Kashmiris Vote In By-election Despite Boycott Call
13 October 2004
Pahalgam: Thousands of Kashmiris voted on Wednesday in by-elections to the disputed northern Indian state's legislature, undeterred by a grenade attack and a boycott called by separatists. Suspected militants fired two rifle grenades near a voting station in Pahalgam in southern Kashmir just before it opened, but no one was injured. Shortly after polls closed, 12 people, including five soldiers and five poll officials, were wounded when their bus hit a landmine planted by militants, police said. Officials said 38 percent of voters turned out across the four areas holding by-elections but the turnout was lower in the Muslim-dominated Kashmir Valley than in Hindu-majority Jammu. 'I have come out to cast my vote without fear to give peace a chance and stop the senseless violence,' said 50- year-old Mohammad Amin, a tourist guide, in a long green robe of the sort worn by Kashmiris in winter. More than 40,000 people have been killed in a 15-year-old revolt in Indian Kashmir, India's only Muslim-majority state. Kashmir Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Syed, who escaped an assassination attempt last month while filing his nomination papers, was among those contesting Pahalgam in the Kashmir Valley. Soldiers with automatic weapons patrolled the streets in armoured cars and stood guard outside heavily fortified polling booths. Kashmiri separatists called for a boycott, saying elections in the region could not solve the decades-old conflict that has led to two out of three wars between India and Pakistan. Indian officials say Pahalgam, set near thick pine forests and ringed by snow-capped mountains, is infested with rebels who have attacked election booths and personnel in the past with rockets and grenades. An election official said 18.7 percent of Pahalgam's 64,117 voters had cast their ballot by the time voting ended, roughly the same turnout as in state assembly elections in 2002. 'We want development in our area, we want jobs,' said Akhtar Rasool who earns his living giving pony rides to tourists visiting Pahalgam. Some Kashmiris said they had been forced to vote. Riaz Ahmed, 22, said policemen came to his house early on Wednesday and ordered him to go to the polling booth. 'They wouldn't let me have tea, they said you have to go vote,' Ahmed said, standing outside a booth on the outskirts of Pahalgam. But authorities deny any coercion. 'Voting was free and fair,' election official K.B. Agarwal told a news conference. India, which has rejected demands by separatists and by Pakistan to hold a plebiscite in Kashmir to decide its future, sees elections in the territory as bolstering the legitimacy of its rule.