At 9.15 am, before Sajad Lone set out for the polling booth, his mother hugged him as she prayed for his safety. It was after two decades that the separatist Peoples Conference had returned to an election. Whatever happens on May 16, Sajads contest, in itself, has given a rare legitimacy to the poll process in Kashmir.
In a black T-shirt and Oxford grey jeans, ringed by a group of enthusiastic young men, Sajad walked to Polling Booth No. 53, a dimly lit classroom in the Girls Higher Secondary School. The polling staff stood up to welcome him.
Hes no stranger here: Handwara was his slain father Abdul Gani Lones political bastion which elected a proxy fielded by the Peoples Conference to the Assembly in 2002.
But there was no proxy this time, the son had stepped in. We feel alive today, said one of Sajads two polling agents, 28-year-old insurance executive Waseem Ahmad Banday. The Peoples Conference has come back to life. I am from a traditional PC family, we have been with them all through these years.
Minutes later, when Sajad stepped out of the booth, he was hesitant to show the ink mark on his finger perhaps a hangover of the separatist taboo attached to voting. But pressed, he did show the mark. How do you feel voting the first time in your life
I put my hand on my heart, he said. Im convinced that what I am doing today is in the best interests of our people. It is a shift in strategy, not in ideology. I have only shifted to a different means to raise our issues. I will talk the same language inside Parliament that I have been doing all through.
The excitement in the polling staff was all too evident. This is his signature, said polling officer Ajaz Ahmad Mir, pointing to a scribble between thumb impressions at Serial Number 910. Said Mirs colleague Javaid Ahmad Khan: I have been assigned poll duty in almost every election since 1996. But this time, it is different. In previous elections, we would be scared to sit in this room, waiting for the evening to close polling. Today, everything is much more relaxed. Sajads entry has changed the story.
This was echoed by presiding officer Mohammad Hisam-ud-Din, a lecturer in botany, who said that because Lone was to vote here, it accelerated polling. Its 10 am and we have already polled 290 of the 969 votes here, he said. Sajads election symbol, a table, was sixth in the sequence of 13 contestants for this North Kashmir seat.
Sajads main rivals are veteran National Conference leader Sharief-ud-Din Shariq and Peoples Democratic Partys heavyweight Dilawar Mir. The Lone factor helped increase voter turnout substantially in this constituency which polled 40%. His political bastions of Handwara and Kupwara registered 67 and 50% each.
Lone admitted his decision to contest was prompted by the failure of his boycott call during the last Assembly elections. I cannot take humiliation from India and Pakistan who question my standing among my people every time I raise my voice, he said. If I win, I will be a legitimate representative of my people. Even if I lose, nothing will change. I will still represent those people who vote for me.
Sajad claimed the contest has rejuvenated his party structure. I have been holding rallies till 1.30 in the morning. This was unheard of in the last two decades.
A big chunk of Sajads new supporters are among the youth most of them first-time voters. He (Sajad) is the best orator we have, he is articulate and has ideas. If he goes to Parliament, he will effectively talk about the Kashmir issue, said 24-year-old Naseer Ahmad Banday.
However, there is little enthusiasm among the elderly who see Sajads move as one fueled more by ambition. A few miles from the booth, a group of elderly apple-growers soak in the sun.
I have been voting consistently since 1967. But nothing has ever changed in our lives. Our problems are still there, we dont have regular drinking water and electricity, said Ghulam Hassan Wani.
Shopkeeper Abdul Rashid Wani is bitter. During the Assembly election, he (Sajad Lone) gave a call for a boycott march and we were under curfew for eight days. Today he is seeking our votes. Which Sajad Lone should we believe he said.