Page last updated at 20:27 GMT, Monday, 17 November 2008

Protests fade as Kashmir vote begins

By Damian Grammaticas
BBC News, Bandipora

Women queue to vote in Bandipora
Turn-out was higher than expected, as protests failed to materialise

There was an eerie dawn to election day in Kashmir.

Streets and roads were empty, villages deserted. A blanket of mist hung over the Kashmir valley, the Himalayan peaks just shadows in the distance.

As we drove the two hours from Srinagar to the constituency of Bandipora we saw barely a soul. Except, that is, for soldiers. They were everywhere.

Thousands and thousands of them, armed men stationed every few hundred metres along the road, at every junction, on patrol or on guard in empty villages.

The combination of separatist leaders calling for a boycott of the poll and the massive security put in place by India meant Kashmiris were reluctant to venture outside their homes.

'Digging our graves'

People did emerge, but slowly. At a polling station in Bandipora just three people cast ballots in the first half hour of voting.

Then more and more began to turn up, jostling in queues, women in burkhas, men wearing long woollen cloaks to protect themselves against the cold.

One of those defying the boycott was Usman Majid. He is a former militant who used to fight India but is now standing as a candidate in the polls it is organising.

Usman Majid
Usman Majid says politics, not violence, will solve Kashmir's woes

He was elected to represent Bandipora in Kashmir's assembly in 2002 and he is hoping to be re-elected this year.

"I realised we are just digging graves for ourselves," he said, explaining his decision to give up the bullet in favour of the ballot box.

"I realised nothing is going to change, everything will remain the same, only death and destruction is taking place. So I decided let me fight for the genuine cause of the people."

But the leaders of Kashmir's separatist parties, who want independence from India, see it differently.

They dismiss any idea of taking part in a vote organised by India, saying a fair election cannot be held with such a huge military presence. A vote for a state assembly is no substitute for a referendum on independence, they say.

The problem for the main separatist figures was that they had all been detained, jailed or put under house arrest to prevent them leading demonstrations against the election.

So, leaderless, the protests against the first day of voting all fizzled out fast.

Obama plea

At the first sign of trouble in the centre of Bandipora, the Indian soldiers moved in quickly.

Women protest in Bandipora
There were some protests in Bandipora but troops quickly moved to quell them

Just a few women had gathered shouting "Azadi": freedom. The troops ran towards them wielding sticks, they lashed out at a couple of women and then tried to herd them down a side street.

Seconds later, from some houses nearby, came a volley of stones thrown at the soldiers. The troops retreated helter-skelter to get away from the flying rocks. Then they responded with teargas.

Some Indian soldiers dashed down an alley and came back dragging a young man with them. He was punched a couple of times, bundled into the back of a police van, and with that the opposition to the vote was snuffed out.

"See what they are doing here," said a Kashmiri man angrily pointing at the soldiers. "There is no election here."

Miyan Qayoom
Miyan Qayoom says he wants the US to engage with the issue of Kashmir

One of the few pro-independence leaders not under arrest ahead of the election was Miyan Qayoom.

He said the separatists were calling on US President-elect Barack Obama to help, they had written to him asking him to come to their aid.

"We have told him he should come forward, help us in this hour of crisis and play his role," he said. "As the superpower of the world America has a duty towards the people of Kashmir."

But at the polling stations as the afternoon drew on the lines of voters grew longer. The lack of major protests, it seemed, had encouraged more Kashmiris to cast their ballots.

By the end of the day the turnout was fairly respectable, at just over 50% in the Kashmir valley.

The election is being held in stages over six weeks. That is so the security forces can be rotated around the different constituencies.

A final judgement on the credibility of the process and India's handling of it will have to wait until the last votes are counted.

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