Indian voters defy violence in world's biggest poll

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The Independent Online

There have been landmine explosions, an acid-throwing attack and a death threat against anyone who dares to vote. And that was before polls even opened. But it did not prevent millions of Indians turning out to vote in the world's biggest ever election.

There have been landmine explosions, an acid-throwing attack and a death threat against anyone who dares to vote. And that was before polls even opened. But it did not prevent millions of Indians turning out to vote in the world's biggest ever election.

Over the next three weeks, 660 million Indian voters will be able to have their say in the country's government. In Anandvan, north of Bombay, volunteers even carried 1,500 lepers to polling booths so they could cast their votes.

But this extraordinary display of democracy has a dark side, too. Militant groups have been demanding a boycott of the vote. At least 16 people were killed in attacks across the country yesterday, and three politicians have narrowly survived assassination attempts.

At least four of the dead were killed in Kashmir. Islamist militants have ordered Kashmiris to boycott the vote, saying elections are not a substitute for resolving the Kashmir dispute.

In the north-eastern state of Manipur, separatist guerrillas have threatened to kill anyone who turns out to vote. The militants killed four soldiers yesterday, and kidnapped 30 election officials.

It is not only militants and rebel groups that are responsible for the violence. In the southern state of Karnataka, a local party official was badly burned on Monday when a group of people, believed to be political rivals, threw acid over him. The attack was the result of a quarrel over one party removing another's banners.

Eight people were killed in the eastern states of Bihar and Jharkhand, where Maoist guerrillas have ordered locals not to vote. One voter, a magistrate, a polling agent, a national guard reservist and two police officers were killed, as well as two of the rebels. On Monday in Bihar, a politician narrowly avoided assassination when four people tried to run him over.

In the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, the leader of a state party survived when rebels detonated a landmine as his car passed. Yerran Naidu was left with a hairline fracture of his spinal cord.

In Kashmir yesterday, the head of the pro-India National Conference Party, Omar Abdullah, escaped when a landmine exploded just after his car had passed.

Asiya Jeelani, a 24-year-old freelance journalist and human rights activist, was not so lucky. When her car hit a landmine yesterday she and the driver were killed. Six other journalists and election monitors in the car were injured. Two police officers guarding polling stations were killed before voting began.

Violence is not new at Indian elections. At least 35 people died in elections in 1999, and 64 in 1998. But the sheer scale of this year's elections, with voting staggered across five different dates to cope with the logistics, means that there is more risk of violence than ever.

Thousands of soldiers will be on duty to protect voters on each of the four main polling days - only a handful of constituencies are voting on a fifth. Surveillance aircraft flew over the wilder states to keep an eye on polling stations - some of them so remote election officials had to reach them by elephant.

Millions voted despite the threat of violence. Although turn-out was low, it was blamed on the heat, with temperatures reaching 45C in some areas.

Television exit polls gave the Hindu nationalist coalition of the Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the lead after yesterday's votes, projecting his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies would win between 78 and 93 of the 140 seats contested yesterday. The main opposition Congress Party of Sonia Gandhi was trailing with between 44 and 55 seats.

The exit poll matched earlier predictions - but exit polls are not always reliable in India.

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