SRINAGAR, India -- Unfazed by the harsh winter, voters from a village in north Kashmir patiently waited at a polling booth one December morning to cast their ballot in the region's first elections since its special status was revoked by the Indian government last year.
"I'm voting for better roads, water and electricity in my area, but I will not support the BJP," said Khizar Mohammad Butt, 65, speaking Urdu in Chewa village about 55 km from Srinagar, the main city. Butt was waiting outside a voting station set up in a state school, and his ire was directed at Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party.
The erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir was voting for district development councils over a number of days between Nov. 28 and Dec. 19. This was the first election since the special status allocated to it under a temporary provision of the Indian constitution -- Article 370 -- was scrapped by the Modi government in August 2019. After the special status was revoked, the state was split into two federally governed territories, and that saw the deployment of thousands of security personnel, suspension of internet services, and the detention of politicians and activists.
Many voters in Chewa supported either independent candidates or a grouping of regional parties known as the Gupkar Alliance, which was formed with the aim of restoring Article 370. That, however, is an issue the local polls play no role in addressing since the elected representatives have no legislative authority. Their role is to promote local development and to improve the lives of locals. The latter remain upset over the scrapping of Article 370, which enabled the region to frame its own laws and barred people from other parts of India from buying property there.
"These DDC polls have written a new chapter," Modi said on Saturday. He noted that young and old voters had queued for hours to vote despite freezing temperatures and the COVID-19 pandemic. "People of Jammu and Kashmir have further strengthened the roots of democracy," he said.
The polling was for 280 seats spread over Hindu-majority Jammu and Muslim-majority Kashmir, which has suffered from militancy for over 30 years. The process was held in eight phases amid heavy security.
Vote counting finished on Dec. 22, with the BJP winning over 70 seats, mostly in Jammu, and three seats in Kashmir -- its first-ever wins there. The Gupkar Alliance secured more than 110 seats, including over 70 in the Kashmir Valley. The BJP emerged as the single largest party, but the Gupkar Alliance -- whose constituents were once rivals -- collectively won the most seats.
Ahead of the final result, BJP regional spokesman Ghulam Mohammad Mir, 68, said Modi's party is "only in a takeoff stage" in the Kashmir Valley, and that winning even a single seat is "enough for us."
"Let people come and vote against us," Mir told a group of foreign media journalists.
While the Hindu-centric BJP hailed the vote as a victory for democracy, some opponents claimed they were illegally detained and barred from canvassing -- charges that the BJP and local officials denied.
Mehbooba Mufti, vice president of the Gupkar Alliance, called the BJP and its proxies "sore losers" and accused them of having "resorted to abducting independents" who won local elections. "They are shamelessly using all means to increase their tally," she tweeted. "This isn't dance but death of democracy in J&K."
The intermittent internet ban in the Kashmir valley -- which authorities say is to disrupt terrorist communications -- has also alienated local youths. "Can people in cities like Delhi and Mumbai stay without internet for even a minute?" one asked. "Now we have 2G internet services in many areas, while 4G is working in two districts, but we don't know when that will be cut."
Although Article 370 appeared to weigh heavily on the minds of voters, especially those who were illiterate or working as laborers, others felt the focus should have more been on social and economic development. According to a 22-year-old woman living near Srinagar, tensions have been kept high by "regional mainstream parties, Kashmiri separatists and Pakistan, which has been backing militancy here."
"Everybody here is politically conscious, but no one talks about the disparities women face in education and within their own families, where males are given preference," she said.
According to Chief Secretary BVR Subrahmanyam, the territory's top official, the overall turnout was 51%. In Kashmir alone, about 34% of those eligible cast votes -- almost double that seen in parliamentary elections last year.
Fear of militants has kept most voters home in previous polls. Despite the improved turnout, it ranks far behind local elections elsewhere in India, where between 60% and 90% is normal. That indicates an ongoing low level of trust in politicians and officials.
"I could have become a militant," said Javed Beigh, 30, a losing candidate with a subregional party in the Beerwah area. Beigh was among political activists held under the Public Safety Act, a detention law imposed after the scrapping of Kashmir's special status. He said he was kept in a tiny cell in the city of Varanasi in the state of Uttar Pradesh for ten months without being informed of his alleged crime.
"But my ideology is peace based, so I came back and started afresh," said Beigh. Interestingly, he remains a vocal critic of Article 370, which he described as a toothless provision that did not benefit Kashmiris. "Good governance has been a dream for Jammu and Kashmir, which lacks basic infrastructure," he said of the past 70 years.
Irrespective of what many others in Kashmir may desire, the region's former semi-autonomous status is unlikely to be restored. "Nobody returns alive from their grave," Shahnawaz Hussain, a BJP leader who was responsible for the recent election, said in Srinagar last month. "Similarly, Article 370 has been buried and will never be restored."
As long as a Modi-led BJP controls the central government and maintains its majority in parliament, demands for the restoration of Article 370 can be ignored. What the BJP can do locally, however, is choose leaders who work hard for ordinary Kashmiris and promote a more comfortable living environment.