SRINAGAR, India (Reuters) - With separatist leaders in jail, Indian Kashmir votes Monday in a multi-phase election that will test the legitimacy of New Delhi’s rule of a region beset by independence protests earlier this year.
Thousands of troops will guard the vote in one of the world’s most militarized regions, which witnessed some of the biggest pro-independence demonstrations this year since a separatist revolt against Indian rule in the Himalayan region broke out in 1989.
India’s troubled Jammu and Kashmir state, the focus of two wars between nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan since they won independence from Britain in 1947, is split between the disputed Muslim-dominated Kashmir Valley, the Hindu-majority Jammu region and Ladakh, which has a heavy Buddhist presence.
But all eyes will be on the Kashmir valley, where police killed at least 42 people this year when hundreds of thousands of Kashmiri’s took to the streets shouting “Azadi” (freedom) against 60 years of Indian rule.
Muslim separatist leaders, many sent to jail without trial in the run-up to the vote, have called for a boycott. They say New Delhi will use draconian anti-terror laws and its thousands of troops to try to legitimize their rule.
Thousands of Indian troops patrolled the snow-covered streets of Kashmir Friday to prevent a planned protest rally by separatists. A strike saw shops, businesses in the summer capital of Srinagar closed in protest against the elections.
New Delhi believes the separatists are a small and often violent group. The government hopes the vote will see a high turnout for the parties — all of which broadly accept New Delhi’s rule — competing in the vote.
“The gulf between New Delhi and Kashmir seems much wider today. The two never seemed so far apart,” said senior Kashmiri politician and former lawmaker, Mohammad Shafi.
“A strong voter turnout amid anti-India anger would boost the legitimacy of New Delhi’s rule. But if they don’t get it right this time it could be a disaster, it can boomerang.”
The People’s Democratic Party took power at the head of a coalition following the last state election in 2002, ending a two-decade rule by the National Conference. But now the state is under direct rule after the violent protests.
It will be the third vote in the state since an insurgency began in 1989.
In the past, separatist guerrillas have attacked and killed scores of candidates and political workers, vandalized polling stations and attacked rallies to thwart elections.
But early this year, the United Jihad Council (UJC), a Pakistan-based militant alliance fighting Indian troops in Kashmir, rejected the use of violence to force a boycott of the
staggered, month-and-half-long elections this time.
Instead, it urged people to hold protests against the vote.
The All Parties Hurriyat (Freedom) Conference, the region’s main separatist alliance, says hundreds of its supporters and activists had been arrested ahead of the polls.
“Elections are ultimately projected as a sort of referendum by India,” said Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, chairman of Hurriyat.
“That is why we have called for a complete boycott of such a process.”
Even pro-India political parties say elections will not resolve the dispute in Kashmir, where officials say about 43,000 people have died in violence involving Muslim militants and Indian troops. Human rights groups put the toll at 60,000.
“Elections will help to elect a government addressing the day-to-day problems of people, not the Kashmir dispute,” said Omar Abdullah, chief of the regional National Conference, which recognizes New Delhi’s rule over the Himalayan region.
Violence has declined significantly since Pakistan and India began a slow-moving peace process in 2004.
But an estimated 500,000 Indian troops are stationed in the region to defend the frontier, fight separatist militants and now provide security to the elections.
“After a bitter summer of turmoil, Kashmir will put the credibility of the world’s largest democracy to (the) test this winter in possibly the country’s toughest state elections ever,” the Hindustan Times newspaper said.
Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Valerie Lee