With just nine days left for the District Development Council (DDC) elections to commence in Jammu and Kashmir, the Centre has issued orders to move an additional 25,000 security personnel to the Union Territory. In the Valley, candidates are being whisked away by the J&K Police to ‘cluster accommodations’ as soon as they file the nomination papers due to a perceived threat to their lives.
Senior officials in the administration argued that only those seeking protection were being housed in secure designated spaces. But candidates and political parties spoke with said they were being confined to these spaces against their wishes and this had severely restricted their movement and ability to campaign.
The additional troops being drawn from CRPF, BSF, CISF, ITBP and SSB were required given the security situation in the Union Territory and concerns that there may be attempts to disrupt the election process, sources in New Delhi said.
Candidates and mainstream parties, however, blamed the Centre and questioned the administration for holding them up in ‘cluster accommodations’ and not letting them venture out. For instance, two National Conference candidates from the Budgam district — Mohammad Ashraf Lone and Rayees Mattoo — who filed their nomination at Beerwah and Khag areas, respectively, said they were unable to campaign, and were put up in hotels in Srinagar despite their unwillingness.
The Indian Express visited the EDI Complex in Pampore on the outskirts of Srinagar city. It found many candidates across parties lodged there, with police personnel in uniform and plain clothes manning the gates. Those inside are under strict orders not to venture out; one complained he was not allowed to attend a party meeting the previous day.
On Wednesday evening, Omar Abdullah, Vice President, National Conference, questioned this, and said in a tweet, “What sort of elections are being held in J&K where candidates are being stopped from campaigning? Is this the safe, terror free J&K the Home Minister was tweeting about yesterday?”
The issue is not just about candidates in the seven parties that are part of the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD); candidates of the BJP also have been lodged in such “secure locations”. When contacted, BJP spokesperson Altaf Thakur, said, “Almost all our candidates are in secure locations.”
A senior government official told The Indian Express, “We cannot secure everybody. So keeping that in mind, those who want to be in secure locations are being moved. They will be allowed to campaign but keeping candidates safe is our priority.” The official said the decision is based on the “collective assessment of the district administration and the police”.
NC’s Beerwah candidate Rayees Mattoo said he filled the nomination form on November 16, and was sent to a hotel in Srinagar the same day with a police guard who had instructions not to let him out. “I am a candidate who is not being allowed to campaign; how is this a democracy?” he said. His constituency is approximately 55 kilometres from the hotel.
Khag candidate Ashraf Lone said the police sometimes sends one vehicle and asks all candidates in a location to travel to their constituencies in one vehicle and report back by 4 pm. “If they send me a vehicle by 12 noon or 1 pm, how do I go to 40 villages in my constituency and return by 4 pm. That too after picking other candidates from different areas.”
Polling in Beerwah and Khag areas is scheduled on December 1. Candidates said they were not allowed to campaign even in their own vehicles. “Not just our voters, this has our families concerned as well, because they fear we have been arrested,” Mattoo said.
A PDP candidate from Pulwama, who did not wish to be named, said he was asked to reach the police station from where he was brought to the EDI building. “They did not let me carry money or a change of clothes. There is barely any heating arrangement, and our families are worried,” he said.
An independent candidate from Hiller in Anantnag had similar concerns. Altaf Ahmad Rather, who has been put up in a hotel in the Pahalgam area said, “Since the time I have filed my application, I was taken to a police station by security officials and then to a hotel. I have been here since then with at least 20 other candidates from different parties.”
Altaf Rather rues he is not being allowed to visit his constituency and says “the people of my area insisted that I contest and that is why I filled the form. I would not be afraid to campaign among them. But, for now, that does not seem possible.”
In his tweet, Omar also said, “The J&K administration is going out of its way to help the BJP & it’s recently created king’s party by locking up candidates opposed to the BJP, using security as an excuse. If the security situation isn’t conducive to campaigning what was the need to announce elections?”
PDP President Mehbooba Mufti also tweeted, “Non-BJP candidates for DDC polls aren’t allowed to campaign freely & are being locked up on the pretence of security. But BJP & its proxies are given full bandobast to move around. Is this the democracy that GOI claimed its promoting in yesterday’s phone convo with US Pres elect?”
National Conference provincial President (Kashmir), Nasir Aslam Wani said, “So many of our candidates have told us that they are not being allowed to campaign while their competitors are. How do they go out to campaign when they are so restricted. I have raised this with the administration but I am yet to receive a response.”
The development comes in the backdrop of Union Home Minister Amit Shah describing the PAGD along with the Congress as the “Gupkar gang” that wanted to “take J&K back to the era of terror and turmoil”. The PAGD is a coalition of seven parties including NC, PDP, J&K People’s Conference and CPI(M) formed last month. These parties decided to contest the DDC polls together, uniting themselves against the BJP.
In a series of tweets Tuesday, Shah also called the alliance an “unholy global gathbandhan” which wanted “foreign forces to intervene in J&K”.
Mehbooba Mufti and Omar Abdullah had reacted sharply to Shah’s remarks. “Fighting elections in an alliance is also anti-national now,” tweeted Mufti. Omar called it Shah’s “frustration” as “he had been briefed that the People’s Alliance was preparing to boycott elections”, but “we didn’t oblige them”.
In the first phase of the DDC elections scheduled to be held on November 28, 167 candidates are in the fray from 10 districts in the Valley. In the second phase, 227 candidates have filed their nomination (subject to scrutiny) papers, and nominations for the third phase are still being received.
Sources in New Delhi said, “Some troops were withdrawn from Kashmir earlier in the wake of Bihar elections. Now they are returning. The rest have been drawn from deployment in various states,” an official said.
“The security situation is currently tenuous with Pakistan consistently trying to foment trouble in Kashmir since the abrogation of Article 370. There has been a rise in local recruitment. Terror attacks by foreign militants have also seen an upshot, even though stone-pelting and public protests have gone down considerably. There is always a threat to candidates in local body polls in Kashmir,” the official said.