Oct. 8: As curtains came down on the turbulent elections in Jammu and Kashmir, New Delhi held aloft a scorecard that displayed a chartbusting turnout in Doda, which scaled a morning attack and a fearsome reputation as a bastion of militancy to reach the polling booths.
Winding up the election with a “deep sense of satisfaction”, officials said almost one in two voters exercised their franchise despite a separatist boycott and a violent campaign by militants to sabotage the poll.
“For the whole world, the people of Kashmir have given the message that terrorism cannot be forced on people,” Jammu and Kashmir chief secretary I.S. Mahli said.
The last day of polling began on an ominous note with militants disguised as policemen storming a polling station at the town hall in the heart of Doda. They hurled grenades and fired wildly, killing two soldiers.
However, voters hardened to years of violence poured steadily into polling booths across the district in the Jammu region. “I wasn’t scared. I was planning to cast my vote and I did,” said Mohammed Ashraf who voted once the town hall booth reopened.
Security forces shot dead one of the attackers. Spraying bullets, the other raced through the building and fled.
But apart from the town hall attack, voting was relatively peaceful in Doda, long a militant hotbed where mountains and forests give cover to rebels.
Doda’s voter turnout at the end of the day was put at 52 per cent – the highest in the four-phase elections. Turnout in the first three rounds – accounting for 80 of the 87 Assembly seats -- ranged between 42 and 47 per cent.
Initial estimates have put the overall turnout between 45 and 50 per cent. The figure is lower than the 54 per cent in the 1996 poll, but the turnout then was marred by allegations of large-scale rigging, which was largely absent this time. Counting was set for Thursday for all four rounds.
Senior officials in Delhi were quick to dub the turnout a slap in the face of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who has openly said that polls are meaningless for Kashmiris.
They added that the conduct of the elections would strengthen Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee’s efforts to bolster India’s case before the international community.
The stage is now set for the Centre’s next move in Kashmir – talks on devolution of powers. The Centre faces a tough task on this count since all wings of the Sangh parivar are opposed to any form of special treatment for Kashmir.