Little sign of normalcy as Kashmir goes to the polls

The election - a vote to choose rural development officials - was called suddenly.
The election - a vote to choose rural development officials - was called suddenly.PHOTO: NYTIMES

SRINAGAR (Kashmir) • Votes are being counted after the first local elections in Kashmir since the Indian government waged a harsh political and security crackdown in the restive region last year.

Officials on Tuesday hailed a solid turnout as a sign that democracy has been restored, but little in Kashmir feels normal.

"The voting shows democracy being alive at the grassroots," the region's top civil servant, Mr B.V.R. Subrahmanyam, told a group of reporters. "People taking value of their own lives is visible, palpable."

The election - a vote to choose rural development officials - was called suddenly, giving parties only a week to register candidates before the first round of the eight-phase polling began last month, political leaders said.

Many prominent Kashmiri politicians and public figures remain in detention with no recourse, or under threat.

And hundreds of thousands of political workers for India's Hindu-nationalist ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), travelled through the region carrying banners and signs, hoping to make a strong showing in a mostly Muslim territory where it has traditionally been loathed.

The party did appear to make some inroads, winning at least three seats and leading in several dozen races in the 280-seat District Development Council.

But some of the voter engagement appeared to stem more from defiance than satisfaction.

"We'd never want the BJP to be in power in Kashmir," said Ms Kulsoom Chopan, 21, while waiting to vote in Bandipora, a northern district. "We would never vote for India."

This relatively small-stakes election was the first time that India has allowed foreign reporters into Jammu and Kashmir since August last year, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government revoked the constitutional provision that gave the region some political autonomy.

Activists say hundreds of people, including separatists, political moderates, civil society advocates and journalists, remain in jail after they were swept up last year.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 24, 2020, with the headline 'Little sign of normalcy as Kashmir goes to the polls'. Subscribe