Elections In Kashmir: Who Votes Wins

9 April 2009
Agency Press-France

Srinagar: In most general elections, it's the final result that counts, but in India's troubled, Muslim-majority Kashmir region it's voter turnout that really sets the agenda for the next five years. Politics, policies and promises are almost marginal issues in a state where the simple act of casting a ballot is a significant political statement in its own right and one that, until recently, could prove fatal. An armed insurgency against Indian rule in Kashmir has claimed 47,000 lives since 1989, and Muslim separatist groups have a long-standing election boycott policy based on the argument that participation amounts to de facto acceptance of Indian sovereignty. 'Elections can never be a substitute to our demand for the right to self-determination,' said Javed Mir, a militant-turned-separatist politician. 'Our appeal to the people is to stay away from such sham exercises.' In the past, the boycott call - often backed by threats of violence from armed militant groups - had been largely effective, but recent polls have suggested a shift in favour of the ballot box. State elections late last year witnessed an unprecedented 60 percent voter turnout - a figure the government in New Delhi was swift to hail as a 'victory for democracy' and a vote for national integration. The state poll saw a young, pro-India Muslim politician, Omar Abdullah, elected chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, but it was the level of voter participation that grabbed all the headlines. 'The last elections were a big setback for the separatists. If there is a huge turnout again it will be a big, big victory for India,' said Tahir Mohiudin, editor of the leading Urdu weekly, 'Chattan' or 'Rock'. Separatist sentiment runs deep in Kashmir, especially the overwhelmingly Muslim Kashmir valley, which last year witnessed some of the biggest anti-India protests for decades. The demonstrations left more than 50 people dead, most of them Muslim protesters shot by the security forces. But while many Kashmiri Muslims remain opposed to Indian rule, their top priorities are bread-and-butter issues, like decent-paying jobs, health care and education. And it is these issues, rather than any newfound sense of Indian identity, that is pushing them towards the voting booths. 'People didn't vote in the state elections with a mindset to oppose separatists. They voted for better civic amenities and infrastructure,' Mohiudin said. Noor Ahmed Baba, a professor of political science, said another good turnout - whatever the cause - would be a blow to the separatists. 'If participation is high, that will to a certain extent vindicate the government and undermine the claims of separatist leadership and groups to represent people's aspirations,' Baba said. The state polls were held under suffocating security, with the entire separatist leadership taken into custody and many towns put under virtual curfew to prevent anti-election rallies. The same sort of operation will accompany the national elections, with voting divided into five stages to allow the deployment of security forces around the state. The Kashmir region is divided into Indian- and Pakistan-controlled sections and claimed in whole by the two South Asian rivals. Some separatists in Indian Kashmir favour independence, others would like to be part of Pakistan. India says Pakistan gives the armed militants logistical and material support - a claim rejected by Islamabad. Indian officials fear attacks by militants during the polls, unlike the state elections when rebels did not interfere. 'Elections are always attractive targets for the militants. We are fully aware that militants would try to disrupt the poll process,' said Chief Minister Omar Abdullah. Indications of fresh militant violence came last month when eight soldiers and 17 militants were killed in one of the fiercest clashes in recent years. The Indian army has warned that more militants are poised to cross into Indian Kashmir from the Pakistani-side of the disputed state.