Kashmir voters defy separatists, turn up in large numbers (Third Lead)

November 17th, 2008 - 5:25 pm ICT by IANS  

Srinagar/Jammu, Nov 17 (IANS) Jammu and Kashmir went to the polls Monday to kickstart crucial staggered elections, with hundreds of thousands braving the winter chill and boycott calls from separatists to vote in the state’s three regions amid tight security.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 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 Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the neighbouring Sonawari constituency, balloting was progressing smoothly.

Polling had to be suspended at the Poshpora polling station after workers of NC and PDP clashed over counter-allegations of booth capturing, forcing the authorities to suspend voting. Activists of both parties entered the polling station and destroyed some electronic voting machines (EVM), it was alleged.

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 2 p.m., in Jammu region, Mundher reported a turnout of 60 percent, Poonch Haveli 52 and Surankot 42, while the figures for the four seats in Ladakh region are Zanskar 45, Kargil 42, Nobra 36 and Leh 32.2.

Gurez in the Kashmir Valley topped with 51 percent followed by Bandipora 29 and Sonawari 28. This is significant given the boycott call of the separatists and the fear of violence in the region.

People clad in woollens and holding kangris (traditional earthen firepots woven over with willow reeds) 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.

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, Surankot 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”.

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 1.2 million eligible voters and 1,064 polling stations. 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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