Parties form grand alliance to seek restoration of region’s autonomy days after India released a key Kashmiri leader.
The first phase of local civic elections has opened in Indian-administered Kashmir amid tight security, the first polls in the disputed region since New Delhi revoked its special status last year.
Nearly six million voters across the disputed region’s 20 districts are eligible to elect 280 members of District Development Councils in a staggered eight-phase process that started on Saturday and ends on December 19.
Authorities deployed tens of thousands of additional soldiers in the already highly militarised region to guard the vote. Government forces laid razor wire and erected steel barricades on roads around many of the 2,146 polling stations set up for the first phase.
The region’s pro-India parties recently formed a coalition, called the Gupkar Alliance, which has been campaigning for the region’s special status to be restored.
Many local candidates allege police used security concerns as “an excuse to harass them”.
“It has been very difficult from the day we filled in the papers to now. The police rounded us up and made us move to a hotel 60km from my constituency … It takes me two hours to move into my constituency back to where I am supposed to be in the night,” said Rayees Ul Hassan, a Gupkar Alliance candidate.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has also fiercely campaigned for the election in the Muslim-majority region in a bid to replace local Kashmiri pro-India parties.
“The parties who have joined hands under the Gupkar Alliance are corrupt. Our party is delivering justice. People have understood this and are now following us,” said Mohammad Ismail, a BJP candidate.
India says the polls are a vital grassroots exercise to boost development and address civic issues. Election Commissioner KK Sharma appealed to residents to cast their vote and “participate in the biggest festival of democracy”.
The elected members will have no legislative powers and would be solely responsible for economic development and public welfare of the region.
Many Kashmiris said they were determined to make their voices heard in the polls.
“We had planned to boycott the elections but after the Gupkar Alliance was formed, it compelled us to rethink. We decided that we will cast our vote to keep the BJP at bay,” said resident Ghulam Nabi.
In the past, separatist leaders and armed rebel groups that challenge India’s sovereignty over Kashmir have called for a boycott of elections, calling them an illegitimate exercise under military occupation.
The region’s pro-India parties had vigorously opposed Modi’s government after it revoked the region’s semi-autonomous status in August last year, annulled its separate constitution, split the area into two federal territories – Ladakh and Jammu-Kashmir – and removed inherited protections on land and jobs.
The Indian government imposed sweeping restrictions, ranging from curfews to communications blackouts, and enacted new laws in measures that triggered widespread anger and economic ruin.
Political analysts say there is a lot at stake for the federal government in this election.
“If you have a significant voter turnout, it will show the international community that life is back to normal here and that is what the Modi government wants to project out of these elections,” analyst Majid Hyderi said.
Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan and the rivals claim the region in its entirety. Rebels have been fighting against Indian rule since 1989. Most Muslim Kashmiris support the rebel goal that the territory be united either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country.
New Delhi calls Kashmir rebellion Pakistan-sponsored “terrorism”. Pakistan denies the charge, while most Kashmiris call it a legitimate freedom struggle.
Tens of thousands of civilians, rebels and government forces have been killed in the conflict.