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Cases of coercion mar the authenticity of Kashmir election

New Delhi: Some of the aura of "success" and "fairplay" officially claimed for the first phase of Jammu and Kashmir assembly election of September 16, wore off quickly as more and more reports of coercion began to pour in from isolated poll booths.

Rigging is a fact of life in Indian elections nationwide. Jammu and Kashmir has been more unfortunate in this respect, which is one of the reasons why youths frustrated by ballot resort to bullet. That invites greater repression from the state, which in turn fuels further popular resentment. And the vicious spiral takes on a momentum of its own.

Local newspapers like Kashmir Times and Greater Kashmir yesterday and today reported extensive infarction of electoral law at the hands of anti-poll rebels as well as government forces.

One police constable was killed in gun battle with rebels, six people were hurt in explosions at or near polling stations, while another six explosive devices were defused by security forces at other places.

According to one report in Greater Kashmir, Kulangam village in Kupwara district, had quite a few people who did not want to have anything to do with elections. "Several of the 2,000 residents said the army was intimidating those who had planned to boycott the polls", the report said.

"I was sitting in my house, taking tea, when three or four army people knocked on the door. They said, ‘Go to the polling station and cast your vote. Why are you sitting inside’," shopkeeper Mushtaq Ahmad told Greater Kashmir.

Caught between militants and the military, common Kashmiris are damned if they vote, and damned still if they don’t. As many as 24 electioneering activists of different political parties were gunned down by anti-poll rebels after the announcement of election dates.

In growing desperation rebels killed J&K law minister Mushtaq Ahmad Lone as tourism minister Sakina Itoo and industry minister Mustafa Kamal barely escaped repeated murder attempts last week. People who have been seen campaigning or voting are fearful.

The 23-party separatist outfit All Party Hurriyat Conference (APHC) boycotting polls claimed the elections had been rigged. APHC chief Abdul Ghani Bhat told a press conference in Srinagar on September 17, that security forces had "coerced people to vote".

Local media reported that a lower rate of polling had been recorded than in earlier elections. Officially, 47 percent polling was recorded in Poonch and 46 percent in Rajouri district. However, the two districts had polled 69.21 percent and 60.9 percent respectively in 1996. The fall is attributed to militants’ warning to voters not to participate in elections.

Muzamil Jaleel of the Indian Express, one of the major national dailies of India, reported from Handwara that initially voters were frightened of rebels. In the early hours a few voters began to trickle in hesitatingly to the polling stations.

But as the day progressed "dozens of men and women walked towards polling booths in Handwara town and adjoining villages. The enthusiasm was unprecedented and people lined up with smiling faces, brushing aside all fears of militant retribution".

This required tremendous courage, because Handwara had witnessed some of the worst rebel violence in the run-up to polls. Militants killed an independent candidate, Abdur Rahman Sheikh, along with his two nephews and slapped posters with death threats warning residents not to vote.

Jaleel said voter enthusiasm dwindled late in the morning as army personnel appeared on the scene and began to coerce villagers to go out and vote. "They barged in and asked everybody to come out. We did try to resist, but they did not listen. They pushed us with their rifle butts," complained Ghulam Mohammad Sofi, a shopkeeper.

The enthusiastic mood of voters was curdled by coercion. The army herded a group of citizens, taking them to the nearest polling station. "The crowd started shouting slogans, and the armymen left us alone. We will not vote at any cost now," an irate Sofi declared.

Jaleel reported the case of a 25-year-old artist who was beaten up by armymen for staying home instead of going out to vote. "I was slapped and hit with rifle butts," artist Abdul Hameed Dar complained.

"We had expected a good turnout, but the army ruined it," rued political activist Abdul Hamid Wani, 26, who was a polling agent for one of the candidates. Locals said the unnecessary coercion by the army had turned off enthusiastic voters.

Many boycotted polls not because they were afraid of militants but because they resented army arm-twisting. "The boycott was provoked by (the army) unnecessarily forcing people to vote. They would have come on their own", said Wani.

The voting shows a mixed pattern of free will and coercion. The next phase would do well without over-enthusiastic security personnel forcing democracy down people’s throats with bayonets.

¯ MG Correspondent

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