Indian Kashmir votes in shadow of violence

ANANTNAG (AFP) - Indian Kashmir headed to the polls under the shadow of violent threats from militants on Thursday in the latest stage of the country's five-week election that sees 180 million people eligible to vote.

Residents of India's financial and entertainment capital Mumbai also cast ballots, as did constituents in the electorally significant southern state of Tamil Nadu.

The polls are being staggered in a bid to ensure the safety of the 814-million-strong electorate with results due on May 16 when the opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is forecast to take power.

The first of three constituencies to vote in the Muslim-majority and volatile Kashmir valley, where a separatist movement against Indian rule is centred, posed a heightened challenge for security forces.

Turnout was light in the morning, but those who did arrive at heavily guarded polling stations defied the calls for a boycott and threats from militant groups.

"I voted because if we send the right person to the Indian parliament he will raise our voice for azadi (freedom)," voter Umair told AFP in Anantnag, reflecting widespread separatist sentiment in the area.

At least 30 village council chiefs resigned on Wednesday after rebels killed two of their colleagues and warned people not to participate in the election.

Some dozen groups have been fighting for more than two decades for the area's independence or merger with Pakistan, in violence that has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people.

Few in Kashmir would be expected to back election frontrunner Narendra Modi, a hardline Hindu nationalist who is leading campaigning for the BJP.

Modi, the chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, remains a divisive figure after being accused of failing to swiftly curb anti-Muslim riots in his state in 2002. The unrest cost at least 1,000 lives.

The BJP has little following in the Kashmir region which has an electorate of more than 1.3 million. A total of 675 of the 1,619 polling stations are described as "hyper sensitive" and and another 685 are "sensitive".

Millions of voters, from Bollywood stars and business leaders to slum dwellers, turned out to vote in the western megacity of Mumbai.

"I believe we need change. Change is good. So I have found time to vote for change," said Anand Shetty, a 55-year-old professional in the corporate sector.

In a rare move by the Hindi movie industry, more than 50 filmmakers, actors and writers, many of them Muslim, last week signed an appeal urging Indians not to vote for Modi and instead choose a "secular" party.

But others have come out in support of the 63-year-old, such as actor and scriptwriter Salim Khan, who last week launched an Urdu-language version of the politician's website.

Also going to the polls are voters in Tamil Nadu state, where Chief Minister Jayalalithaa Jayaram is hoping to win enough support to play a pivotal role in shaping India's next government.

The former film star, known as "Mother" to her followers, is one of the country's powerful regional leaders who could play a kingmaker role if Modi does not win a majority.

Also voting on Thursday are parts of Assam, West Bengal, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan states.

Modi is expected to travel to the northern town of Varanasi on Thursday, one of Hinduism's most sacred locations, where he is standing for a seat in parliament.

The move to contest in Varanasi was seen as a nod to BJP's Hindu roots and a ploy to garner support in the crucial northern state of Uttar Pradesh where Varanasi is located.