March 2004 News

Forces Brace For Elections, At Gunpoint

20 March 2004
The Hindu

Jammu: Top military officials have warned New Delhi that elections will be taking place in summer, when Pakistan could lift restraints on cross- border terrorism. Mukhtar Ahmad Bhat went for a walk near his Srinagar home on Thursday and never came home. Security force officials in Jammu and Kashmir are hoping the assassination is not a sign of things to come - and are asking for some 56,000 additional troops to make sure that their worst fears are not realised. No one is certain just who killed Bhat, a one-time terrorist who renounced violence and joined the youth wing of the Janata Dal (United). His killing, however, comes in the context of a wave of terrorist attacks on mainstream politicians and their families. Two days before Bhat's killing, terrorists launched a grenade attack on the home of the daughter of the Kulgam MLA and Communist Party of India leader, Mohammad Yusuf Tarigami. A People's Democratic Party activist, Ghulam Hassan, and a former MLA, also named Ghulam Hassan, were targeted on the same day. For politicians in Jammu and Kashmir, such violence in routine. The 2002 Assembly elections, hailed across India as free and fair, cost the lives of 41 political workers in September alone. The bulk of the victims were members of the National Conference, targeted by the Islamist right in an effort to bring down the party they saw as their principal enemy. In all, 99 political workers died in 2002. 1999, the year of the last Lok Sabha elections, saw the deaths of 49 political workers; 1998, the year of the previous Lok Sabha elections, saw 41 killed; 1996, the year of the last Assembly elections, witnessed 69 such deaths. Despite considerable media hype about recent dramatic acts of terrorism, figures compiled by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs show that violence has been steadily declining since 2002. Combat fatalities peaked in September last year, true to the regular seasonal cycle of violence in Jammu in Kashmir, and have since been in steady decline. Military officials, however, have warned New Delhi that the elections will be taking place in summer, when Pakistan could lift restraints on cross-border infiltration, allowing terrorist groups to replenish their cadre. Interestingly, February 2004 saw a marginal increase in violence compared with the same month of 2003. There were 60 attacks on security forces last month, compared with 53 in February 2003. 183 people died in terrorism-related violence, compared with 126 the previous year - although this was partly the result of killings of terrorists by security forces, which stood at 86, in February 2004, compared with 71 in February 2003. Highly-placed military sources told The Hindu that wireless stations operating from terror camps across the Line of Control have been telling their operatives to step up efforts to escalate the election process. During the last Assembly elections, politicians proved only too willing to make violence work for them. Posters were put in several parts of southern Kashmir by the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, for example, asking voters to oppose the National Conference. In areas such as Mendhar and Surankote tehsil in Poonch, various terrorist groups used their leverage to block voters from the Gujjar community from exercising their franchise, and to aid candidates from specific villages. Last year, the senior south Kashmir-based PDP leader, Abdul Aziz Zargar, was even accused by the National Conference of having recruited Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists to target the campaign of his rival, Sakina Itoo.


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