Voters in Kashmir defy winter chill, separatists (Second Lead)

November 17th, 2008 - 3:22 pm ICT by IANS  

Srinagar/Jammu, Nov 17 (IANS) Voters braved the winter chill and ignored a boycott call by separatist leaders to vote in large numbers for the first phase of the assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir Monday.Polling started at 8 a.m. amid tight security in 10 constituencies spread over the Muslim-dominated Kashmir Valley, the Hindu-majority Jammu region and the mainly Buddhist Ladakh. The voting for the 87 constituencies is being held in seven phases, starting Monday.

Barring a small clash between a group of people protesting against the elections in Bandipora town and the police and a scuffle between workers of National Conference and People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in the neighbouring Sonawari constituency, balloting was progressing smoothly.

Notwithstanding the freezing cold and the fear of the separatists, the trickle of voters at polling stations across the 10 constituencies in the Jammu, Ladakh and Kashmir Valley regions continued. The crowds were increasing as the day progressed.

The statistics too spoke of the voter enthusiasm.

Till noon, in Jammu region, Surankot reported a turnout of 35 percent, Poonch Haveli 29 and Mendhar 22, while the figures for the four seats in Ladakh region are, Kargil 26, Zanskar 18, Nobra 17.7 and Leh 12.2.

Gurez in the Kashmir Valley topped with 21 percent followed by Bandipora 16 and Sonawari 12. This is significant given the boycott call of the separatists and the fear of violence in the region.

Officials said the percentage in the Valley might appear low but they hoped it will improve with better weather.

People clad in woollens and holding kangris (traditional wooden or earthen firepots) were seen queueing up outside polling stations in Bandipora and Sonawari in the Valley right since the morning.

Separatist leaders, many of them jailed during the run-up to the vote, had asked people in the Kashmir Valley to boycott the polls.

Hurriyat Conference, the main separatist group, had even called for a march in Bandipora and Sonawari against the elections.

But adequate security at all polling stations ensured there was no such move by the Hurriyat till noon. Dotting every road in the Kashmir valley are armed paramilitary troopers and policemen. All entry points to these two constituencies were under check.

There was only one incident involving those opposing the elections in Kashmir. “In Bandipora town, a small group of protesters came out in the town to dissuade voters from exercising their franchise,” the district’s superintendent of police, Sheikh Junaid, told IANS. They were chased away following a clash.

Another incident was a clash between workers of the National Conference (NC) and People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in Sonawari constituency over allegations of booth capturing.

A scuffle broke out between them at the Poshpura polling station in Naidkhai area when PDP workers accused their NC counterparts of booth capturing.

The state is currently under governor’s rule. In the past, militants have attacked and killed many candidates and political workers during elections, vandalised polling stations and attacked rallies to thwart elections.

In Nobra, Leh, Kargil and Zanskar constituencies of the Ladakh region - where temperatures have dipped below zero degrees Celsius - people lined up in large numbers since morning outside polling stations.

There was a lot of enthusiasm among voters in Mendhar, Surankote and Poonch-Haveli constituencies of Poonch district in the Jammu region.

Deputy Commissioner of Poonch Mohammad Afzal Bhat said there were 373 polling stations in the district of which 120 were hyper-sensitive and 150 sensitive from the security point of view.

“We are expecting at least 70 percent turnout as the weather is also bright and sunny here,” Bhat said.

Though the Line of Control (LoC), the de facto border, was quiet after the 2003 truce between India and Pakistan, Bhat said that “keeping in mind the incidents of ceasefire violations by Pakistan, we have contingency plans for 30 polling stations close to the LoC to be relocated in case of any eventuality”.

Reports from Gurez constituency said a sizeable number of voters had lined up at Dawar, the sub-divisional headquarters that is in the constituency.

Vying for power in the state are the Congress, Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), National Conference and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Also in the fray are the Panthers Party as well as a slew of independents.

The Congress and PDP had together ruled the state since 2002 but the government of Congress chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad collapsed after the PDP withdrew support this year.

The 10 constituencies that went to the polls Monday have 1,064 polling stations. There are 58,073 voters in Kargil, 62,533 in Leh, 20,044 in Zanskar, 11,863 in Nobra, 84,726 in Sonawari, 86,306 in Bandipora, 15,330 in Gurez, 84,969 in Surankote, 77,853 in Mendhar and 96,758 in Poonch-Haveli.

The remaining six phases of the elections will be held Nov 23, Nov 30, Dec 7, Dec 13, Dec 17 and Dec 24. The counting of votes will take place Dec 28.

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