How do Indian elections play in Kashmir? Mass arrests offer a clue

Police in India-controlled Kashmir arrested over 600 people ahead of tomorrow's vote for the Indian national election, in response to larger than expected youth protests last week.

Mukhtar Khan/AP
Indian paramilitary soldiers arrive outside a distribution center to be assigned to accompany election officials to various polling stations in Srinagar, India, April 29, 2014. Indian police say they have arrested more than 600 Kashmiri residents in a crackdown against suspected separatists ahead of voting in a general election this week in Indian-controlled parts of the disputed Himalayan region.

A day before polling resumes for India's national election in Srinagar, the city is marked by closed roads, barbed wire check points, and an increased police presence.

Police have arrested more than 600 Kashmiris – mostly teenagers – over the past week, according to police officials. The first stage of voting in Kashmir last week was marked by surprisingly large youth protests and an election boycott, so Indian authorities are acting preemptively. 

“More than 600 people with a history of stone throwing have been arrested so far and have been put in preventive detention,” says Ahfad ul Mujtaba, deputy inspector general of police. "If you want people to vote tomorrow, people who throw stones should be out of circulation."

The crackdown started after several hundred young Kashmiri protestors threw stones at Indian soldiers in south Kashmir on their polling day on April 24. (India holds its election in ten stages over six weeks; Kashmiris vote on two days.) Nearly 80 percent of eligible voters stayed home that day. 

While pre-election protests in India-administered Kashmir – part of the disputed territory that is divided between Pakistan and India – are par for the course, the level of youth involvement was different this time, says Parvez Imroz, a human rights lawyer and president of the Srinagar-based Coalition of Civil Society.

"This is the first time in a long time when the youth have themselves taken to the streets calling for a boycott of the elections” he says. “These protests are much more youth-led and are far more intense than anything we have seen in the previous two elections in Kashmir.”

Police squads have conducted three consecutive night raids in several parts of Srinagar and arrested possible protestors. In some cases, relatives were detained when protestors had already left their homes to avoid arrest. 

While the official number of arrests is 600, the actual province-wide number is higher, says a police official who wasn't authorized to speak on the record. More than 1,000 youth have been arrested across Kashmir – with more than 500 of them in Srinagar – over the past week, he says. 

The police in Kashmir have also arrested separatist leaders in Kashmir who refuse to recognize the Indian elections and are calling for a boycott. 

Mr. Imroz, the lawyer, calls the arrests illegal and undemocratic.

Kashmir is claimed fully by India and Pakistan, who have fought three wars over the Himalayan region, and is divided along a military line of control. Many Kashmiris, particularly the majority Muslims in the Kashmir Valley, want the right to either join with India or Pakistan or declare independence.

An armed anti-India insurgency, supported by militants from Pakistan, has raged for decades and left more than 70,000 people dead, mostly civilians. India maintains more than 500,000 soldiers in the region. 

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