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Minister takes bullets in her stride

Noorabad, Sept. 29: She’s survived four attempts on her life but for Sakina Itoo, they are just an occupational hazard that comes with being a minister in Jammu and Kashmir. "I can’t stop campaigning. The election cannot be stopped. What is God's will, will happen,” the soft-spoken 30-year-old tourism minister said at her house in the mountain-ringed village of Dhumhal Hanjipora.

As Kashmir heads for the third phase of polling on Tuesday, tension runs high in Sakina’s far-flung constituency of Noorabad in south Kashmir. Itoo, the lone woman minister in the ruling National Conference government, is surrounded by paramilitary commandos. Her three-storey house looks like a fortress.

She needs the protection. The militants, who have vowed to kill anyone involved in the elections, made two attempts on her in just 24 hours.

Last week, a grenade was thrown at her front door, one of several grenade attacks on her home. She was not in at the time and nobody was hurt.

Also last week, a policeman and a teenage girl were killed and several persons were wounded when a bomb exploded near her motorcade.

A massive security drill inside her house keeps her guards busy while the family’s focus has shifted from seeking votes to personal security for the lady.

“Don’t be afraid. But at the same time, be careful. The next two days are crucial. Visit that village and try to muster support from the family. I hope they will come out and vote,” Sakina tells a party worker who had come inside the house, entering which is nearly impossible for her supporters and voters.

“I don’t want to talk about the attacks and how I escaped. I want to forget what happened,” Sakina said. “But I will win from here. The National Conference will retain this seat and all others in this district. The voting percentage in Noorabad constituency will be over 45 per cent.”

Asked if she still goes for campaigning, Sakina shot back: “I have already completed campaigning. The chief minister, Dr Farooq (Abdullah) was here on Thursday and addressed a public meeting.”

“There is fear in the hearts and minds of the people. The massive security presence cannot instil confidence among the public. The militants come during the night and tell the villagers not to vote,” she says. “But let me tell you, death cannot come untimely.”

The mountains surrounding her village link up with the Doda region and are infested by militants from Pakistan. “Militancy is the number one problem here, it has grown in recent months,” says Sakina. “I hope people will give a reply to them with their vote.”

Sakina says she urges the people of Kashmir to think about their own welfare, not the international confrontation, when deciding whom to vote for.

“I don't talk about these things to my people, I tell them to look at the work I have done. We have built roads and bridges. There might have been some shortcomings, but we will rectify them after we get another chance,” she adds.

However, stepping outside her fortified ancestral home, the mood in the village market is decidedly less optimistic.

"What has the National Conference government done for us' They promised autonomy, but the resolution they passed in the state Assembly was rejected by the Centre," said Mohammad Youssuf.

"We will decide on the polling day whether or not we will vote. The situation is very tense in this area," said another villager, Mohammad Shafi.

"I will never vote. The prevailing situation is not conducive for holding polls," says Abdul Rahim, a youth sitting in a shop.

There is subdued poll-related activity elsewhere in the constituency - flags and buntings are visible in a few places.

The journey to Aharbal, a picturesque health resort and venue for several Bollywood films, is a backbreaking experience. "The road to Aharbal will be completed in the next one month," says Sakina. "The work is continuing and I hope it will be completed by late October."

"The situation in this part of the Valley is really abnormal," says a tourism department employee in Aharbal, on conditions of anonymity. "Recently, the whereabouts of a foundation stone had to secretly guarded till a huge contingent of paramilitary forces came escorting Sakina Itoo, and then, the ceremony was over within 30 minutes."

Ironically, he says, the ministerial entourage took back the foundation stone after the function. "Look, there is only foundation and no stone," adds the employee.

However, Sakina justifies the foundation stone's disappearance, saying, "As in other places, here, too, they have removed the stone after the ceremony in view of the prevailing situation in Kashmir."

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