Voters in the Indian-occupied Kashmir went to the polls on Saturday in the midst of a robust security presence in the first direct elections in the contested area after the government stripped its semi-autonomy last year.
Tough security for Indian:
Under high alert for attacks by Kashmiri fighters, hundreds of police and paramilitaries bearing machine guns surrounded each polling station while the army was keeping up street patrols.
Observers said that only small numbers braved protection, fears of coronavirus, and snow-covered terrain to elect members to their local councils. Voting is set to take place for eight days until December 19, with the count beginning three days later.
At a polling booth in the Kashmir Valley, Faizi, 70, told AFP that she had voted to “facilitate development work, such as road pavement.”
The Himalayan area has been under tight security cover since the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government instituted direct rule in August 2019.
Two soldiers were killed in an ambush suspected of battle in the main town of Srinagar on Thursday.
Thermal scanners were mounted in the voting stations and the workers handed out face masks and hand sanitizers as a precaution against the coronavirus.
Though local councils have limited authority, many Kashmir political parties, including the powerful National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party, have formed a coalition to advocate for the restoration of political autonomy in the region.
The coalition accused the government of bullying its candidates while supporting the BJP. The Local Election Commission rejected the accusation.
The day before the election, the authorities had confined PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti to her home and the police had barred reporters from attending a press conference she had called.
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Mufti was among the dozens of elected figures who had been kept under house arrest months after the clampdown.
Since 1989, Kashmiri factions have been battling Indian forces in an insurgency that left tens of thousands dead, largely civilians.