As voters in Jammu and Kashmir go to the polls in the final round of elections to India's parliament, no sense of relief prevails as democracy returns to this troubled Himalayan state after a gap of nearly seven years.
The capital, Srinagar, one of two constituencies where polling takes place May 30, is a city of burned-out buildings, khaki-clad soldiers, sandbags, and bunkers. Candidates travel in armored cars addressing small, stage-managed crowds, then return to fortified compounds.
The estimated half million troops stationed in and around the Kashmir Valley have been reinforced by up to 100,000 security personnel flown in especially for the elections. They are there to fight Muslim insurgents who demand self-determination and to keep a watchful eye on neighboring Pakistan, which still has claims on this disputed territory.
During voting in the Anantnag and Baramulla constituencies last week, people accused the armed forces of intimidating them and threatening violence if voters did not go to the polls.
"The Army came to our houses ... saying they will chop off our hand if we do not find this ink mark on your finger," says Abdul Rehman in Bijbehara, pointing to the mark on his finger as proof that he voted.
Caught between the guns of Muslim militants who had called for a boycott of the elections and the armor of Indian troops, the voters of Bijbehara and hundreds of other towns and villages either ignored the threats or sent a silent protest by invalidating their ballots.
They also cast away any hope of a political solution to the Kashmir crisis, which over the last seven years has left more than 15,000 people dead, resulted in major human rights abuses, and has the potential to be the touchstone for a future nuclear war.
Although the Kashmir elections will have no bearing on the shape of the government in New Delhi, they are a crucial test of public opinion in the country's only Muslim-dominated state. Unless India can prove that the elections were not disrupted by militants and that they resulted in a high voter turnout, its strategy for bringing Kashmir into the political mainstream will fail.
New Delhi has dealt with the problem of Kashmiri separatism by employing ever-increasing numbers of troops and Army-sponsored renegade militias while also offering the elections as a way to dampen demands for self-determination.
After twice postponing its decision, the government has gone ahead with these parliamentary elections as precursor to local elections in the hope of restoring normalcy. But the vote has been boycotted by Kashmir's main political party, the National Conference, and by an anti-Indian political coalition, the All Parties Hurriyat Conference.
According to Abdul Ghani, a senior leader of the Hurriyat, which comprises various insurgent groups whose demands range from Kashmir becoming part of Pakistan to total independence, elections under current circumstances do not resolve the problem of Kashmiri separatism.
"This election is a nonissue in the sense that it is not a substitute for a plebiscite pledged to the people by the United Nations Security Council and accepted by India as well as Pakistan," Mr. Ghani says. "The election cannot be held where the government exists in bunkers, where guns roar like the lions do in the jungle."
Kashmir's troubles go back to 1947, when British India was partitioned into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. At that time, the Hindu king of Kashmir acceded to India, prompting Pakistan to send an army to "liberate" Kashmir.
The advancing tribal army stopped short of Srinagar. The UN called for a plebiscite to determine the future of the state and moved in monitors to patrol the cease-fire line, which today has become the de facto boundary between the two countries.
Since then, the Kashmir dispute has sparked two wars between India and Pakistan, both of which are believed to possess nuclear weapons, and has remained the dominant irritant in their relations.
India accuses Pakistan of arming the insurgents, a charge denied by Pakistan. But few observers doubt Pakistan is providing help to the guerrillas.
The plebiscite promised in 1948 is unlikely to materialize. It would result in a vote for independence, which India worries could lead to the breakup of the country. Although the Indian Constitution guarantees Kashmir autonomy except in defense, foreign affairs, and communications, all aspects of the state's affairs are today under New Delhi's tight control, reinforcing the alienation of the Kashmiri people.