Voting on in Jammu and Kashmir amid tight security (Lead)

November 17th, 2008 - 11:10 am ICT by IANS  

Srinagar/Jammu, Nov 17 (IANS) Voting for the first phase of the seven-stage assembly elections to elect the new Jammu and Kashmir government began Monday morning amid a boycott call by separatist leaders and tight security measures. Polling started at 8 a.m. in 10 constituencies spread over the Muslim-dominated Kashmir Valley, the Hindu-majority Jammu region and the mainly Buddhist Ladakh.

Braving the chilly winter conditions, voters came out in small numbers early morning in Bandipora and Sonawari constituencies of the Valley to elect representatives to the new 87-member state assembly.

People clad in woolens and holding kangris (traditional wooden or earthen firepots), were seen queueing up outside polling stations in Bandipora and Sonawari.

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

Hurriyat Conference, the main separatist group, has called for a march to Bandipora and Sonawari against the elections.

But authorities have made elaborate security arrangements at all polling stations in the constituencies. Dotting every road in the Kashmir valley are armed paramilitary soldiers and policemen.

Entry points to these two constituencies have been highly regulated in the light of the separatist march call.

Despite a low turnout in the morning in Bandipora and Sonawari, officials are hoping more people will come out to vote as the day progresses.

This is the third assembly election in the state, which is currently under governor’s rule. In the past, militants have attacked and killed many candidates and political workers, 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 - 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 total of 373 polling stations in the district of which 120 were hyper-sensitive, 150 sensitive and the rest normal 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 good number of voters had lined up at Dawar, the sub-divisional headquarters of 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 its legislative support this year.

The 10 constituencies 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 voters 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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