x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Undeterred, Kashmiris head to polls

People in Indian-administered Kashmir clamoured to cast their votes despite separatists' calls for a boycott.

Kashmiri Muslims wait to cast their vote outside a polling station in Brakpora, south of Srinagar, India.
Kashmiri Muslims wait to cast their vote outside a polling station in Brakpora, south of Srinagar, India.

KAIMOH, INDIA // Dozens of policemen brought in to ensure violence-free voting at a local polling station in Indian-administered Kashmir were finding it difficult to control the crowd as everyone appeared to be obsessed with being the first to cast their ballot yesterday. The men in khaki occasionally raised their bamboo sticks to discipline the pack.

Abdur Rehman Lone, an elderly villager who watched the melodrama from a distance, said: "See, aren't they who had performed ragda ragda a few weeks ago?" He was referring to the anti-India protests that swept across the Kashmir valley recently. The staggered elections to the 87-member provincial assembly come after the largest protests against New Delhi's rule in decades in the Himalayan region. More than 50 people died in weeks of protests during the summer, most of them when Indian soldiers opened fire on Muslim demonstrators.

Apparently encouraged by the mounting anger among the local population, a committee set up by separatists asked people to boycott the elections on the premise that they cannot be a substitute to what they have been seeking - a referendum to choose between India and Pakistan or opt for independence from both. The committee also said that any participation in the elections would only strengthen India's hold on the disputed region.

But as in the previous phases, the people generally ignored the boycott call during the sixth phase of polling held yesterday. They headed to the polls in the tens of thousands. "Defying difficult heavy terrain and hostile climatic conditions, eager voters have once again reposed faith in the democratic fabric of the country," said a reporter with India's NDTV channel as it showed footage of long queues of voters.

The elections, which began on Nov 17, are being held in seven phases through Dec 24. The voting has been largely peaceful with a higher-than-expected turnout of more than 60 per cent of eligible voters. Each phase has seen scattered protests as happened in parts of southern Anantnag town yesterday. "Election is a regular feature in any democracy but the one election that draws maximum attention from within our country and the outside world is in the state of Jammu and Kashmir," said Pranab Mukherjee, India's foreign minister, at a press conference in Srinagar, the summer capital, on Tuesday.

Mr Mukherjee said it has been "quite encouraging" that large numbers of people had come out to vote in the previous rounds. "It shows people's faith in Indian democracy. We're really happy." Responding to reporters' questions, Mr Mukherjee also said his country would not go to war with Pakistan in the aftermath of Mumbai terror attacks but expects Islamabad to fulfil its commitments. "We want the terror infrastructure on Pakistani territory to be dismantled. We expect that good sense will prevail and we expect that the assurances that are coming [from Pakistan] will translate into action," he said. He also said the process that started in 2004 to seek normalisation of relations with Pakistan has "paused".

With the Kashmir issue once again in the news, Mr Mukherjee said: "I've mentioned it before and I say it again that Mumbai terror attacks have nothing to do with India-Pakistan relations vis-à-vis Kashmir. What we ask for is not about the issue of Kashmir but part of a global action? the war on terrorism. The world should not look at it through the prism of India-Pakistan relationship or through the prism of the problems we have in Jammu and Kashmir."

Officials said Mr Mukherjee was in Indian Kashmir primarily to meet the local leadership of his Congress party before yesterday's vote. However, local analysts attached great significance to the day-long trip as it came against the backdrop of the chill in relations between India and Pakistan. Muzamil Jaleel, Srinagar bureau chief of the Indian Express newspaper, said: "The real threat [after the Mumbai attacks] was the ceasefire [along the India-Pakistan borders] might end. The ground zero of India-Pakistan conflict is Kashmir and the recent turnout in elections has given New Delhi a rare opportunity to celebrate it. Now the foreign minister came here to send a message across to Pakistan that everything is going their way here and to take a moral high ground for not going to war on Mumbai."

Separately, Indian troops shot dead two suspected militants who were hiding out in the town of Melhurah in the Anantnag neighbourhood yesterday, a senior police official said. yjameel@thenational.ae