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A New Dispute in Kashmir - Washington Post

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  • Zafar Khan
    A New Dispute in Kashmir Many Leery of India s Plan for Free and Fair Legislative Election By John Lancaster Washington Post Foreign Service Friday, June 28,
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 1, 2002
      A New Dispute in Kashmir
      Many Leery of India's Plan for 'Free and Fair'
      Legislative Election

      By John Lancaster
      Washington Post Foreign Service
      Friday, June 28, 2002; Page A18


      SRINAGAR, India -- A senior Indian official here
      delivered what he thought was a reassuring message on
      Kashmir's future: Come state elections this fall,
      promised the chief election commissioner, J.M.
      Lyngdoh, Indian soldiers will no longer force people
      to go to polling places at gunpoint.

      Such is the nature of democratic reform in Kashmir,
      where the Indian government has long been accused of
      rigging elections to thwart Kashmiri leaders who favor
      independence -- or unification with Pakistan -- for
      the disputed Himalayan region.

      As international pressure rises for a resolution of
      the Kashmiri issue, which recently sparked fears of a
      nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan, Indian
      officials have vowed to hold "free and fair" elections
      for an 87-seat legislative assembly that is seen by
      many Kashmiris as illegitimate and corrupt.

      Indian officials say the contest will lay the
      groundwork for negotiations with separatist leaders
      and Pakistan, which has never recognized India's
      absorption of the mostly Muslim state. They also say
      it will help end the civil conflict that has killed
      tens of thousands of people since 1989.

      The only problem is that few people here seem to
      believe in elections, at least as defined by India.

      "Elections don't matter a lot," said Riyaz Baig, 34,
      from behind the counter of his small fabric shop, now
      starved for foreign tourists who once paid him
      hundreds of dollars for a scarf made of fine pashmina
      wool. "We have to see to the root cause."

      In Baig's view, and in the view of many other
      Kashmiris, India's emphasis on holding elections is
      little more than a ploy. India, they say, is trying to
      distract attention from the need to begin serious
      discussions with Pakistan aimed at settling the status
      of Kashmir once and for all.

      Many are loath to participate in a process that in
      their view helps legitimize Indian rule in Kashmir.
      They also recall their bitter experience in the most
      recent legislative elections, in 1996, when Indian
      soldiers sometimes inspected the forefingers of voting
      age men and women, especially in rural areas, to
      ensure they had been marked with indelible ink,
      indicating they had voted.

      Such inspections were known as "fingernail parades."
      Those who had failed to vote were ordered to do so,
      according to reports by human rights monitors and
      Kashmiri journalists.

      Another obstacle is fear. Armed groups have called for
      a boycott of the elections, and one of them is thought
      to have engineered last month's assassination of Abdul
      Ghani Lone, 70, a prominent moderate in the All
      Parties Hurriyet Conference, the main Kashmiri
      separatist political organization.

      A day before he was gunned down at a political rally,
      Lone had said that participating in elections was not
      "blasphemous," although he stopped short of saying he
      would run for office.

      To help pave the way for elections, India has jailed
      several prominent critics of the idea, including Syed
      Ali Shah Geelani, 73, the leader of a hard-line
      Hurriyet wing, who is accused of accepting money from
      banned militant groups. Indian officials had hoped to
      persuade some moderate Hurriyet figures, including
      Lone, to field proxy candidates, but that possibility
      is fading in the aftermath of Lone's killing.

      "Here you see a confrontation between guns and
      politics," said Bashir Manzar, editor of Kashmir
      Images, one of five English-language newspapers in
      Srinagar. "At this moment there is no space for
      politics. That is because people are under pressure.
      They can't give voice to their feelings because they
      fear both sides."

      Manzar, whose editorials regularly castigate militants
      as well as security forces for their violent ways,
      knows whereof he speaks. Late last month, armed men
      entered the newspaper's cramped downtown offices and
      shot a young reporter in what is presumed to have been
      a politically motivated attack. The reporter, Zafar
      Iqbal, is out of danger but still cannot speak because
      the bullet damaged his vocal cords, Manzar said.

      Indian-sponsored elections have their supporters in
      Jammu and Kashmir, the Indian state that includes a
      significant Hindu minority population. The legislative
      assembly is dominated by a Muslim party, the National
      Conference, which favors autonomy for Kashmir but
      stops short of calling for separation from India.

      National Conference Party leaders and some other
      politicians say they are encouraged by initial signs
      that the Pakistani president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf,
      is living up to his pledge to cut off the flow of
      Islamic militants into Kashmir. They suggest that a
      drop in violence could create political breathing

      Nazir Ahmad, the party's general secretary, called on
      separatist leaders to put their names forward for the
      legislative assembly. "They're welcome," he said. "We
      tell them, 'You prove your representative character.'
      If people vote for them, let them come in the

      That is the argument of Indian officials in New Delhi,
      who describe the elections as a critical first step
      toward dialogue -- a term they prefer to negotiations
      -- with Pakistan and the Kashmiri separatist leaders.

      "We can't talk to the Hurriyet because they haven't
      proved their representative character," said an
      official in India's Interior Ministry. "Now, whoever
      comes out of the election process, we will talk with
      them. That is why we had asked Hurriyet to participate
      in the elections."

      Mehbooba Mufti, 42, the daughter of a former Indian
      cabinet minister and a prominent Kashmiri Muslim
      politician, is among those who are considering the
      Indian government's offer. She is openly sympathetic
      to "the boys," as the militants are called here, but
      thinks "a good election can be a starting point."

      Still, Mufti has not announced her candidacy for the
      assembly. Given the history of electoral politics in
      Kashmir, she said, she doubts that India and the
      National Conference are serious about their commitment
      to a clean contest.

      "Elections have really added to the miseries of the
      people," she said. "Let's see if it's free and fair."

      Special correspondent Rama Lakshmi contributed to this

      © 2002 The Washington Post Company

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