With much at stake, few Kashmiris head to the polls

Violence and the election's failure to address Kashmir's future are expected to keep many from voting Monday.

A state that brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war earlier this summer begins elections Monday to determine who is the legitimate representative of Jammu and Kashmir.

A lot has changed since elections were announced last spring, at the height of tensions between India and Pakistan. Then, most Kashmiri separatists dismissed the elections as meaningless; now, at least six separatist candidates have decided to run for election. Then, Pakistani-based militant groups said most Kashmiris would ignore the elections; now, they have stepped up a killing spree in areas where Kashmiri voters were getting a little too enthusiastic.

Few Kashmiris are expected to show up at the polls Monday. Some will boycott the elections out of fear – militant attacks have made this the bloodiest election in memory, with 75 activists and candidates killed in the past two months. Others will boycott because these elections don't address a key question: whether to remain in India, join Pakistan, or become an independent state.

"I don't think these elections are going to change anything really," says Kanti Bajpai, a political analyst at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. "If they [the elections] can be certified as free and fair, that would be better." Even so, he adds, a recent upswing in violence could keep voter turnout down, and that would benefit the ruling party, which is better organized and more experienced at getting voters to polls.

But in this mountainous town about a mile from the Pakistani cease-fire line, Mohammad Iqbal is one of thousands embracing his right to vote with renewed enthusiasm.

"I will vote on Monday, and I prefer to stay a part of India," says Mr. Iqbal, voicing the sentiment of many in this border town, which the Pakistani Army regularly barrages with artillery shells. "If we elect a strong state government, they can force the central government to start talks with the Pakistanis. That is the only way to solve the Kashmir issue, with negotiations."

Violence accompanies almost any political activity in Kashmir, a state that India and Pakistan have fought three wars over. Nor has the political rhetoric between the two countries abated, with both Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee delivering scorching speeches about each other at last week's United Nations General Assembly in New York.

Foreign diplomats have been invited to "watch" the three-week, three-phase elections, but there will be no international groups to monitor elections – India argues that its election procedures are as much an internal matter to India as state elections in Florida are for the United States.

Yet in towns and villages of Jammu and Kashmir, it's clear that no mere state election will meet all the demands of the electorate. In Jammu, the state's Hindu-dominated summer capital in the south, support is growing for a small party that wants to separate Jammu from Kashmir and give Hindus a greater voice. In eastern Ladakh, where Tibetan Buddhists dominate, a coalition is pushing for separation and direct rule by New Delhi.

And in the valley of Kashmir, it's unclear whether a voter's voice will make any difference this time. In 1987, when a broad spectrum of parties contested state elections – from communist to Islamist and from separatist to mainstream pro-Indian – voters turned out by the tens of thousands. The result was widely believed to be rigged, with the Congress Party and National Conference taking the lion's share of votes. The election sparked a wave of arrests of separatist leaders and tens of thousands of Kashmiris to take up arms against the Indian government.

Today, support for the separatists has waned. Even separatist leaders such as Sajad Lone and Shabir Shah agree that the time of the gun has passed. But the mood of Kashmiris toward the Indian government is just as dark.

The most striking example is Uri, a border town that has received so much shelling that most villagers have built their own underground bunkers. Present estimates suggest that they are likely to reelect a member of the ruling party, Mohammad Shafi. But while many voters say their most important issues are local – schools, roads, electricity, unemployment – others say they will vote for Mr. Shafi because he seeks greater autonomy for the state, a tantalizing step toward independence.

"We want independence, not India, not Pakistan," says Riaz Ahmed, a computer operator and supporter of Shafi and the ruling National Conference. "Shafi has said he will force the government to talk about autonomy. Will India give us a referendum to become independent?" He looks at a visiting reporter with a smile. "That's up to you and [President] Bush."

But just an hour down the road to Baramulla, the picture is completely different. There, local parties say only 7 percent of voters bothered to show up in the last elections, in 1996. This year, they will be lucky to get 3 percent.

"The Indian security forces come to our homes, and say if you will not come vote, we will kill you," says Abdul Ghaffar, a shopkeeper in Baramulla. "But if you do go vote, then the militants say we will kill you." He grins darkly. "This is their free and fair election."

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