Turning out

By Saima Bhat and Shahid Tantray

19 January 2015

In Kashmir Valley, voter participation at recent Assembly polls was driven by an overriding imperative.
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Female voters waiting in queue outside a polling booth in restive Lolab Valley. Click to see more.

Female voters waiting in queue outside a polling booth in restive Lolab Valley.
Text by Saima Bhat and photos by Shahid Tantray.
See all the photos.

Jammu & Kashmir’s 2014 State Assembly elections witnessed a significant voter turnout. As per the Election Commission of India, the total turnout of the five-phase Assembly elections was recorded to be 65 percent, the highest in the last 25 years. Though voter participation has risen in recent years, it is yet to reach the 75 percent recorded in 1987, when a deeply flawed electoral process precipitated the onset of the armed separatist insurgency.

Elections in Kashmir have long held deep symbolic importance. Mainstream parties campaign on developmental issues and good governance, but their efforts are often interpreted as reinforcing the virtues of Indian democracy and the place of J & K within the Union. For this reason, separatist groups have consistently boycotted the electoral process and urged voters within the Valley to do the same. At recent Assembly elections the trend changed, as did the public statements of separatist leaders.

Hard-line separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani has, for many years now, been intransigent in his opposition to participating in the electoral process. This time around, however, Geelani’s boycott calls were muted, and limited to statements urging shutdowns in poll-bound areas.

Geelani’s greater flexibility reflected that of other, more moderate, separatist leaders, including Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, who says participation in elections is a ‘non issue’ for him, and that if elections are a means to achieve better governance then he has no problems with it.

Rather than a vote for Indian democracy or better governance, for many in Kashmir Valley, the decision to turn out in 2014 was in fear of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) attempt to win 44 or more seats in the 87-seat Assembly. The increased participation paid dividends for those opposed to the BJP and its much-hyped mission 44+: the party failed to win any seats within the Valley. In Jammu, however, the party improved 14 seats on its 2008 performance, winning a total 25 seats out of a possible 37.

Soon after results were out, a hung assembly was declared, with the BJP and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) obtaining a total of 25 and 28 seats respectively. The National Conference managed 15 seats while the Congress won just 12. The BJP got its entire seat share from the Jammu region, while the PDP got its share mostly from the Valley, with a few seats from Muslim-dominated areas in the Jammu region. Both parties poached seats previously held by the incumbent National Conference. A government is yet to be formed, and governor’s rule has been announced. While increased voter turnout prevented the BJP making inroads in the Valley, the party’s arrival in J & K politics, if not government, has announced itself. 

~ Shahid Tantray is a Kashmir-based photojournalist. His work, which focuses on conflict and social issues, has appeared in both national and international publications. He tweets @shahidtantray.
~ Saima Bhat is a Kashmir-based journalist. She tweets @saimabhat.


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