Protesters in Kashmir try to block vote, police crack down

Kashmiri women voters wait to cast their votes at a polling station in Kangan, east of Srinagar April 30, 2014. REUTERS/Danish Ismail
By Fayaz Bukhari

By Fayaz Bukhari SRINAGAR India (Reuters) - Police fired teargas in Kashmir on Wednesday to break up small groups of young men protesting against a general election as voters largely stayed away from polling stations in the troubled valley. More than 1,000 people including separatist leaders who called for an election boycott were taken into custody or placed under house arrest ahead of the vote in Srinagar, the region's main city and hotbed of a nearly 25-year-old rebellion. "This is democracy at gunpoint. We don't want to have anything to do with this process. We want independence for Kashmir," said Hilal Ahmad, a 22-year-old protester at a deserted street crossing. India has long struggled to bring Kashmiris into the democratic mainstream and elections in the past have been marred by violence and low turn-out. In the past few weeks, there has been an increase in attacks by separatist militants, feeding into broader fears that regional Islamist groups may turn their attention to Kashmir as foreign forces leave Afghanistan by the end of this year. Hundreds of police wearing body armour and carrying assault rifles patrolled the streets of Srinagar. Groups of young men gathered at intersections and threw stones at police and election officials. "Srinagar has been turned into a military garrison," said separatist leader Mirwaiz Omar Farooq, speaking from his home where he had been put under house arrest. Six hours into the vote, only 16 percent of registered voters had showed up. Political leaders in Kashmir blame the federal government for failing to find a political solution as violence ebbed in the past few years. Some believe that opposition leader Narendra Modi, tipped to win the election, may be in a better position to talk to Kashmiris as he enjoys the full support of the Hindu right. "There is a feeling among the people of Kashmir that you need a Hindu fundamentalist party in power to look at any possibility of a Kashmir solution because if they go for any bold initiative or compromise, people will not raise a finger at them," Mirwaiz told Reuters last month. Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has long advocated a tough position on issues of national security including Kashmir. Majority Muslim Kashmir has been a source of strife since British India was divided into independent India and Pakistan in 1947, with many Kashmiris, and Pakistan, saying the region should have been part of Muslim Pakistan, not Hindu-majority India. India and Pakistan have fought three wars since 1947, two of them over Kashmir. India says Pakistan supports the separatist militants. Pakistan denies, saying it only offers moral support to the Kashmiri people. (Writing by Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by Robert Birsel)