India holds Kashmir elections despite lockdown
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 will 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 will lend credibility amid a political vacuum and contend they will represent local interests better than corrupt state-level political officials.
Heavy contingents of police and paramilitary soldiers guarded polling stations. At some places, soldiers patrolled streets around polling stations. Police said no violence was reported.
Thursday's 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.
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 India's Parliament downgraded in August to a federal territory, a change that takes effect on 31 October.
Barricades and books in restive Kashmir neighbourhood
Anchar, a densely-populated, working-class area of Srinagar, is a pocket of resistance to India's revocation in early August of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, the country's only Muslim-majority state. By Danish Siddiqui
Few people step outside Anchar, a neighbourhood ringed by steel barricades and razor wire in Indian Kashmir, where police have imposed a weeks-long region-wide clampdown to stifle protests
As night falls, groups of youths, many wearing masks and armed with stones and tree branches, are huddled around bonfires, sipping tea provided by neighbours. "I am spending the night outdoors so I can protect my family," said Fazil, a 16-year-old student. "There is no fear in me," he added, holding a thick tree branch as he watched the street from a checkpoint
Worshippers gathered in the mosque in Anchar for Friday prayers listen intently to Hayat Ahmed Bhat, a Kashmiri activist, prior to a street demonstration
Seven weeks since the clampdown and a degree of normalcy has returned. Telephone landlines are working again, though mobile and Internet networks remain suspended. Shops open briefly to allow people to restock supplies and traffic is back on Srinagar's streets. In Anchar, however, the situation remains tense
The neighbourhood is a no-go zone for security forces. Entrances to the area are guarded by young people manning barricades made of tree trunks, electricity poles and barbed wire to keep the police out. Laneways have been dug up to block security vehicles
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said Kashmir's special status, which allowed only residents to buy property and hold government jobs, restricted its development and encouraged a separatist revolt that has killed 40,000 people since 1989. Indian authorities have arrested nearly 4,000 people since the decision
With government services like schools still shut in Anchar, four college students have set up a makeshift school, giving lessons to 200 children for a few hours each day. "The education of students in this locality is suffering because of the turmoil. We won't let our future generations suffer," said Adil, a college student turned teacher
"Bullets and pellets every day": Anchar's female residents has also taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest the revocation of Kashmir's special status and the clampdown by Prime Minister Modi and his ruling Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party
Rubina's 15-year-old son was injured by pellets fired by security forces while he was returning home from Friday prayers. The boy's head is heavily bandaged and he hasn't spoken since the incident, but the family would rather treat him at home than take him to a city hospital, fearing he could be detained by police
"If he has to go out for a change of bandage to the nearby government hospital, he will be accompanied by six or seven women, so they don't snatch him away," Rubina said
More than seven weeks after the crackdown began, there is little sign of an end to the stand-off in this neighbourhood, home to some 15,000 people
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, the
electorate for Thursday's vote, 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 will be responsible for allocating government funds, as grassroots democracy. But observer 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 last December 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% of the 21,208 village council seats in the Kashmir valley are vacant because no one ran for them. The winners of another 30% were elected unopposed.
Before downgrading Kashmir's status, New Delhi sent tens of thousands of additional troops to the already heavily militarised regions, imposed a sweeping curfew, arrested thousands and cut virtually all communications.
Authorities have since eased some restrictions, lifting roadblocks and restoring landlines and some mobile phones. They have encouraged students to return to school and businesses to reopen, but Kashmiris have largely stayed home, in defiance or fear amid threats of violence.
The Modi government says removing a constitutional provision that gave Kashmir some measure of autonomy since independence from British rule in 1947 was necessary to give rights afforded other Indian citizens, usher in greater economic development and do away with the sense of separateness that BJP leaders say has cultivated the separatist movement.
But as the crackdown continues, Kashmiris have quietly refused to resume their normal lives, confounding India at their own economic
expense. Shops have adopted new, limited hours of operation in the early morning and evening. Taxi drivers haven't returned to the roads. Shailendra Kumar, the chief electoral officer, said the government had planned for the polls in June.
Conducting the elections during an ongoing crackdown "could be a discussion point," Kumar said, "but should we delay it for another year? I don't think so. This is a clear-cut system governed by rules, and rules don't ask me to gauge mood and sentiments but to facilitate the process."
Some Kashmiris view the polls cynically as a move to create a new political elite loyal to the Modi government that found its plans
widely rejected in the region.
"Every election here is meant to pull wool over eyes of Kashmiris and create a smoke screen that everything is fine here," said Mohammed Abdullah, a college teacher. "It's also meant to convey to the world that India is a democracy and Kashmir is part of this vibrant democracy."
To Abdullah and other Kashmiris still reeling from the changes in the region, Thursday's polls suggest the opposite. (AP)