Kashmiri Pandits flock to booths to vote for safe return to valley, more jobs

JAMMU — Despite a hot weather, Kashmiri Pandits from the Srinagar constituency flocked to special polling stations in Jammu on Monday and voted for the rehabilitation of their community on “social, economic, and political” fronts.

The community which was forced to flee from the valley in the early 90s under fear of militancy demanded their permanent return and rehabilitation with guarantee of peace and security.

Kashmiri Pandits lined up in long queues amid tight security to cast their ballots in the fourth phase of the Lok Sabha elections.

“I have voted for our permanent return to Kashmir valley in an atmosphere of peace and security. We have been waiting for the past 34 years to live in the valley. We hope this dream of ours will materialise now,” Om Prakash, who was carried on a wheelchair from his quarters in the Jagti migrant camp, said.

Forced to migrate with his family from the Pulwama area at the age of 47, Om Prakash said a return is needed to preserve the ancient civilization of Pandits in the valley.

“It is a human issue, not a political issue.”

Surinder Dhar, who cast his vote along with his wife at the Jagti polling station, said the community votes every time for a return to the valley but there has been no justice yet.

While Joyti Bhat said, “Every time, we vote with the hope of returning to our Kashmiri homes … This time too we voted demanding justice. We want our township in Kashmir.”

Anurodh Kaul, a first-time voter, expressed concern over the brain drain in the region and demanded restoration of peace in the valley so that youths don’t feel the need to escape.

“We voted to urge the government to take such steps promptly so that the community returns and grows back with peace and our civilization is saved. They should also ensure economic and political empowerment and create job opportunities in the valley,” Anurodh said.

Most of the Kashmiri Pandits said they have seen a change for good in the valley, which is seeing less militants and more tourists now.

“We have not received much from this government as a community. But we are happy to see Kashmir changing from the home of terrorism to a paradise for tourism for some time now. We hope that terrorism will be completely eradicated,” said Karan Zutshi.

Meanwhile, scores of Kashmiri Pandits were unable to vote due to their names missing from the electoral rolls.

“I came to the polling station with three members of my family to cast our votes despite such heat. We carried our EPIC (Voter ID) cards too. But we found our names missing from the electoral roll. It is a denial of our right to vote,” Veena, a resident of Jagti camp and a migrant from the erstwhile Habbakadal area of Srinagar Lok Sabha constituency, said.

She said what’s the use of the voter ID card if that is not enough.

“They (EPIC) should be cancelled by ECI. The government wants us to vote but at the same time has a process that denies us the right to exercise our franchise.” Avinash Raina and four of his family members, who hail from erstwhile Budgam area of Srinagar LS seat, also had to return without exercising their franchise.

“We came here to vote. We don’t figure in the voting list. What do we do now? Nobody is here to listen to us and resolve the issue,” he said.

Kuldeep Kumar and scores of electors from his colony too had to return without voting from a special polling station set up at the Agriculture office in Talab Tillo.

“We found here that over 20 people were barred from voting as their names were absent from the voter list. Despite having EPIC cards, they were denied voting. There should be a probe into it,” he said.

As many as 52,100 Kashmiri migrants are registered as voters from the Srinagar Lok Sabha constituency and there are 24 candidates in the fray.

Of the total voters, 25,760 are male and 26,340 are female, Assistant Electoral Returning Officer (AERO), Migrants, Dr Riaz Ahmed said.

Of the 26 polling stations set up for the migrants, 21 are in Jammu, four in Delhi, and one in Udhampur.

“We have set up 21 polling stations in Jammu. In view of the increase in voters, we have set up some more auxiliary polling stations. For the Srinagar constituency, we have increased them to 23 polling stations,” Ahmed said.

Polling is underway in the fourth phase of the Lok Sabha election in Kashmir’s Srinagar constituency on Monday, with nearly 17.48 lakh voters eligible to exercise their franchise to decide the fate of 24 candidates, officials said.

Voting began at 7 am at all 2,135 polling stations across the constituency, they said.

Srinagar is witnessing a multi-cornered contest with the National Conference fielding influential Shia leader Aga Ruhullah Mehdi and PDP its youth unit president Waheed Para, besides candidates from Apni Party, DPAP, and 20 others, including two women, in the fray. — (PTI)