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Kashmir comes out of cover

Baramulla, Jan. 29: Twenty-somethings Roninder Kaur and Khazana Aziz are the contrasting faces of Kashmir today: one bold and fearless enough to go vote-catching minus securitymen buzzing around her; the other too scared to cross the lakshmanrekha for fear the guns will boom.

In the first ever civic elections held in Jammu and Kashmir in 27 years, youngsters who canvassed for votes without cover stole the thunder from the larger than expected turnout ' 80 per cent in Kupwara and 56 per cent in Baramulla, once hotbeds of militancy.

'I went to campaign without security. It wasn't so difficult,' said Roninder, who is contesting the four-phase poll from Khawajabagh area of Baramulla. She has lived in Srinagar most of her life, and moved here only five years ago after marriage.

But Khazana, contesting from Rawalpora ward in Srinagar, did not take too many chances. She limited herself to going from door to safe door, tempering government claims that a huge swing away from terror and militancy is taking root.

Although these were the first elections in the militancy-wracked state for which candidates were not given individual security, the decision was prompted more by practical difficulties than a return to 'total' normality.

Even if the government had wanted to, it could not have given cover to the thousands contesting the 412 seats in municipal corporations, councils and committees across the state.

'Once you provide security, they can never live without it,' a government official said.

But urban development minister G.H. Mir preferred to think otherwise, dubbing the candidates 'Kashmir's leaders of the future'. He put the average age of women candidates at 35 and that of men at 30.

'The youngsters have the survival instinct that is needed under the circumstances,' said Baramulla SSP Munir Khan. 'They campaigned but took precautions to stay away from trouble.'

Khan explained that the candidates had thought up ways to remain safe, not staying in one place too long or following any fixed routine. Some put up at night with friends or party colleagues and took government advice to go in for a low-key campaign, he said.

But Khan did not forget to pat his men for killing nine militants in encounters in terror hotbed Sopore and other parts of Baramulla, which could have put some kind of a leash on violence.

Not that the militants were entirely outdone, though. Only last night, a gang barged into the house of National Conference candidate Ghulam Rasool Dhobi in Pampore in south Kashmir and shot him dead.

Another candidate, Abdul Rashid Dar, was wounded in an attack elsewhere last night. Earlier this month, one Noor-ud-din Sherwani was killed.

The 'fear psychosis' fanned by the killings led to almost 150 candidates pulling out of the fray. Others stopped campaigning. The elections in Khrew were cancelled as not a single candidate filed nomination.

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