Indian Elections A Hard Sell In Kashmir Valley

5 May 2009
Agence France-Presse

Srinagar: Tired of the bullet but still wary of the ballot box, Muslim voters in the Kashmir Valley seem intent on staying away when India's election wagon rolls into their volatile region Thursday. Srinagar, Kashmir's summer capital, and the surrounding valley are the cradle of the separatist movement that has dominated life here for the past two decades. The arrival Thursday of polling booths for what will be the fourth round of India's month-long election is keenly awaited by political observers, anxious to see if there will be a repeat of the large turnout that shocked separatist leaders in state polls last December. That doesn't appear likely, according to some. 'None of us are going to vote,' said Mehak Fayaz, 21, a student at Kashmir University in Srinagar who was born a year before the bloody insurgency against Indian rule in Muslim-majority Kashmir erupted in 1989. 'We don't see the use,' Fayaz said. 'New Delhi has been ruling us for years. There has been no difference in the curfews, custodial deaths, the army's human rights violations,' she added. A group of around 20 fellow students nodded in agreement. In December, as now, separatist groups called for a boycott of the polls, arguing that participation was tantamount to acceptance of Indian rule. The unusually high turnout - 60% statewide - was hailed by the government in Delhi as a 'victory for democracy' and prompted some observers to suggest a popular shift away from the policy of electoral abstentionism. But many of those who voted in December said they had no intention of doing the same this week. 'I voted last year because the issues concerned were livelihood issues. I want better roads, better electricity, more jobs for the youth,' said Abdul Rashid, a houseboat owner. 'But parliament elections are different. New Delhi has never heard us so why should I vote?' The armed struggle against Indian rule in Kashmir has claimed 47,000 lives since 1989. The level of violence has fallen sharply in recent years as has support for an insurgency that has paralyzed the local economy, but analysts say the Indian government is mistaken if it believes separatist sentiment is on the wane. 'The people want a civilian administration in place that they can approach for their day-to-day problems. The state election was fought on the development plank and that is why people voted,' said Noor Ahmad Baba, a professor of political science at Kashmir University. 'They defied the boycott call and they did that because they had concerns. That does not mean they have given up on separatism. That sentiment is always there,' Baba said. It is certainly there in Altaf Mohammed, a 40-something shopkeeper who lives on the outskirts of Srinagar. 'I have never voted and never will,' Mohammed said. In the third round of polling last week in the district of Anantnag, another traditional separatist hotbed, 26% of registered voters turned out. 'Those who voted were paid to,' Mohammed insisted. If there is still some doubt about the expected turnout on Thursday, there is none about the level of security that will be put in place to prevent any disruption of the poll. Srinagar on voting day will resemble a city under martial law, with thousands of police, army troops and paramilitary personnel on the streets. 'Our aim is to help people come out and vote without any fear,' Srinagar police chief Syed Mujataba said. Separatist groups called a two-day strike from Tuesday evening to shore up their boycott policy, which has already led to several prominent separatist leaders being placed under house arrest. Kashmir is divided into Indian and Pakistan-controlled sections and claimed in whole by the two South Asian rivals, who have fought two wars over the region. 'What we want is India and Pakistan to leave us alone. We want to be with neither. We want freedom,' Kashmir university student Riffat Hussain said.