Weary Kashmiris Shrug Off Rebel Threats And Vote
10 May 2004
Batote: For years, there was only one word in the election vocabulary of Kashmiris living close to Muslim rebel strongholds in the Himalayan mountains: boycott. But on Monday, hundreds of war-weary people in the troubled region shrugged aside militant threats and voted in the last phase of a marathon election in the world's largest democracy. 'We are not scared and there is no fear. I decided to vote this time because past election boycotts did not help,' said 73-year retired government employee Shahab-ud-din. Two constituencies in Jammu and Kashmir - Udhampur and Ladakh - were among 182 seats voting in the last round of India's five-stage election. Despite rebel threats to kill voters and candidates participating in the polls, thousands lined up at heavily guarded polling booths at Batote in Udhampur, nestled among the lush coniferous forests of the Pir Panjal mountains. The mountains are a favoured hideout for the Islamic militants fighting Indian rule in Kashmir. 'I am aware of the militant threat, but I am going to cast my vote even if this polling booth is attacked by militants,' Purus Ram, a businessman, said just before voting. The turnout in Udhampur, where about 60 percent of the people are Hindu, and the majority Buddhist enclave of Ladakh in the north was much higher than in the two Muslim-dominated constituencies that voted in earlier rounds. Nearly 42 percent turned up to vote in Udhampur compared with about 30 percent at the last election in 1999. In previous rounds of this election, the state's summer capital, Srinagar, recorded a low 13 percent turnout while violence-prone Anantnag was just a bit higher at 16 percent. Close to 60 percent turned up to vote in Ladakh, a remote mountainous area, which has remained untouched by the separatist revolt. 'Despite the militant threats, voters have turned up in large numbers and we compliment them for their effort to strengthen democracy,' Kashmir's top bureaucrat, S.S. Bloeria, told a news conference. 'People have demonstrated their commitment to democracy,' the state's chief minister, Mufti Mohammad Syed, said in a statement. 'They have participated in the electoral process braving bullets, threats and intimidation.' SHADOW OF VIOLENCE Militants and political separatists have called for a boycott of the poll in Kashmir, saying elections cannot solve the decades-old conflict over the region that has led to two wars between mostly Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan. Monday's vote was held under the shadow of violence - five grenade attacks have rocked Udhampur since Sunday, killing two people and wounding at least two dozen. About 1.3 million people were eligible to vote in Udhampur while mountainous Ladakh has only 182,677 voters. The central government sees the election as another step towards affirming the legitimacy of its rule in the Muslim-majority region, where tens of thousands of people have been killed in 15 years of rebellion. The level of violence in Kashmir has fallen since India and Pakistan began a peace process last year but there have been attacks in the run-up to the polls that began on April 20. Counting of votes is on May 13 and results will be announced the same day. 'I don't know about threats and boycott, I have never missed this opportunity and today I will use my vote for a stronger government in New Delhi,' said Shanti Devi, an 80-year-old housewife. Shanti was gasping for breath by the time she reached a hill top polling station in Dharmound. 'I pray I see peace returning before I die.'