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Page last updated at 07:36 GMT, Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Srinagar notebook - election blues

By Chris Morris
BBC News, Srinagar

Security force member in Indian administered Kashmir

In the run-up to polling day, Srinagar feels like an armed camp.

Outside active war zones (and Srinagar doesn't fit that description any longer) the main city in Indian-administered Kashmir is one of the most heavily militarised places I've ever seen. Hardly a great advert for Indian democracy.

Every 50 metres or so, on every main street, stand several men (or very occasionally women) armed with assault rifles and - more often than not - big sticks. These, it seems, are the only conditions under which elections are possible.

There are undeclared curfews and a blanket of security across the city. Half a million army and police personnel keep watch over Kashmir, and Srinagar has more than its fair share.

Other parts of Jammu and Kashmir have seen higher voting figures than expected in this election season. But Srinagar is stubborn, and resentment against Indian rule runs deep.

On the election trail on the edge of town, Omar Abdullah, son of a famous Kashmiri family, addresses a small crowd as icy rain drifts down from the misty mountains. There's razor wire in the haystacks.

Sitting on a makeshift stage on the back of a lorry, he tells me he's hoping turnout in Srinagar will reach double figures. But he doesn't look like he'd bet on it.

"We'd rather not campaign under such tight security," he says, surrounded by yet more armed men. "The gun has changed nothing for us politically, but it has destroyed us economically, and it has had a huge impact on us socially."

Living in hope

In Lal Chowk, Srinagar's central market square, Hilal Ahmed pushes a cart loaded with onions, beans and tomatoes past a watchful line of paramilitary police.

Omar Abdullah addresses rally
Omar Abdullah: 'The gun has destroyed us economically'
"This is the reality of our lives," Ahmed says. "One day we trade, and the next day everything is closed."

On the other side of the road another policeman shouts at a group of young men who peer round the corner at the row of empty shuttered shops.

"Just go away," he says. "I've told you so many times. Next time, you'll get beaten - don't say I didn't warn you."

Down in the old town, the Jama Masjid, Srinagar's finest mosque, is one of the symbols of Kashmiri identity. On Friday at noon it should be packed with worshippers coming to pray. But it too is totally deserted.

The magnificent wooden and brass doors which open into the courtyard of the mosque are padlocked shut - there have been no Friday prayers here for six weeks. In the surrounding streets the Indian security forces have enforced a total shut down.

"This is wrong," mutters a local Kashmiri policeman, as we stand and stare down an empty road. "This is a religious matter."

"Do you think Kashmir will ever be independent?" I ask.

"I hope so," he replies. "I say that as a Kashmiri, I hope so."

Freedom

Is there actually a threat which might justify all this extraordinary security? The nature of the separatist campaign has been changing, moving away from armed insurgency towards other forms of protest like street campaigns.

And compared with earlier years this election has been relatively peaceful. But two policemen were shot dead on Monday just north of Srinagar, and a few days earlier three militants from Lashkar-e-Taiba were killed in a clash with troops in a remote mountainous region.

Human rights activist Khurram Parvez
Khurram Pervez says killing innocents is no way to fight for freedom

Ah yes, Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group blamed for the Mumbai attacks in November. Lest we forget, Lashkar was originally formed to kick India out of Kashmir. So how do Kashmiris feel about them now?

I discuss this with Khurram Parvez, as we sit on a wall overlooking Dal Lake. A human rights activist, he has a personal interest in the subject.

He was badly injured when his vehicle hit a landmine in 2004. "The authorities told me Lashkar-e-Taiba had planted the mine," he says. "That's why I went to talk to them."

They were seen by many people, he says, as an organisation which was fighting the "Indian occupation" in any way it could.

"But if they have done what has happened in Mumbai, it has already affected the popularity of Lashkar-e-Taiba in Kashmir.

"Because people somehow think that if Lashkar-e-Taiba is responsible for killing innocent people like this, then they can't fight for anyone's rights, anyone's freedom. Because they are people who do not believe in any freedom."

'Political problem'

A large police truck is blocking the front gate at the house of Mirwaiz Omar Farooq, one of the main leaders of the peaceful campaign for Kashmiri independence. He's under house arrest, and we're not allowed in.

Mirwaiz Omar Farooq
Mirwaiz Omar Farooq: 'Kashmir is a political problem'

The local police chief gives us a cup of tea and biscuits, and says it's all for the Mirwaiz's own safety.

I go round the corner and call the Mirwaiz on his mobile phone. Srinagar, he says, is like a jail. But he agrees that Lashkar-e-Taiba and the accusations it faces over the Mumbai attacks have done Kashmir no favours.

"Definitely it has cast a negative shadow over the Kashmir issue," he says. "It gives leverage to those who want to link Kashmir with international terrorism and extremism.

"The fact is that Kashmir is a political problem, and we have to find a political solution to it."

But for separatists like Mirwaiz Omar Farooq that doesn't include fighting elections under the Indian constitution.

Bread and butter issues

Most of those who will vote aren't trying to make grand political statements.

Election rally on Dal Lake
A colourful election rally on Dal Lake

Elections are about bread and butter issues - the cost of food, jobs, daily life. Tensions between India and Pakistan don't really figure.

As a pale sun begins to set behind the mountains, another modest election rally begins on Dal Lake itself. Party workers in green hats, accompanied by the obligatory men with guns, scramble aboard small boats. Political slogans echo faintly across the water.

"For years we had lots of problems here," says Muzaffar Ahmed. "But the problems are now between two countries. Not here in Kashmir."

The trouble is that Kashmir remains central to the disputes between India and Pakistan. And the long term questions about its political future look set to drag on and on.

See earlier Notebook entries by Chris Morris:



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