Kashmiri voters set to 'stay away in anger'

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The Independent Online
"The militants are pointing a gun at our heads and telling us not to vote or they'll kill us. The Indians are pointing an even bigger gun at our heads and telling us to vote - or else. What do we do?" asked an anguished Kashmiri policeman in Kokarnag, a village on the edge of the Himalayan forests. "I guess we listen to the man with the bigger gun."

This is democracy in India's troubled state of Kashmir, where Muslim separatists have vowed to kill anyone who votes today, and Indian security forces, all 400,000 of them, are using threats and harassment to drive Kashmiris to the polling booth for elections that nobody here wants.

A village of pastures and willow trees, Kokarnag has perhaps 2,000 registered voters. Now, Kokarnag has two soldiers for every voter. The Indian authorities insist it takes that much force to keep away the insurgents, since Kokarnag lies close to one of the forest routes used by the rebels and is a likely target for election sabotage.

But the people of Kokarnag and other villages in southern Kashmir said that the soldiers are there for another reason: to bully them into casting their votes. As one hospital orderly in Kokarnag said: "Yesterday the soldiers came to our houses and took our identification cards. They will use these ID cards to rig the results at the polling stations."

An extra 100,000 soldiers and police have been sent to the Kashmir valley, according to Kashmir officials. Smothered by such firepower, the Muslim militants so far have been unable to carry out their threats. Unable to strike in Kashmir, the insurgents may have fixed their sights instead on the Indian capital, New Delhi. An explosion, believed to have been from a car bomb, went off in a crowded marketplace on Monday, killing at least 24 people.

A Kashmir separatist group claimed responsibility for the blast, and authorities suspect the same group may have planted a bomb on a tourist coach yesterday in Mahua, Rajastan, killing at least 14 and wounding 33. The bus was travelling from Agra, site of the Taj Mahal, to Bikaur.

For nearly seven years, Kashmir has been torn apart by a Muslim separatist revolt. Throughout the uprising, the Himalayan state has remained under New Delhi's direct control without elected representatives. Past attempts to hold elections were always postponed; the majority of Kashmiris are Muslim and their support for the various insurgent groups was too widespread.

But with over 20,000 people left dead, and the militant groups split by treachery and different goals (some want to unite with Pakistan, others want independence), the Indian forces have nearly beaten the Kashmiris into submission. It was deemed safe enough to hold elections, and Indian authorities need a high turn-out to prove that once-wayward Kashmiris are now content with Indian rule. If polling today is fair, insist Kashmiris, nearly all voters will stay away in anger.

The Indians do not care who the Kashmiris vote for as long as they vote. Nor are the Indians unduly concerned how the 52 candidates running for three parliamentary seats lure out the voters. Several candidates belong to Kashmir counter-insurgency groups, called "renegades" here, which are supported by the Indian army. The renegades' idea of free and fair campaigning is to hold up 15 or so coaches on the highway at gunpoint and force the passengers to attend their rallies.

Despite such coercion, most Kashmiris run the other way when a candidate comes by. Contesting politicians are likely to arrive in a bullet-proof car accompanied by a motorcade of 20 jeeps stuffed with troops. In Gunderwal, a village by the Sindh river where people pride themselves on their rose gardens, a student said: "When we heard that one of the renegades was staging a rally here, many people fled into the fields."

The most notorious renegade, Kukka Parray, is notstanding for election himself. Throughout the rise and fall of the Muslim militancy, Parray has undergone startling transformations. A folk-singer popular at weddings, Parray gave up his microphone for an AK-47 and joined a pro-Pakistan insurgent group. After a feud, he set up a counter-insurgency group, backed by the Indians, and hunted down his former comrades.

Parray has done much damage to the Muslim insurgents. Not surprisingly, they want to kill him. Parray's deputy commander, Javed Shah, is running as MP for Srinagar, the Kashmir capital, and may win.

Indian authorities seem to forget that the uprising in Kashmir began in 1989 in protest against elections which New Delhi tried to rig. These polls, which most Kashmiris would boycott if they were given the liberty to do so, will only quicken their resentment against India.

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