Defying separatists, Jammu and Kashmir sees 64 percent polling (Second Intro Roundup)

November 18th, 2008 - 12:55 am ICT by IANS  

Srinagar/Jammu, Nov 17 (IANS) Defying a boycott call by Muslim separatists, a high 64 percent of the voters cast their ballots peacefully in the first phase of the staggered assembly elections in troubled Jammu and Kashmir Monday.According to late night revised polling estimates by state election commission official B.R. Sharma, the percentage stood at 63.75 - way beyond the 55 they had estimated initially.

The high voter turnout came as a surprise to political parties.

Voters braved the winter chill and the boycott call from separatists to patiently stand in long queues to exercise their franchise in the state that has been without an elected government for three months and in the global spotlight of trouble for two decades.

It was a vote for change, they said.

Security personnel swarmed the 10 constituencies in the Muslim dominated Kashmir Valley, the Hindu majority Jammu region and the mainly Buddhist Ladakh that held elections in the first round of the seven-phased elections that get over Dec 24.

The polling was peaceful in the troubled state that has seen separatist violence for more than two decades, leaving over 40,000 dead.

The 64 percent turnout amongst the 600,000 electorate Monday was warming despite the biting cold, said political parties as the trickle of electorate in the state’s tenth election steadily grew as the day progressed.

The statistics too spoke of the voter enthusiasm in the shadow of the gun.

In the Kashmir Valley, where restrictions imposed by the government and the call by separatists meant a virtual curfew, Gurez topped with 74 percent followed by Bandipora 57 and Sonawari 46 percent.

In Jammu region, till close of day, Mendhar and Poonch Haveli reported a turnout of 73 percent and Surankot 68 percent.

In the cold desert of Ladakh, where temperatures dipped below zero degree Celsius, more than 60 percent of voters turned out in Zanskar, Kargil, Nobra and Leh constituencies.

This was significant given the boycott call of the separatists and the fear of violence in the region, which has been the centre of four conflicts between India and Pakistan.

In Trigam village, 20 km north of the summer capital Srinagar, where voters queued under an overcast sky, the mood was optimistic.

At the village in Sonawari constituency, 24-year-old Sakina said candidly as she queued up: “I am unemployed and helping my mother with household chores. I am a graduate. I am worried for my future. Electing the right representative can address my problems.”

Asked whether it was worth voting in such cold weather, she said: “It is better to brave the cold for one day than face it for the rest of your life.”

The stories were many in the state, which has been under Governor’s Rule since July after the Congress government collapsed over violent differences between the Jammu region and the Kashmir Valley over land for the Hindu Amarnath shrine.

In one polling booth in mountainous Gurez, 78 of 79 voters had cast their ballot by 11 a.m.

At another booth in Sonawari, Muhammad Ibrahim Dar, who is touching 100, was amongst the first to vote. He has witnessed all the electoral exercises in the state since 1957, when the first general elections were held in Jammu and Kashmir.

In Jammu’s Bagial Dhara polling station in Poonch, Mohammad Hussain, a former militant who said he had received training in Pakistan and surrendered in 2004, was third in the queue. “(It was a) great feeling”, he said.

Political parties - the main contenders for power are the Congress, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), National Conference and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) - exulted.

The high voter turnout, National Conference president Omar Abdullah said, was an indication of stable Jammua and Kashmir. “The turnout of the people to exercise their constitutional right is an eye-opener.”

“It proves the people of the state want the Kashmir issue to be resolved. They also want to assert their right, elect their representatives who can address their day to day grievances,” Abdullah said.

Said A.G. Vakil of the Congress: “We had predicted this. The people have rejected separatists’ policies.”

National Conference leader Abdur Rahim Rather described the turnout as a “moral victory”.

However, PDP’s Mehbooba Mufti was more circumspect. “The situation is still not conducive for the exercise. But we are hopeful that things will improve in the next phases.”

Separatist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, who has been under house arrest since Thursday, echoed the pessimism and accused the government of holding an election under the barrel of the gun.

Dismissing the turnout figures, he said: “First, we don’t have an independent mechanism to confirm these official figures. And if these are understood to be true, then what about the majority of the people who didn’t vote? Is not that our victory? It’s the vindication of pro-freedom leaders.”

Underlining the irony, he added: “Whenever we planned to hold anti-election rallies, curfew was imposed in the valley… and they call it a democratic process.”

While elections to the first 10 of the 87 constituencies were relatively peaceful, there was sporadic trouble.

In Bandipora, a group of people protesting against the elections clashed with police; in Sonawari, there was a scuffle between workers of National Conference and PDP.

In Poshpora in the same constituency, polling had to be suspended after workers of the two parties clashed over allegations of booth capturing and destroying electronic voting machines (EVM).

And as if in a reminder that core issues still remain to be solved in the troubled region, a soldier was killed by suspected militants in Jammu’s Mendhar area.

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