Thousands defy boycott call to vote in Kashmir

Voters queue outside a polling station for the first phase of the Jammu and Kashmir elections yesterday. Picture: Reuters

Voters queue outside a polling station for the first phase of the Jammu and Kashmir elections yesterday. Picture: Reuters

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Thousands of Kashmiris cast votes in state elections yesterday, despite a boycott call by Muslim separatist groups that reject India’s sovereignty over the disputed Himalayan region.

Voters went to the polls in India’s Jammu and Kashmir state where prime minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is trying to win power for the first time.

The disputed Kashmir region is claimed by both India and Pakistan.

Voter turnout was high, at 70 per cent, despite cold temperatures, the Election Commission said. It said the first phase of the elections was “flawless”, with no incidents marring the polls.

Paramilitary soldiers and police officers patrolled near polling stations during voting, amid fears of street protests and militant attacks.

Long queues of voters lined up around polling booths in Ganderbal and Bandipora, north of the main city of Srinagar.

The elections for the 87-member state assembly are being held in five phases, a process which allows the government to deploy thousands of troops to prevent violence. Results are due on 23 December.

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Pro-India Kashmiri parties say the elections will boost development and help address civic issues, while separatists say the polls are an illegitimate exercise under military occupation. In recent days, authorities have detained hundreds of separatist leaders and activists who called for an election boycott.

The multi-stage voting will elect a local government – consisting of a chief minister who will serve as the state’s top official and a council of ministers – from the pro-India parties participating in the elections.

Mr Modi’s BJP has been campaigning heavily, and for the first time is hoping to win a sizeable number of seats in India’s only Muslim-majority state.

Nearly a dozen rebel groups have been fighting against Indian rule since 1989, seeking independence for Kashmir or its merger with Pakistan. About 68,000 people have been killed in the conflict.

Two regional parties dominate politics in Indian-administered Kashmir – the governing National Conference and the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP).

The BJP has never been a serious player and it has a non-existent base in the Muslim-dominated Kashmir Valley, given its hardline views on the state’s tenuous relationship with India.

But under Mr Modi, who swept to power in May’s general election, the BJP is making an attempt to capture the state.

Separatist hardliners have called for a boycott of the vote, a move that many believe could help the BJP.

Hindus are a minority in Kashmir, but their votes become crucial if Muslims stay at home in protest on polling day.

However, some analysts say it will not be easy for Mr Modi’s party to win the elections.

“The BJP has always been very proactive in Kashmir, but the media blitzkrieg and the euphoria this time around could boomerang to the advantage of the regional parties,” political analyst Sheikh Showkat Hussain said.

Last night, deputy election commissioner Vinod Zutshi told reporters in Delhi: “Polling has gone absolutely [peacefully] without any incident.

“It was 100 per cent flawless polls and there was not a single incident which vitiates poll process.”

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