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Kashmir Elections to Start Amid Violence and Threats - 2002-09-15


India holds state elections in strife-torn Kashmir starting Monday. But Kashmiri political separatist groups are boycotting the election, and there are fears Islamic guerrillas could follow through on threats to derail the polls. The elections are expected to do little to return peace to the region, or ease tensions between India and Pakistan.

Monday's vote will be the first in a four-phase election that concludes on October 8. The election is being staggered to allow security forces to guard the polls.

Islamic militant groups say they will target anyone participating in the election, and violence has surged ahead of the polls. India has bolstered security by sending more troops to the restive region, where tens of thousands of security personnel are already present.

India considers the election crucial to its strategy of quelling a Muslim separatist insurgency that flared 12 years ago, and has promised a free and fair poll to woo back a population disenchanted with New Delhi's rule.

But moderate Kashmiri separatist groups have refused to take part in the election, and have called for a voter boycott.

Abdul Ghani Bhat is chairman of Kashmir's main separatist alliance, the All Party Huriyat Conference. He says the alliance is staying away from the polls because they are not linked to a settlement of the Kashmir dispute.

"I don't think the electoral process in Jammu and Kashmir is going to achieve anything for anybody who seeks peace to return, disputes to be resolved and future to be ensured, peaceful future, brighter future. Nothing, absolutely nothing," Mr. Bhat said.

New Delhi wants a big voter turnout. But this may not happen due to widespread fear of violence and anger at Indian rule. Most voters believe the election will do little to improve their lives.

People are also wary of intimidation and fraud that characterized past elections. On the eve of the poll, Chief Election Commissioner J.M. Lyngdoh assured Kashmiris that "none of you who does not wish to vote is to be forced to do so." But he called on people to vote without fear, if they wanted to.

"I also need to assure you that the security forces are there in big number and in high alert to protect you while you vote."

The assurance came as attacks blamed on Muslim militants intensified, and the sounds of campaigning were often interrupted by the sounds of gunshots.

More than 300 people including a state minister and two dozen political activists have been killed since elections were announced last month. Candidates move around with bullet-proof jackets. Bomb squads and sniffer dogs are searching polling booths.

Brahma Chellaney from the Independent Center of Policy research says the elections could have a key influence on relations between India and Pakistan, locked in a tense military standoff since December.

He says this is because India believes the level of election violence will be a critical indicator of Pakistan's commitment to honor its pledge to halt cross-border incursions by Islamic militants.

"If the elections are held peacefully, without much interference by Pakistan, then, I think, it will open the path to easing of tensions and demobilizing of forces," he said. "But if the elections are marred by large-scale bloodletting, and if the level of cross-border infiltraton of terrorism are continuing at the earlier levels, then I think this winter is going to be quite a difficult one."

Both countries have already exchanged sharp rhetoric ahead of the polls. Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf has called the Kashmir elections a "drama," saying they will be rigged and will not contribute to peace.

Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has blamed the pre-election violence on Pakistan, and accused it of trying to sabotage the polls.

Because Kashmir is the flashpoint between the two countries, the election is being closely watched by the international community. India has promised a transparent election, and diplomats from several countries, including the United States and Britain will observe the voting.

With most separatist groups staying away from the polls, the front-runner in the race is the ruling National Conference, a pro-India party that favors more autonomy for the region.

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