Zangalpora, Kulgam: The militant diktat had kept almost all the villagers away from the polling booths on the day of elections in this nondescript village of south Kashmir. But one family of Zangalpora chose to defy the poll boycott call and exercise their democratic right. By the end of the day, only seven people had voted here. Five of them were family members of Mohammad Jamal Bhat.
That is the reason, villagers said on Monday, suspected militants barged into the home of Jamal, an activist of the Peoples Democratic Party, on Saturday evening and fired five bullets on him.
"He took the risk and voted. That is the reason he was killed. Why else would they kill him? He paid the price for upholding Indian flag in Kashmir," said Suhail Ahmad Bhat, 31, son of Jamal Bhat. "There is no other reason."
Bhat, 65, was a long time worker of the PDP, a political outfit that relies heavily on south Kashmir areas for its electoral fortunes. Now, with surging militancy and deteriorating ground situation, the party's leaders can't even visit homes of grassroots workers. Militant threats and anger against the party leaders have grown manifold in recent years.
As the situation started taking dangerous turns in recent times, Bhat changed his address on many occasions, only because he was working for a mainstream political party who have been targeted by militants with eerie regularity in the past three years.
He had finally found a home in Zangalpora village of Kulgam district. A single storied, half furnished house in the village illustrates the modest life of Bhat.
The junior Bhat said his father was having dinner when the suspected militants barged in and opened fire at his father inside their house. The son lives next to his father's house. "I saw my father in a pool of blood. When I looked at his wound, I knew he will not survive," Suhail said.
Since the new age insurgency struck the imagination of youth in the south Kashmir after the killing of Burhan Wani, more than a dozen mainstream political workers, cutting across the political spectrum, have been killed. Most of these killings have been blamed on separatist militants.
The fear had displaced thousands in a clear sign of shrinking space for mainstream politics in Kashmir. Many have taken refuge in well-guarded hotels in Srinagar, the capital.
Most of these political workers are from south Kashmir districts of Anantnag, Pulwama, Kulgam and Shopian which have emerged as the epicentre of the ongoing turmoil in Kashmir.
"The blood of mainstream political workers," says PDP's Najmu Saqib "nourishes the tree of democracy in Kashmir."
The volatile Kulgam district, which is part of Anantnag Lok Sabha constituency, recorded just 10.32 percent turnout amid large-scale mobilisation of security personnel and sporadic stone-throwing incidents near the polling booths.
Kulgam is one of the most highly affected districts in south Kashmir by militancy and many political workers and their families here have faced the brunt of the militants.
"He was not an informer. He was not a killer. He never asked anyone for money," said Suhail. "Is the freedom movement so weak that by casting a vote, someone will have to pay with his life?" he asked.
Initially, there was no contest on the Anantnag parliamentary seat as Mehbooba Mufti, the president of the Peoples Democratic Party, looked poised to win the seat. But a late entry by Congress' state chief Ghulam Ahmad Mir and the boycott of the party's main voting block pushed her into the corner.
In the last two weeks, two Peoples Democratic Party workers have been killed by unknown gunmen. The National Conference also has lost its workers to bullets of 'unknown gunmen' in southern Kashmir region.
In April, following the Pulwama suicide bombing, the state's home department had ordered the withdrawal of security cover of over 900 people. But after protests by many, the security cover was restored. However, while some privileged politicians and their activists may feel secure in the company of state's gun-toting men, it is impossible for the government to provide security to all political workers, especially those living in the villages who are more vulnerable to militants threats.
Early this month, Gull Mohammad Mir was campaigning for his colleague and BJP's candidate for southern Kashmir's Lok Sabha seat, Sofi Mohammad Yusuf when suspected militants stormed his house. He was shot him multiple times from point blank range. Mir was the fourth BJP worker to be killed in the south over the past 18 months.
"It is a price we are paying for the sake of democracy," Sofi Mohammad Yusuf, BJP candidate from Anantnag Lok Sabha constituency, said.