The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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In the crossfire, ballot means bunkers

Dawar, Sept. 16 (Reuters): For Ghulam Khadu, Kashmir’s election means just one thing — bunkers.

“We need more of them to protect us from the Pakistani shells,” he said after casting his vote in this remote, mountain village in sight of Pakistani peaks.

Despite separatist threats to disrupt the poll, Khadu turned out to vote, hoping his candidate will provide shelters from the frequent shelling between Indian and Pakistani forces and better medical care for the village, cut off six months a year by snow.

Security was tight. A machinegun guarded the gate and villagers were frisked before squatting in the sun — one line for men, one for women — for anything up to six or seven hours to press their choice on electronic voting machines.

“It’s our right,” said housewife and mother of three, Mina Begum. “We want someone to take up our problems.”

For some, it was a party atmosphere, a chance to catch up on gossip, a day off from tending the maize fields. Some sent their children home for food for impromptu picnics.

But this polling booth is next to an army camp. The surrounding territory is held by the army and its open, rocky slopes are not ideal hideouts for militants.

As Kashmiris went to the polls in the first round of voting today, feelings varied enormously. Some felt caught between the militant threat if they voted, and trouble from officials if they didn’t.

“We are trapped from both sides,” said a voter in Chajjla village, near the border town of Poonch. “We will be in trouble whether we vote or not. The villagers feel scared after the militant threat, but they are also worried that government officials might trouble them if they do not vote.”

People in some villages reported being beaten by soldiers for refusing to vote. “They beat me with rifle butts when I refused to come out of my home (to vote),” Mukhtar Ahmad said in Singhpore village, just outside Srinagar.

Paramilitary police, wearing flak jackets and toting automatic weapons, guarded polling stations — mainly schools. Some were surrounded by rooftop guard posts. Some election officials wore flak jackets and helmets.

Many towns and villages were almost silent, shops and businesses closed after separatists, not running in the election, called a day-long strike in protest. Such strikes are often observed as much out of fear as support.

Voters trickled in to vote in the early morning autumn cold, but increased as temperatures rose. Many were dressed in their best clothes. Some carried babies in their arms, some walked along steep mountain tracks using walking sticks. Authorities also laid on buses.

The turnout appeared moderate. At some polling stations, very few people turned up. At others, the queue was so long they started demanding that the booths be kept open late into the night, poll officials said.

Some voted to express their anger. “I am fed up with this government. I want a change,” said one.

Others stayed away for the same reason. “There is no point,” said another. “The situation is getting worse. The government doesn’t do anything for us and they don’t protect us, either. The militants are just as bad.”

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