Thursday, January 8, 2009

Youth vote in Kashmir - for varied reasons


Mohammad Rizwan, 22, is inching closer to the Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) in Ganderbal to “choose the lesser evil”. Standing in the queue since morning, Javaid Ahmad Dar, 19, is out in the line to get his unemployed older brother a job. Twelve-year-old Yousuf Ahmad in Kangan town did not play cricket with his friends today, only to defeat the National Conference candidate.

In a free-for-all election in Ganderbal and Kangan today, young men vote with mundane expectations. Scores of teenagers, jostling and haggling in the long queues for polling admit that they were in the front rows of separatist rallies two months ago, shouting slogans and pelting stones. Few among them were hurt and even arrested by the security forces.

After the separatist call for a poll boycott, a low voter turnout was expected in the valley already seething with anger and swelling with peaceful pro-freedom protests. But, to everyone’s surprise, the voter turnout was huge- both in the first phase and today in the second phase. Mohammad Rizwan, an arts student, defends his decision to vote by saying that ‘even if no votes were cast, someone will still win’. “They (Politicians) are all social evils but we are here to choose the lesser evil,” says Rizwan. “Boycotting the conduction of elections was an option but not casting our vote makes hardly any sense now. Someone or the other will sit on our heads for the next six years, so why not choose the one who is at least better than the rest”.

To some young voters, these elections have nothing to do with the sentiment of Azaadi but are only a contest for choosing ‘better local administrators’. “Te election is only for local governance. We were leading in the pro-Azaadi protests and still stand fast for the freedom of Kashmir,” says 19 year old Javaid Ahmad Dar, standing in a polling queue at Rabitar village in Ganderbal. “We are only choosing a better administration. We need better drinking water, better roads and better education”.

Today, another reason which brought the young voters out is the presence of local candidates. The votes are either cast for or against the local candidates- who happen to be friends, relatives or neighbours of the voters - and not the parties they represent or their equations with the centre. It is either ‘sympathy’ or ‘hatred’ towards the local candidates which has brought young voters from playfields and separatist circles to the polling booths. “We know the candidate for whom we are going to vote. He is our neighbour and we cannot let some one else win and our neighbor loose,” says 18 year old Parvez Ahmad Najar, Kangan. “After all, our neighbour will still be helpful to us than someone we hardly know”.

The long lines everywhere are a mix of young and old. The youngest, however, are yet to reach 18 – the minimum age to exercise the right to vote. Thus Yousuf Ahmad, a class seven student tries to hide the faint fuzz of a moustache with the collar of his chequered black ‘phiran’. “I study in class 12,” says Yousuf in a creaking voice, his fair face and ears blushing. The others standing in the queue burst in a friendly laughter. “Tell him we study in seventh grade. We look our age,” says one of his classmates. Ahmad is one among hundreds of under-aged voters, waiting eagerly in queues. “I would rather have played cricket with my friends but I only want to defeat Mian Altaf- the NC candidate- because he did not do anything for us in the last six years,” Ahmad says.

Another reason for the youth voter turnout was after recent protests in the valley in which 53 unarmed protesters were killed in police and CRPF firing, people in the valley were disillusioned with the regular ‘chalo’ calls from the separatist camp. Some young voters say that they came out to vote today after Azaadi seemed a distant and dangerous dream which caused Kashmir hundreds of thousands of lives. “What Azaadi? How can we even think now that India will give us freedom? If they would have to do so, they would first wipe away half of Kashmir,” says Shugufta Yousuf, a college student. Dressed in a long ‘phiran’, with her index finger raised up in air, Yousuf shouts, “Franchise is my right and I will cast my vote for the improvement of my society and my life”.


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