India vote resumes with Kashmir poised to oppose Modi

General |Author: AFP | May 14, 2024, Tuesday @ 07:18| 1644 views

A Muslim woman shows her inked finger after casting her ballot at a polling station during the fourth phase of voting in India’s general election, in Hyderabad on May 13, 2024. (Photo by NOAH SEELAM / AFP)

India's six-week election resumed Monday including in Kashmir, where voters appeared eager to express discontent with Prime Minister Narendra Modi's cancellation of their disputed territory's semi-autonomy and the security crackdown that followed.

Modi remains popular across much of India and his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is widely expected to win the poll when it concludes early next month.

But his government's decision in 2019 to bring Kashmir under its direct rule -- and the subsequent clampdown -- have been deeply resented among the region's residents, who voted Monday for the first time since the move.

"I voted for changing the current government. It must happen for our children to have a good future," civil servant Habibullah Parray told AFP.

"Everywhere you go in Kashmir today you find people from outside in charge. Everyone wants that to change."

Boycotts called by rebel groups left few Kashmiris willing to participate in past elections, with just over 14 percent of eligible voters in Srinagar casting a ballot during the last national poll in 2019.

By the time polls closed on Monday, nearly 36 percent of eligible voters in the constituency had cast a ballot, well below India's average turnout but the highest figure in the constituency in nearly three decades.

Kashmir has been divided between India and Pakistan since their independence in 1947. Both claim it in full and have fought two wars over control of the Himalayan region.

Rebel groups opposed to Indian rule have waged an insurgency since 1989 on the side of the frontier controlled by New Delhi, demanding either independence or a merger with Pakistan.

India accuses Pakistan of backing the insurgents, a charge that Islamabad denies.

The conflict has killed tens of thousands of soldiers, rebels and civilians in the decades since, including a spate of firefights between suspected rebels and security forces in the past month.

- 'Referendum' -

Violence has dwindled since the Indian portion of the territory was brought under direct rule five years ago, a move that saw the mass arrest of local political leaders and a months-long telecommunications blackout to forestall expected protests.

Modi's government says its cancelling of Kashmir's special status has brought "peace and development", and it has consistently claimed the move was supported by Kashmiris.

But his party has not fielded any candidates in the Kashmir valley for the first time since 1996, and experts say the BJP would have been roundly defeated if it had.

"They would lose, simple as that," political analyst and historian Sidiq Wahid told AFP last week.

For voters, the election was "a referendum in order to voice their disagreement" with the Modi government's actions in Kashmir, he added.

The BJP has appealed to voters to instead support smaller and newly created parties that have publicly aligned with Modi's policies.

But voters looked set to back one of two established Kashmiri political parties calling for the Modi government's changes to be reversed.

Former chief minister Omar Abdullah, whose National Conference party is campaigning for the restoration of Kashmir's special status, said his allies had urged voters to make their feelings known.

"The point of view that we want people to send out is that what happened... is not acceptable to them," he told AFP.

Before the changes in 2019, permanent residents in the Muslim-majority territory had enjoyed land and jobs protections.

In rural districts outside Srinagar, the region's biggest city, army soldiers patrolled roads in convoys of bulletproof vehicles.

Several polling booths around the constituency had more than two dozen paramilitary troops guarding voter queues.

- Nearly one billion voters -

India's election is conducted in seven phases over six weeks to ease the immense logistical burden of staging the democratic exercise in the world's most populous country.

More than 968 million people are eligible to vote in India's election, with the final round of polling on June 1 and results expected three days later.

Voter turnout elsewhere in India has so far declined significantly from 2019 to around 66 percent, according to election commission figures.

Analysts have blamed widespread expectations that Modi will easily win a third term and hotter-than-average temperatures heading into the summer.

India's weather bureau has forecast more hot spells in May and the election commission formed a taskforce last month to review the impact of heat and humidity before each round of voting.

© Agence France-Presse


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