Fresh clashes herald Kashmir election

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The Independent Online

Indian and Pakistani forces exchanged fire across their border yesterday as campaigning for the first stage of Kashmir's violence-racked election entered its last day.

Indian and Pakistani forces exchanged fire across their border yesterday as campaigning for the first stage of Kashmir's violence-racked election entered its last day.

Rain dampened campaigning and headed off more protests after police fired tear gas and used batons to disperse anti-Indian demonstrators in Srinagar, the main city in Jammu and Kashmir state, on Friday. They were protesting against the killing of two civilians by security forces the night before. Shops have remained closed in the area where the shootings took place, and security is tight: some 45,000 extra personnel have joined 450,000 soldiers, police and paramilitary troops already in Kashmir.

Voters begin going to the polls tomorrow, but the election is being held in stages over four weeks to try to contain violence. At least 150 people – including a local cabinet minister – have been killed since campaigning began in late August. Islamic militant death squads who oppose India's rule strike daily at candidates and the security forces guarding them. The militants want Indian-controlled Kashmir to be part of Pakistan, and their uprising has left 60,000 dead since it began in 1989.

Partition in 1947 left Kashmir divided between India and Pakistan. Each claims the whole of the Himalayan territory, a dispute which has caused two full-scale wars and countless border skirmishes. Now that both Delhi and Islamabad openly possess atomic weapons, Washington and the United Nations both consider Kashmir a dangerous nuclear flashpoint.

Since the September 2001 attacks on the US launched the "war on terror", both India and Pakistan have been competing for US approval. "We have huge interests in this," said an American diplomat. "We need Pakistan on our side, but we need to keep India sweet – not least because it's a democracy and these Islamic militants in Kashmir might as well be al-Qa'ida. We support these elections. We are against violence."

The Kashmir poll is being presented as the most important since the insurgency began, and India wants a high turnout to bolster its legitimacy in the country's only Muslim-majority state. "We have to outgrow the past," argues Omar Abdullah, candidate for chief minister of the state and scion of a Kashmiri dynasty that has long had an uneasy – sometimes outright hostile – relationship with Delhi. "We need peace, we need development and we need autonomy [from India]." His father, the current chief minister Farooq Abdullah, was a GP in the London suburb of Uxbridge for 18 years of political exile in the 1960s and 1970s.

For the first time, not all anti-India parties are refusing to stand for the local assembly, but most moderate separatists, as well as the militants and Pakistan, dismiss the election as rigged and a farce. Polls on both sides of Kashmir's dividing line are routinely disrupted by violence or manipulated by the governments in Delhi and Islamabad. The main anti-Indian alliance of some two dozen organisations, the All Parties Hurriyat (Freedom) Conference, has urged Kashmiris to boycott the election and called a state-wide protest strike tomorrow.

Such strikes are commonly observed, as much out of a general fear of violence as support for the action. The result is likely to be a lacklustre turnout that will help neither India nor Pakistan.

Pakistan insists it gives the militants only "moral, diplomatic and political" support, but Amitabh Matoo, a political analyst in Delhi, retorted: "There's nothing moral or political about arming and training madmen and sending them to kill civilians." At the UN on Friday the Indian Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, said: "If the elections are a mere fraud, why are terrorists being trained and infiltrated into India ... to kill election candidates and to intimidate voters?"

Pakistan replies that the hundreds of thousands of Indian soldiers in Kashmir are an occupying force which violates international law and the human rights of civilians.

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