Occupied Kashmir votes in shadow of violence

by Parvaiz BUKHARI

ANANTNAG, India: Occupied 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  occupied Kashmir, where a freedom movement against Indian rule is  centred, posed a heightened challenge for security forces.

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.

Few in occupied 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”.

Meanwhile, 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.