Amid tight security, hundreds of thousands braved the winter chill and boycott calls from separatists to vote in three regions of Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir, kicking off crucial staggered elections. Voting took place in 10 constituencies across the Muslim-dominated Kashmir Valley, the Hindu-majority Jammu region and the mainly Buddhist Ladakh. The voting for the 87 constituencies will take place in seven phases.
After mass protests against Indian rule earlier this year, the elections in the Kashmir Valley are being observed very carefully
Apart from a clash between the police and a group of people protesting against the elections in Bandipora town and a scuffle between workers of the National Conference and People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in the neighbouring Sonawari constituency, balloting progressed smoothly.
Despite the freezing cold and the fear of the separatists, the trickle of voters at polling stations across the 10 constituencies in the Jammu, Ladakh and Kashmir Valley regions was steady. The crowds increased as the day progressed.
The statistics also spoke of high voter enthusiasm. Gurez in the Kashmir Valley topped with 51 percent, followed by Bandipora with 29 percent and Sonawari with 28 percent.
Observers consider these significant figures considering the boycott call of the separatists and the fear of violence in the region.
Queuing to vote from early morning
People clad in woollens and holding kangris -- the traditional earthen firepots woven over with willow reeds -- were seen queuing up outside polling stations in Bandipora and Sonawari in the Kashmir Valley from the early morning hours.
Mukhtar Ahmad, a daily wage labourer was among the thousands to cast their vote: “I voted because I think I can have a better future. I need to get a good job and I hope this election will end unemployment."
State elections were last held in Jammu and Kashmir in 2002, after which an alliance of the Indian National Congress Party and the regional PDP came to power.
In the run-up to these elections, separatist leaders, many of whom were recently jailed, asked people in the Kashmir Valley to boycott the polls. Hurriyat Conference, the main separatist group, even called for a protest march against them.
High security ensures smooth balloting
But adequate security at all polling stations ensured that no such move could be staged. Armed paramilitary troopers and policemen could be seen dotted along every road in the valley.
42 people died this year during pro-independence protests in Kashmir so this vote is seen to be extremely important.
Nizamuddin Bhatt, the People’s Democratic Party candidate from Bandipora, said he appreciated the fact that “people had come out in large numbers and had encouraged the candidates and the entire election machinery.”
But he was not satisfied with the conducting of the polls, which were not “as fair as expected.”
The staggered elections were called by the Election Commission to allow the government to provide maximum security cover to candidates and voters given a history of violent attacks by militants.
Vying for power in the state are the Congress Party, the People’s Democratic Party, the National Conference and Bharatiya Janata Party. Also in the fray are the Panthers Party, as well as a slew of independent candidates.
The seven-phase elections are scheduled to end on December 24.