In the frost-kissed hamlet of Chewa in northern Indian Kashmir, residents queue up at a secondary school to vote in local elections. “I have never voted before, this is the first time,” said Mohammed Afzal, 38, a painter.
But rather than exercising his political free will, Mr Afzal was casting the first ballot of his life out of fear. The elections, held last weekend, were for the district development council, a rung of local government introduced to the Jammu and Kashmir region by Narendra Modi, India’s Hindu nationalist prime minister.
New Delhi is trying to cast the election as an unofficial referendum on its efforts to bring the heavily militarised, Muslim-majority region under tighter central control and tried its best to make sure locals voted.
Mr Modi’s government last year stripped Jammu and Kashmir of its special status as a state and placed it under New Delhi’s direct rule as a so-called “union territory”.
His ruling Bharatiya Janata party maintains integrating Kashmir into the rest of the country will help end decades of conflict, a legacy of partition in 1947 when India and Pakistan went to war over the former Himalayan kingdom.
According to the BJP, the polls are proof that normalcy is returning to the valley, with each vote a tacit endorsement of the abrogation of 370, the article of the Indian constitution that gave the Jammu and Kashmir region limited autonomy.
But this is anathema to Kashmiris who say they are being subjugated by Mr Modi’s government. “Our basic demand is we want 370 back,” said Mr Afzal.
The Financial Time was part of a small delegation of international media invited to visit Kashmir last weekend on a tightly controlled, government-organised trip to cover the election. Foreign journalists have been barred from reporting in the region.
Critics said the elections for the 280-seat council, which brings together representatives from Jammu and Kashmir’s 22 districts, are an exercise in propaganda since the state legislature elections have been postponed since 2018 and the region has lost its statehood.
On Monday, the night before results were to be counted, one of the biggest political groups in Kashmir, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) said some of its senior leaders were detained. A local government official said about 40 politicians and activists were held by police on Monday evening on security grounds.
“It is a deep irony for India to call itself a democracy,” said Siddiq Wahid, a Srinagar-based visiting fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. “This is no different than Xinjiang in China.” Beijing has been accused of subjugating Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang.
Kashmir is “not at all” like Xinjiang, said a regional BJP spokesman. “Of course democracy is strong, we saw a more than 40 per cent turnout in Kashmir, people participated, that’s a fundamental requirement of democracy. Democracy is here.”
It had snowed in Srinagar, the region’s biggest city ensconced by forested mountains, just days before the election. The serenity of its main tourist attraction, Dal Lake, and its majestic chinar trees stood in contrast to the heavy military presence.
Soldiers with armoured vehicles were stationed on street corners, highways and hills, a reminder of the 1990s when an insurgency raged in the valley. Starved of tourists since abrogation, many shops were closed.
The BJP won three seats in Kashmir — a feat it has never achieved in any of Kashmir’s 10 districts — for a total of 74 in the whole region, according to the latest numbers on Wednesday morning.
The party was up against the Gupkar Alliance, a coalition of the established regional parties that amalgamated after abrogation, which promises to bring back Article 370 and won 100 seats.
Ghulam Mohammad Mir, a regional BJP spokesman, said even one seat in Kashmir would have been seen as victory for the party. “This is a new thing for Kashmir.”
It is dangerous to work in the Kashmir Valley for the BJP, whose policies critics say cater to the country’s Hindu majority, undermining Muslims and tarnishing India’s democratic credentials.
Mr Mir, 68, has four personal guards and seven more protecting his house. He said many party workers have been killed by Pakistan-sponsored jihadi groups.
Still, he said he was determined to “inculcate” Kashmiris with the party’s ideology and promised development to remedy unemployment in the state. Article 370 was never coming back, said Mr Mir. “No one on earth can restore it.”
Mainstream politicians used to straddle the middle ground between separatists and New Delhi. But the shock of abrogation and clampdown on dissent humiliated the local pro-India politicians.
Post-abrogation, the battle lines have crystallised: either you are with New Delhi or against it. “The Indian constitution does not permit separatism,” said BVR Subrahmanyam, Jammu and Kashmir administrator chief secretary. “Technically anyone in India who says Kashmir is a disputed territory is actually committing sedition, there is no doubt about that.”
Facing a powerful state and feeling betrayed by their politicians, Kashmiris are alienated and afraid. On the last day of the district polls, most people were wary of talking to the press, saying they feared retribution.
In some polling stations, there were twice as many soldiers as there were voters and the internet was shut off.
“For now the fight is about 370 but the ultimate goal is freedom from India,” said a manual labourer in Chewa. As he was talking, six troops walked over to monitor the interview, forming a ring around him.
Growing uncomfortable, he took his leave. “This is all a facade,” he said about the polls. “We have been living under oppression for so long and it will continue.”
With additional reporting by Muhammad Raafi