Election setback for militants with high voter turnout in Kashmir

29 December 2008
The Times (London)
Rhys Blakely

Mumbai: The peaceful turnout of millions of voters in Indian-controlled Kashmir was heralded yesterday as a setback for the region’s dwindling cohort of violent separatist militants and their alleged backers inside Pakistan’s spy agency. Kashmiri separatist groups, who want an end to Indian rule in the disputed Himalayan territory, had called for a boycott of the poll held over the past month for a new state government. Defying the edict, more than 60 per cent of Kashmir’s 6.4 million voters turned out, compared with about 44 per cent in the previous election six years ago. Indian security experts said that the high voter numbers were a blow to factions hoping to stoke tensions between India and Pakistan, a tactic that could win Islamist extremists more space to manoeuvre on Pakistan’s western border with Afghanistan. Ajit Doval, a former director of India’s Intelligence Bureau, told The Times that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the country’s powerful spy agency would be among those wrong-footed. He said that the ISI had consistently backed militant groups fighting Indian forces in Kashmir during a 20-year insurgency that has clamed at least 40,000 lives and remained active in the region. “The ISI will be dismayed. (The voter response) was totally unexpected for them,” he said. The election comes as Kashmir, which has triggered two wars between India and Pakistan and which both lay claim to the region, again rises up the ranks of the world’s most volatile potential troublespots. In the wake of last month’s terror attacks on Mumbai relations between the nuclear neighbours have deteriorated sharply. India believes Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based terrorist faction with strong ties to the ISI and Kashmir, carried out the attack, which claimed more than 170 lives. Pakistan, which last week mobilised troops on its border with India, maintains it has been given no proof of Pakistani involvement. Many analysts agree with separatist leaders, who claim that Kashmir’s voters were mobalised by everyday issues such as the dire state of their roads and hospitals, rather than the region’s long-term political aspirations. Syed Ali Shah Geelani, a senior separatist figure, said: “People voted for water, electricity and employment, not for Indian rule. The freedom struggle will go on until it reaches its logical conclusion.” However, the high turnout will kindle tentative hopes that Kashmir is making a break with the violence that has blighted the region for decades in favour of mainstream politics. Brahma Chellaney, of the Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, said: “This shouldn’t be overblown: the boycott still kept many voters at home, especially in (the capital) Srinagar, but the turnout does confirm the trend away from militancy.” Despite a steep escalation in violence between Hindu and Muslim protestors and security forces over the summer that left at least 50 people dead, the number of violent terrorist incidents reported in Kashmir fell dramatically this year, to about two a day, from about three a day in 2007, according to the police. The number of civilians killed fell below 100 for the first time in 20 years and the number of estimated active militants in the region fell to 800, from 1,500 last year. Following the polls, a British-born politician from Kashmir’s most influential modern-day political dynasty was yesterday poised to regain control of the troubled Himalayan region. The National Conference, which supports Kashmir being given greater autonomy, emerged as the single largest party in the regional elections, winning 28 of the 87 seats. The party is led by Omar Abdullah, the grandson of Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah, the legendary leader known as the “Lion of Kashmir” who was a close ally of Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister. Mr Abdullah, who was born in Rochester, Essex, was yesterday locked in talks, attempting to build a coalition government. He said that he would approach Congress, the leaders of the national government in Delhi, who hold 17 seats in Kashmir, to achieve a majority. Manmohan Singh, the Indian Prime Minister, who represents Congress, said: “The large turnout is a vote for democracy and national integration … who wins or loses is a secondary issue.”