Voters In Kashmir Defy Rebel Threats To Take Part In Civic Polls
29 January 2005
Srinagar: Voters turned out in big numbers yesterday to cast ballots in the first leg of municipal polls to be held in over a quarter of a century in Kashmir despite rebel threats to life and limb, officials said. Separatist rebels had made a series of deadly attacks on candidates, party workers and rallies in the lead-up to the civic elections that are being held in stages in the restive region to protect voters. 'Nearly 60 percent (of eligible) voters cast their ballot in the first phase today (Saturday),' a state election department spokesman told AFP, quoting preliminary turnout figures. 'Due to freezing temperatures voting was slow at first but picked up when the sun came out,' he said after closure of the polls that were violence free. The turnout in the districts of Baramulla and Kupwara that Indian security officials say have a heavy rebel presence were a big rebuff to separatists and rebels who had called for a boycott, the Kashmir government said. 'The high turnout is a big victory for democracy in Kashmir,' said Tourism Minister Ghulam Hassan Mir, a senior leader of the ruling People's Democratic Party. 'It proves people are fed up with violence. They're more interested in development of the state.' The turnout beat the 46 percent who cast ballots in 2002 state polls in Kashmir where a deadly revolt has raged against New Delhi's rule for 15 years. The average turnout in Indian general elections is 55 percent. The voting yesterday was in Kupwara and Baramulla districts adjoining Pakistan-administered Kashmir, both well-known rebel crossing points into the territory, according to Indian security officials. The strong turnout came against the backdrop of a nascent peace process between India and Pakistan, who share divided Kashmir but claim it in full. Heavily armed police and paramilitary forces ringed polling booths to provide security to voters who were choosing councilors to represent them. Srinagar, considered an urban center for militant elements, and winter capital Jammu are set to vote Feb. 1. Civic elections have not been held in Kashmir for the past 27 years, partly because of the insurgency but also due to fears of the previous ruling National Conference party of the creation of a rival power base. While there was no violence during the actual polls, gunmen late Friday shot dead a National Conference party candidate, wounded a woman running for the People's Democratic Party and a man contesting as an independent. These attacks followed a raid the previous day in which 26 people were hurt when rebels hurled grenades at an election office south of Srinagar. In other attacks, rebels bombed an election rally, killing three people and wounding a dozen. They also launched suicide raids on federal income-tax and passport offices and attacked several security patrols. Separatist politicians and rebels have traditionally called for a boycott of all state and national elections in Kashmir, saying they were no substitute for the right to self-determination. Despite the peace process with Pakistan which formally got under way in January 2004, violence has continued in the state although Indian officials say the number of deadly incidents has fallen. At least 40,000 have died in Kashmir since the eruption of the insurgency in 1989, according to Indian figures. Separatists put the toll at twice as high. There are about a dozen rebels groups in Kashmir. Most want Kashmir to join Pakistan. A few want it to become independent.