Poll is now a battle of the bullies

In Kashmir, army thugs and rebel killers have voters in a painful vice.

India is the world's largest democracy, and its elections are certainly the longest. From April through May, the polls jumped across a chequerboard of states, through jungles in the far northeast to searing Rajasthani deserts, until the electoral process finally winds up on Thursday in the Kashmir city of Srinagar.

The new right-wing Hindu government of Atal Behari Vajpayee, sworn in on 16 May, may fall before the Kashmiris in this 2,300-year old Himalayan city get a chance to cast their vote. But few Kashmiris care about the political instability in New Delhi, as Mr Vajpayee's minority government totters and the centre-left parties prepare on Tuesday to give him a final shove.

A Kashmiri is more worried about ending up as a corpse floating in the watery maze of Srinagar's canals than about exercising his franchise. A six-year-long separatist uprising in this primarily Muslim state, which has already cost over 20,000 lives, is now reaching an ugly climax over these Indian parliamentary elections.

Voting was delayed in Kashmir until convoys of 100,000 extra security forces climbed the Jammu highway, with its hundreds of switchback curves, leading into this 80-mile long, jade-green valley crowned by mountain peaks. Around 300,000 soldiers and police were already in the Kashmir valley, but it wasn't enough, said Indian officials; Muslim insurgents had vowed to kill any Kashmiri whose thumb carried the telltale ink showing that he had voted. Candidates were also targeted. Few Kashmiris ever caught sight of the right-wing Hindu contestant; his campaign mobile, festooned with saffron-coloured flags, was an armoured jeep with gun slits.

Last Wednesday, a day before Baramulla and Anantnag voted, I toured these rural constituencies and could not find a single Kashmiri willing to vote. "If the militants find me with the ink on my thumb, they'll kill me. And if I don't vote, the soldiers may beat me up or shoot me dead," said one farmer shivering in the rain. "I might as well drown myself in my rice paddy."

Even without the threats, the Muslim majority in Kashmir wanted to boycott the polls. Since India's independence nearly 50 years ago, the Kashmiris, who speak their own ancient language and who look more Central Asian than Indian, have felt cheated by New Delhi. Kashmiris insist they were never given the right to choose whether this former Himalayan kingdom should remain as part of India or unite with Muslim Pakistan. (The Hindu and Buddhist minorities in Kashmir are content being inside India.) The Muslims want a referendum, supervised by international observers, in which a third choice is included: independence.

These parliamentary elections were dismissed by an overwhelming number of Kashmiris as a ruse, an attempt by New Delhi to show the outside world that Kashmiris, after a spasm of Muslim militancy, had abandoned their quest for freedom and re-embraced India. New Delhi has been stung by criticism from human rights groups and Western governments, Britain included, of the killings and atrocities carried out by its security forces.

Last Thursday the turnout was indeed high, around 43 per cent. But that was only because the Indian paramilitary forces beat, bullied and dragged Kashmiris to the ballot box. At a polling station about 15 miles north of Mirgun, I saw soldiers using their guns to prod along Kashmiris who had been driven from their village that morning to vote. Women, too, were forced to this polling station, in a mulberry farm, and made to squat in the rain while a soldier slashed at the air above them threateningly with a bamboo staff. The Indian authorities denied that any such irregularities took place.

It is unlikely that the security forces can use such systematic intimidation in Srinagar, a puzzlebox city of wooden houses, alleys and bridges whose 700,000 inhabitants have long given support and hiding to the Muslim insurgents. To protest against the elections, the people of Srinagar are closing down everything except the mosques in the three days leading up to the vote.

But the damage is done. Much as the Kashmiris have lost faith in the Muslim militancy, as indeed many have, India's attempts to rig the elections in its favour has revived the Kashmiris' distrust of New Delhi. It has also forced the Muslim insurgents to begin a deadly, new terror campaign: Kashmiri separatists last week took credit for planting bombs in a crowded marketplace and on a bus in Rajasthan, killing nearly 30 people. With India facing a string of quarrelsome minority governments in the months ahead, it is doubtful that any prime minister will emerge who can end the bloodshed in Kashmir.

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