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.

News
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
science
News
Richard Dawkins dedicated his book 'The Greatest Show on Earth' to Josh Timonen
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Extras
indybest
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Travel
Dinosaurs Unleashed at the Eden Project
travel
Arts and Entertainment
music
Sport
football
Life and Style
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the first online sale
techDespite a host of other online auction sites and fierce competition from Amazon, eBay is still the most popular e-commerce site in the UK
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, Graduate, SQL, VBA)

£45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, ...

Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Perl, Bash, SQL)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Per...

C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB6, WinForms)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB...

C# Developer (Genetic Algorithms, .NET 4.5, TDD, SQL, AI)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home