SRINAGAR, India – Tens of thousands of voters flocked on Thursday to polling stations in Indian-administered Kashmir to vote for two parliamentary seats amid tight security and calls for a boycott by separatist groups.
According to Election Commission of India, a little over 37 percent of the 3.3 million eligible voters in the two Kashmir constituencies cast their votes by 2:00 pm in the first of the seven phases of India’s general elections.
The two constituencies that polled on Thursday alongside 89 others in the rest of India are north Kashmir’s Baramulla and Jammu in the south of the Himalayan state – divided between India and Pakistan but claimed by both in its entirety.
The voting, which authorities said was “incident free so far,” took place amid a shutdown called by separatists, who allege polls are an “illegitimate” exercise to betray the disputed nature of the idyllic region, caught in a bitter territorial dispute between the two South Asian nuclear neighbors.
Thousands of police and paramilitary troopers were deployed to guard polling stations and roads leading to them.
An official at the Police Control Room (PCR) in the main city of Srinagar told EFE that security personnel were deployed in the poll-bound three districts of Kashmir Valley and four districts of Jammu to “facilitate elections.”
“We were provided with 100 extra companies of security forces personnel by the union government to deploy them during polls,” an official at the Divisional Commissioner’s office in Srinagar told EFE.
Authorities also suspended train services in the valley and internet connectivity in the poll-bound areas to “maintain law and order.”
People in Baramulla, which lies near the Line of Control, the de facto border that splits the state between India and Pakistan, questioned the presence of a large number security personnel.
“The elections are held in presence of heavy government forces in a region which is considered as highly militarized. The presence of such a large number of forces personnel is in itself coercion,” an apple trader in north Kashmir’s Sopore, who did not wish to be identified, told EFE.
Asked what change voters generally expect from such elections, the trader, who is also a member of the local fruit sellers association, said: “Elections in no way can impact the overall situation of Kashmir because this exercise is not new to the region but going on from decades together.”
The voting comes after the government launched a widespread crackdown on separatist politicians, who have called for a boycott of the polls. Hundreds of their leaders and activists have been arrested.
The state was on edge amid one of biggest military confrontations between India and Pakistan in recent years after a young Kashmiri suicide bomber on Feb. 14 rammed his car laden with explosives into a bus carrying Indian paramilitary troopers, killing 42.
The bombing, the deadliest in three decades of Kashmir’s armed rebellion, was claimed by a Pakistan-based militant group, Jaish-e-Mohammad.
The attack brought the two nations to the brink of a war. The military tension has since eased but the two armies have been sporadically exchanging artillery fire and mortar shells across the de facto border in Kashmir.