Kashmiris vote at the point of India's guns

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In the old Kashmir town of Baramulla, the Indian army obliged people with a 5am wake-up call so they would not forget to vote in yesterday's elections. It was not a courtesy call but a threat.

Armed soldiers filed through the rainy alleys of Baramulla, forcing their way into the cedar-beamed houses and dragging people from their beds. "They took down my name and said that if I hadn't cast my vote by 5pm, they would beat me so hard that my face would be unrecognisable," said one bearded youth afraid to give his name.

But when polls opened at 8am, the expected queues of eager Kashmiri voters had failed to appear. So the soldiers went back. This time they used their rifle butts and bamboo sticks to herd the people through the mud like frightened animals. One grizzled man held out his thumb, marked with an indelible stain by the polling officers which showed he had voted. He was relieved but bitter.

"The army said that if I didn't come back with this ink on my thumb, I'd be shot dead. But none of us wanted these elections. We want freedom from India," said the old man. The crowd pressing in on us shouted "Azadi! Azadi!" (Freedom). But the Kashmiris were forever glancing down Baramulla's empty lanes to see if an army patrol was rounding the corner.

The army's coercion in Baramulla, was not a single, ugly incident. Throughout Kashmir valley, systematic use of intimidation and vote-rigging was carried out by Indian authorities. When an Indian polling officer, Jalil Khan, told a news conference that yesterday's elections in Kashmir were "free of irregularities", he was met with loud jeers.

Everywhere, from Baramulla to Anantnag in southern Kashmir (the capital Srinagar votes on 30 May), the story was the same: Indian soldiers and police forced the Kashmiris to vote. It was a fraud of careless transparency and brutality, one that has convinced many Kashmiris that Indian democracy, at least in this troubled Himalayan state, is only a sham. Electoral rolls were doctored; army officers admitted they were under orders to ensure a high turnout; and at several polling stations I saw Kashmiri counter- insurgents, backed by the Indian army, bullying people to vote for their candidate.

Authorities insisted that the extra security precautions were needed because Muslim insurgents, who have been fighting a six-year long war against India, were trying to sabotage the polls. A three-day ban called by the militants to protest against these elections was enforced throughout the 80-mile long Kashmir Valley. Since independence, Kashmiris claim India has denied them the right to choose whether to remain in India or join their fellow Muslims in Pakistan.

Given a choice, most Kashmiris now would prefer a third option: Azadi. These parliamentary elections, many Kashmiris believe, will be used by New Delhi as an excuse to prove that Kashmiris have abandoned support for the Muslim separatists and are once again happy to be part of India. Polling officers boasted that voter turn-out was a high 43 per cent. Many voters claimed that, in anger, they spoiled their ballot by stamping all the party symbols: the hand, the boat, the lotus, the bicycle, and the bow and arrow.

In Baramulla, people resisted as long as they could. A thousand of them marched across the bridge spanning the Jhelum river. They were fired on with tear gas by paramilitary police and beaten with clubs. Still they refused to vote. It was only after an army officer, Major Sanjiv Kapoor, rounded up more than 50 children and kept them under arrest until mid- afternoon that their parents, defeated, went to the polls.