Sat, Oct 26, 2019 - Page 5 News List

India holds Kashmir polls despite lockdown, boycott

BLOCK DEVELOPMENT COUNCILS:Some Kashmiris view the election of council leaders as an attempt to create a new political elite loyal to Narendra Modi’s government

AP, SRINAGAR, India

An Indian paramilitary soldier checks the bag of a Kashmiri boy outside a polling station on the outskirts of Srinagar, Indian-controlled Kashmir, on Thursday.

Photo: AP

Village council elections were held on Thursday across Indian-

controlled Kashmir, with the detention of many mainstream local politicians and a boycott by most parties prompting expectations that the polls would install supporters of the central Hindu nationalist-led government that revoked the region’s semi-autonomous status in August.

Indian officials are hoping the election of leaders of more than 300 local councils would lend credibility amid a political vacuum and contend they would represent local interests better than corrupt state-level political officials.

Heavy contingents of police and paramilitary soldiers guarded polling stations. In some places, soldiers patrolled streets around polling stations. Police said no violence was reported.

The elections were boycotted by most political parties, including those whose leaders had been sympathetic to the central government, but are now in makeshift jails or under house arrest.

India’s main opposition Congress Party boycotted as well, possibly allowing a clean sweep for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The BJP has a very small base in the Kashmir Valley, the heart of a decades-old anti-India insurgency in the region of about 12 million people.

Predominantly Muslim Kashmir is split between India and Pakistan, with both countries claiming the region in its entirety. Insurgents in the Indian-controlled portion demand independence or a merger with Pakistan.

In Thursday’s elections, members of more than 300 Block Development Councils formed last year chose the councils’ leaders. Each block comprises a cluster of villages across Jammu and Kashmir, a state that the Indian Parliament downgraded in August to a federal territory, a change that takes effect on Thursday next week.

About 1,000 people ran in the elections. In at least 25 councils, candidates ran unopposed.

Most of the candidates and thousands of council members have lived for months in hotels in Srinagar, the region’s main city, because of security concerns. In the past, militants fighting against Indian rule have targeted candidates.

Officials tout the councils, which would be responsible for allocating government funds, as grassroots democracy, but observers say the system lacks legitimacy in Kashmir.

Political scientist Noor Ahmed Baba said the exercise, at least in theory, is an “important layer of democracy,” but questioned conducting it in “extremely difficult and abnormal times.”

“When most people are bothered about their basic freedoms and livelihood, facing crushing restrictions, you’ve these elections,” Baba said. “This is more like completing a formality. It looks more like an artificial exercise.”

Council elections held in December last year were boycotted by separatist leaders and armed rebel groups that challenge India’s sovereignty over Kashmir. Both rebels and separatists have called elections in Kashmir an illegitimate exercise under military occupation.

About 60 percent of the 21,208 village council seats in the Kashmir Valley are vacant because no one ran for them. The winners of another 30 percent were elected unopposed.

Before downgrading Kashmir’s status, New Delhi sent tens of thousands of additional troops to the already heavily militarized regions, imposed a sweeping curfew, arrested thousands and cut virtually all communications.

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