Kashmir's Separatists Hail Near
Total Election Boycott
(AFP) -- Kashmir's separatists hailed a near total boycott of assembly elections in the summer capital Srinagar as a victory against India.
Only 11 percent of eligible voters showed up to vote in Srinagar, the center of a 13-year insurgency against Indian rule, although majorities turned out in the two other districts voting Tuesday, adjacent Budgam and Hindu-majority Jammu in the south of the state.
The voting took place in relative security, with just two minor attacks reported against polling stations. But 20 people were killed in a dozen separate battles around the state, including an early-morning gunfight with Islamic rebels holed up in a house in Srinagar.
The Srinagar-based main separatist alliance, the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, which called for a boycott of the vote, said the low turnout was a sign that Kashmiris rejected Indian-organized elections as a solution to the half-century dispute over Kashmir. The state is divided between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan and claimed in full by both.
"We knew even earlier that the people of Jammu and Kashmir were not at all in a mood to vote with a view to returning people to the assembly," Hurriyat chairman Abdul Gani Bhat told AFP.
"The people of Jammu and Kashmir by and large want a solution," Bhat said. "We have seen elections in the past which have never produced any change in this situation, which is... a struggle for freedom."
He also alleged that some "fraud and force" had boosted turnout in certain pockets.
Kashmir's chief election officer Pramod Jain had said there were no reports of coercion during voting Tuesday. He reported a preliminary overall turnout of 42 percent, seven percentage points less than in the previous assembly vote in the same three districts in 1996.
"It has been peaceful, by and large violence-free, and quite smooth," Jain told reporters.
India is hoping the elections will serve as a showcase for democracy in the state, where more than 36,500 people have died since 1989 in the insurgency against New Delhi's rule.
India's Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani said the massacre of at least 30 worshipers at a Hindu temple in the western state of Gujarat was linked to the polls.
"I can say that they (the attackers) think the developments in Jammu and Kashmir will strengthen India and so to divert attention, a big incident will be beneficial to them. I see in it a very deliberate design," Advani said.
Bhat rejected Advani's assertion, saying Kashmir and Gujarat were not linked when Hindu mobs killed hundreds of Muslims in riots that broke out in late February after an attack by Muslims on a train carrying Hindu activists.
"Gujarat was not linked to Kashmir when Muslims fell to the carnage of Hindu fundamentalists and Hindu extremists. It has nothing to do with Kashmir," Bhat said.
Some Indian officials have called the "success" of the elections a sign that India should reject any talks with the Hurriyat.
But Kashmir's chief Muslim cleric Omar Farooq called the poll boycott in Srinagar "a vindication of the Hurriyat Conference's stand," noting that the separatists had not gone door-to-door asking people not to vote.
"The majority of people have given a very clear message that the Kashmir problem is not only related to elections, as the government of India is trying to project," said Farooq, who founded the Hurriyat in 1993.
Two more rounds of voting are scheduled for October 1 and October 8.
The polls Tuesday included the constituency of India's 32-year-old junior foreign minister Omar Abdullah, who is hoping to succeed his father as Kashmir's chief minister.
Farooq suggested that many voters who did turn out Tuesday were trying to oust Abdullah's National Conference party.
"In both cases," whether people voted or not, "it's a vote against India because (those who turned out) were voting against the National Conference," he said. "I hope the outcome is an eye-opener."
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