BARAMULLA - Protesters and police clashed but streets were otherwise largely deserted Wednesday in the final day of voting in Indian-held Kashmir for the national election, as boycott calls and fears of violence kept many voters away.
Turnout in the Kashmir Valley constituency voting was about 30 percent two hours before polls closed.
Police fired tear gas at a crowd calling for a boycott of the election in the town of Baramulla where resentment against Indian rule of the region runs deep, an AFP correspondent said. “These elections give these (Indian) forces the right to humiliate us, kill us and work against us. That is why I protest,” said Nazir Ahmed, who works on an orchard, in Baramulla.
A grenade exploded at a polling station outside the town but no one was injured, a security official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Turnout across the entire Kashmir Valley in the 2009 election was 30 percent and many fear this year could be worse after rebels shot dead several local officials in a warning to residents against voting.
Turnout in the previous two days of balloting elsewhere in the valley was 25.6 percent and 28 percent.
India has long struggled to bring Muslim-majority Kashmir into the mainstream election process, and past polls have also been marred by violence and low turnout.
Hindu nationalist hardliner Narendra Modi and his opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, which takes a strong stance on national security issues including Kashmir, are set to win the national election after a decade of Congress party rule.
Thousands of extra soldiers and police, along with sniffer dogs to detect explosives, were on patrol in Kashmir, while officials have said some 600 “miscreants” were rounded up ahead of voting to prevent violent protests.
Although streets were deserted in the towns, voters turned out in villages elsewhere in Baramulla constituency, where some hold out hope that a new government could bring much-needed development. “I know about the boycott calls, but they are not the ones who can help us get roads and good water supply,” said 70-year-old Abdul Ahad, a resident of Panzinara village, after casting his vote.
“We need people to talk about us where it matters.”
A resident of Dangerpora village said as he waited to vote: “We will not achieve anything by fighting. All issues can be solved if we have peace.”
Meanwhile, Indian police searched for 15 missing people on Wednesday after finding bodies of a baby girl and a woman floating down river from a national park in Assam where Muslim villagers were killed in a massacre that has marred the country’s general election.
India is in the home stretch of a five-week election, which has heightened ethnic and religious tensions in some parts of the country.
The worst violence was in the northeastern state of Assam, where at least 36 people were killed by suspected militants belonging to the Bodo tribe in three massacres last week believed to be revenge attacks after Muslims voted against the Bodo candidate.
The brunt of the killing was in the village of Narayanguri on the banks of the Beki river and the fringes of the Manas national park, where masked gunmen burnt dozens of houses and shot more than 20 men, women and children. Villagers there insist more people are missing.
“We have deployed SDRF (State Disaster Response Team) to search in the Beki river for those missing people,” AP Rout, Assam’s Additional Director General of Police told reporters.
He said villagers and police had found the remains of a six-month-old child and a 35-year-old woman called Jahanara Begum, both floating in the river about 25 km from the site of the massacre that took place on May 2.
The Hindu nationalist BJP has condemned the killings and accused the Congress party, which runs Assam and leads the national government, of not providing sufficient security in the volatile Bodo region despite threats of violence.
But the BJP’s candidate for prime minister, Narendra Modi, has ramped up verbal attacks on illegal immigration by Muslims from nearby Bangladesh, drawing criticism from his opponents that he is inflaming tensions.
A local court on Tuesday ordered police to detain 14 persons in their custody suspected of being involved in the killings, for further interrogation. These include six forest department personnel who villagers allege were involved in the attack by the villagers.
The Manas park is a UNESCO world heritage site that borders the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan and is popular with Indian and foreign tourists drawn to its dense biodiversity and tigers.
The state chief minister, Tarun Gogoi, on Wednesday visited the sites of carnage and ordered a high level investigation into the killings.