x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Kashmiri separatists call for poll boycott

Dissident leaders expected to be placed under house arrest as police and paramilitary troops gear up to prevent protests in the valley.

BANDIPORE, INDIA // Mohammed Iqbal Jan has languished in an Indian jail for the past two years for illegally transferring money to Kashmiri separatists. Back home, his six sisters are spearheading a door-to-door campaign seeking votes for him.

Jan seeks election as an independent member of parliament from his home constituency of Bandipore, which overlooks the world's second largest fresh water lake, Wullar, north of the capital Srinagar. Indian-administered Kashmir's 10 constituencies go to the polls today in the first of seven phased elections for 87 seats in the provisional assembly. The region's Muslim separatists are against the elections. They said any such exercise held under the framework of the Indian constitution was no substitute to the promised plebiscite.

Jammu and Kashmir has been in the grip of violence since 1989, when the separatists turned to the gun to fight New Delhi and the rebellion was met with a tough military campaign by India. The active hostilities have claimed thousands of lives, although violence started receding after India and Pakistan - which both claim Kashmir in its entirety and have fought two of their three wars since independence over the province - began a peace process in 2004.

"He decided to contest in the belief this alone may save him from the gallows," said Assadullah, a cousin who is helping Jan's sisters in garnering support for the "noble cause". It was at the insistence of a visiting lawyer that Jan decided to fight an election. The plea to voters has been that they would be giving the kiss of life to a "son of the soil" who has been incarcerated unfairly. Jan's relatives and friends claim that police picked him up and another Kashmiri, Mushtaq Ahmed Kaloo, during a business trip to the Indian capital in Nov 2006. The two owned a cooking gas distribution agency in the valley.

"Jan's case is a tip of the iceberg. There are thousands of innocent Kashmiris languishing in Indian jails. Back home, people are being killed on a daily basis, random arrests have become a routine, many have fallen victims to involuntary disappearances. The honour of our womenfolk is not safe either," said Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, a Muslim cleric and leader of a faction of the Hurriyat (Freedom) Conference, a separatist alliance.

The separatists and Muslim rebels oppose the elections, arguing they strengthen New Delhi's hold over the disputed region. A co-ordination committee of separatist groups has asked the people to march to Bandipore today as part of their anti-election campaign. N N Vohra, the state governor, said the separatists should have participated in elections to prove the elections were representative. "Elections are a means of setting wrongs, if any have been done, right," he said.

Though the authorities shrugged off the separatists' call for a poll boycott, saying it would have little effect, Indian police and paramilitary troops in battle gear were again out in Kashmir Valley to head off planned anti-election gatherings. Mr Farooq and other boycott campaigners were expected to be placed under house arrest before polling today, the officials said. Scores of other separatists have already been jailed for opposing the elections, at least 16 of them under the Public Safety Act, a tough law in the state since the 1970s. Under this law, a person can be detained for a period up to two years without a trial being initiated although such detentions are subject to periodical reviews by an official screening committee and can be challenged in open courts as well.

N Gopalaswami, India's chief election commissioner, said separatists have no legal or moral right to stop people from exercising their democratic right. "I assure people they will not be coerced into voting. The security forces and poll staff have been issued strict instruction to remain neutral but separatists can't stop people from voting," he said during a recent visit to Srinagar. In the past few months, Kashmir has witnessed the biggest pro-independence demonstrations since the insurgency erupted in 1989. The protests have been met with a military operation by Indian security forces that has left 50 Muslim protesters dead.

Mr Vohra and his aides hope the vote will see a high turnout. All the parties contesting elections broadly accept New Delhi's rule. However, almost all, including the National Conference and the People's Democratic Party, which have ruled the state in the past, assert that elections necessarily meant for forming a government at the local level will have no impact whatsoever on the issue of Kashmir.

"From day one, our plea has been elections should not be linked with the issue of Kashmir, which ought to be resolved by India and Pakistan," said Omar Abdullah, president of the National Conference, the region's oldest political party and which had supported Kashmir's accession to India in 1947. He said elected officials were in power to address the "day-to-day problems of people, not the Kashmir dispute".

In the past, separatist militants have attacked and killed scores of candidates and political workers, wrecked polling stations and attacked rallies to thwart elections. Turnout at elections since 1989 and the breakout of insurgency have been low. But this year, the United Jihad Council, a Pakistan-based alliance of militant groups, rejected the use of violence and instead encouraged a boycott of the staggered, six-week-long elections. The first phase of the campaign, which ended on Saturday evening, passed off peacefully but for a grenade explosion that injured a few people.

The mood of the voters in Bandipore in particular is defiant. A visit to the villages around this picturesque town revealed that rural Kashmir has never been as apathetic to elections as it is today. The candidates have not been able to hold many election rallies. Election posters dotting the outside walls of a cluster of houses and those pasted on electricity poles in downtown Bandipore have mud spread over them.

Since all the candidates and parties have been treated on par, it is not difficult to make out the elements hostile to elections are behind this deed. "Never mind ? This does happen in elections everywhere. Kashmir is not an exception," said Usman Majeed, a former militant turned politician, who is seeking re-election as an independent. Meanwhile, Jan, his sisters insist, is a victim of the antagonism that has plagued the region since 1947.

His election "manifesto", issued from Tihar jail outside New Delhi, is more of an appeal than the usual promises of a politician. "I'm an innocent implicated in a fake case which can result into my being awarded capital punishment," said a leaflet being distributed among residents of Bandipore. It seeks help from "all the sisters, mothers, fathers and brothers to vote in my favour thus ensuring release and avoidance of death penalty to an innocent youth".

* The National