Police fired tear gas and clashed with protesters today in Indian Kashmir, where tens of thousands of soldiers were deployed for the seventh and final leg of multi-stage state elections. At least 20 people were injured in the violence between the security forces and anti-poll demonstrators in the Kashmiri summer capital Srinagar, where voter turnout was low in line with a boycott call by Muslim separatist groups.
Around 30,000 troops were deployed on the streets of the city, which has long been the hub of a 20-year insurgency against Indian rule in the Muslim-majority region. Another 20,000 soldiers patrolled the districts of Jammu and Samba, where balloting was also taking place. "I fail to understand if the Indians are holding elections or going to war," Mohammed Hafiz, 60, of Srinagar.
Indian Kashmir has been under federal rule since July following the collapse of the state government over a land row that triggered a revival of anti-India demonstrations. "We are for freedom from India. We will never take part in Indian-held elections," said engineering graduate Idrees Shangloo, one of many who stayed away from the polling booths. Despite the boycott call by separatists and armed rebels, who argue that the polls confirm India's hold over the disputed region, voter turnout in the first six rounds stood at more than 50 per cent.
The elections had to be held in multiple stages to ensure security in the Himalayan region, where at least 47,000 have been killed in violence linked to the insurgency. Mehraj-u-Din, who did cast his ballot in Srinagar, said he was motivated by local issues. "I have voted for a candidate who can develop our area," he said. Kashmir is divided into Indian and Pakistani-controlled zones and has been the trigger for two wars between the South Asian rivals since independence from Britain in 1947.
The elections come at the end of a year in which huge pro-independence demonstrations in Indian Kashmir left more than 50 Muslim protesters dead, many killed when government troops fired to disperse protests. Anti-India sentiment runs deep in Srinagar, where authorities have imposed strict security clampdowns and curfews since the protests began. Scattered anti-election protests were held overnight and former chief minister Farooq Abdullah and his politician son Umar Abdullah escaped unhurt when protesters pelted their motorcade with stones, police said.
Shops and businesses were shut and the streets were empty, even after voting ended. Security was also tight in Jammu after police said they had foiled a major suicide attack with the arrest of three Islamist militants, including one alleged Pakistani soldier. A senior Pakistani military official said the man was an army deserter who left his post in 2006. Police said the militants had confessed under interrogation to planning to drive a lorry laden with explosives into a "vital installation".
The Mumbai attacks in which 172 people were killed ? including nine militant gunmen ? have been blamed by India on the Lashkar-i-Taiba militant group, which is fighting Indian rule in Kashmir. *AFP