for the third time in a row. “I don’t like any political party, but I am casting my vote to keep the BJP at bay.”

Modi’s recent election speeches targeting Muslims – the prime minister described them as “infiltrators” and “those who have more children” – have added to Alam’s worries.

“Kashmir is Muslim-majority, but what is happening with Muslims in other states of India is appalling. Therefore, I came out to vote to save our region from the BJP,” he said.

Mainstream Kashmiri political parties have welcomed the shift in protest strategy, from boycotts to voting. Aga Syed Ruhullah Mehdi, the candidate of the National Conference (NC) from Srinagar, said Kashmiris had paid a price for the “criminalisation” of participation in elections over the years.

“All these years, the mainstream political parties have been discredited in Kashmir. Election participation was considered [a] sin,” Mehdi told Al Jazeera at his party headquarters in Srinagar. “Today, Kashmiris have lost their identity. We are being ruled by outsiders.”

Waheed ur Rehman Para, Mehdi’s rival from the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), agreed.

“People have now realised that [their] vote is a weapon,” Parra told Al Jazeera. “Today, there is a complete silence in Kashmir. People are even afraid of talking, but by participating in the elections, they have conveyed their dissent to New Delhi’s 2019 decision.”

Since the revocation of Article 370, the Modi government has imprisoned hundreds of human rights activists, journalists and political leaders, even placing restrictions on politicians from the NC and the PDP, which swear allegiance to the Indian nation.

Some 34km (21 miles) from Srinagar, in south Kashmir’s Pulwama – once an epicentre of armed uprising against Indian rule – people were queued up at the polling booths to cast their votes last Monday.

In the last parliamentary election, the Pulwama district, which falls in the Srinagar constituency, recorded just 1 percent polling in comparison to 43.39 percent this time.

Muneeb Bashir, 20, a computer science engineering student at AMC Engineering College in the southern Indian city of Bengaluru, is a first-time voter.

“We need young leaders to represent the aspirations of Kashmiri youth. The situation has changed here [in Kashmir] from boycotting days,” Bashir said, referring to fears that the BJP is trying to change the demographics of the Muslim-majority region by allowing people from other parts of India to buy land, take up jobs and settle in Kashmir.

Behind Bashir in a queue was 25-year-old Muneer Mushtaq. His reason to cast a vote for the first time was to save the “preamble” of India’s constitution, he said. That part of India’s fundamental law lays out the values at the heart of the modern Indian state – which it defines as a secular, socialist nation.

“It has been 10 years since Kashmir saw an assembly poll,” Mushtaq said, referring to the state legislature elections. “This vote is against the government of India.”

Unlike in the past, many women were also queueing up to vote.

Rukhsana, a 30-year-old voter from the village of Naira in south Kashmir, said her vote would help to release jailed youth in her village.

“There are lots of atrocities taking place in Kashmir. Our youth are jailed. I am sure if we have our people at the helm of affairs, our miseries will lessen,” she said.

Shopian, another district in southern Kashmir where armed groups have long had influence, also witnessed a 47.88 percent voter turnout compared with 2.64 percent in the 2019 general elections.

Rukhsana, third from the right, standing in a queue to cast her vote. Photo by Umer Asif
Rukhsana, third from the right, with the lavender head scarf, standing in a queue to cast her vote [Umer Asif/Al Jazeera]

Who’s to credit? And who’s to blame?

Taking to X, Modi and Indian Home Minister Amit Shah both credited the abrogation of Article 370 for the higher voter percentage in the Srinagar Lok Sabha constituency.

“Would especially like to applaud the people of Srinagar Parliamentary constituency for the encouraging turnout, significantly better than before,” Modi tweeted.

Modi reshared images posted by India’s Election Commission of long queues of voters in Srinagar.

Shah said the abrogation of Article 370 was a win for democracy in Jammu and Kashmir.

“The Modi government’s decision to abrogate Article 370 is showing results in the poll percentage as well. It has enhanced people’s trust in democracy, and its roots have deepened in J&K [Jammu and Kashmir],” Shah wrote on X.

“Through the surge in the poll percentage, the people of J&K have given a befitting reply to those who opposed the abrogation and are still advocating its restoration,” he added.

Yet, the BJP’s opponents point to the fact that the party has not fielded a candidate in any of the three Kashmir Valley constituencies – which experts say reflects their acknowledgement of the deep anger it faces in the region.

Sheikh Showkat Hussain, a political analyst, said that contrary to the BJP’s claims, it was actually “BJP-phobia” – built up also by the NC and PDP – that had made people vote in larger numbers this time than in the past.

At the same time, he pointed out, almost two-thirds of voters in Srinagar had still skipped the election, despite there being no boycott call. And the 38 percent voting percentage in the constituency is only about half of the 73 percent voting in 1984, the last national election before the armed rebellion broke out.

In Budgam’s Chadoora district, located about 14km (9 miles) from Srinagar, Inayat Yousuf, 22, cast his vote against “outsiders” taking over the reins of power in Kashmir. His worry: A giant majority for the BJP in the election could embolden it to change Kashmir in its image even more.

“The issues of development, jobs will always be there,” Yousuf said. “But this time, it is about our identity.”

Source: Al Jazeera