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Few Have Hope Kashmir Elections will Bring Peace - 2002-08-28


Beginning next month, voters in India's Jammu and Kashmir State are scheduled to go to the polls in elections to choose a new state assembly. Because of Kashmirs position as a flashpoint in the tense relations between India and Pakistan, the elections will be closely watched, around the world. Few voters in the state expect the elections to break new ground or offer any hope for easing the Kashmir crisis.

Those supporters of Kashmir's opposition Congress Party are calling for governors rule in Jammu and Kashmir.

Wary of the fraud that has characterized past state elections in Kashmir, they want New Delhi to impose federal control over the state to ensure the elections will be free and fair.

Officials in New Delhi say they are committed to free-and-fair elections and that there is no need at this point to impose federal authority over the state government. Jammu and Kashmir's government is run by the ruling National Conference, a partner in the BJP-dominated coalition government that rules India.

Khem Lata Wakhlu is a Congress Party leader in the state and a candidate for a seat in the state assembly. She says people are desperate for the elections to succeed.

"They would rather like to have proper government," she said. "Everybody wants a government that works which is going to deliver goods for the people of J&K State. So, this time everybody feels not only myself; the common man as well we feel that things are not working they way they should."

Although she says she is apprehensive about the possibility of voter fraud in the elections, Mrs. Wakhlu says there is no question about not voting. She says elections are the only way Kashmiris can decide their own future.

"Ultimately, that is how I feel that the people of J&K state have to solve their own problems no one else is going to do something for us. We have to solve our own problems according to our own peoples wishes."

Many others in Indian-administered Kashmir say the elections will do nothing. Abdul Ghani Bhat heads the All Parties Huriyat Conference, a grouping of more than 20 separatist political parties. Mr. Bhat says the elections are a sideshow that will not address the real issue behind the Kashmir dispute, which he says is self-determination for the people of Indian-administered Kashmir.

"Elections have no relevance to the future dispensation of Jammu and Kashmir," he said. "Elections have no relevance to the situation in the entire South Asian region. What we need to do is to address the root cause. Forget about the offshoot effects and address the root cause and address the undercurrent of tension between India and Pakistan."

Abdul Ghani Bhat says he expects the elections to be marked by violence and fraud and that he and his colleagues in the Huriyat Conference will not participate. Separatist militants have pledged to kill candidates and voters.

Independent observers in Kashmir say, because the separatists will not be participating, it is difficult to gauge the strength they might have if they did take part in the polling.

Sajjad Haider is the editor of the Kashmir Observer. He says many Kashmiris have grown cynical about elections in their state.

"Elections have been taking place here for the last 50 years now. They have not brought any substantial change in the life of the people. The Kashmir issue, as such, remains as it was, 50 years back," Mr. Haider said. "So the uncertainty here looms large. The priority of the people here who have suffered a lot for the last 13 or 14 years is to end this uncertainty, to change their livelihood and to get rid of this violence. So, they just want the government of India or the powers that matter to take bold initiatives so there is a change on the ground, so the uncertainty ends and things improve for the better."

Sajjad Haider says the last time elections were held in 1996, the few people who voted did so out of a belief that a proposal for more autonomy for Jammu and Kashmir proposed by the ruling National Conference would be adopted by the central government in New Delhi. However, he notes that proposal failed leaving many Kashmiris bitter and making them less likely to vote, this year, than ever before.

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