SRINAGAR, Indian-held Kashmir
Showkat Ahmad Bhat, a middle-aged grocery store owner in Indian-held Kashmir's capital, Srinagar, has never cast a vote in the 46 years of his life. On April 30, when polls were held in Srinagar, Bhat sat with his two friends near his closed grocery shop -- a few meters from the old city's Khanyar polling booth. Like the majority of Kashmiris living under Indian rule, Bhat was once again boycotting the elections.
More than 800 million people are eligible to participate in India's largest ever elections but for many Kashmiris opposing the Indian rule in the Himalayan valley, their decades-long boycott continued. Other Indian voters are considering which candidate for the next prime minister can kick-start the country's slow growth rate, improve internal security and alleviate poverty but in Kashmir, a region disputed by Pakistan and India, most are concerned more about their status as part of India.
"These elections mean nothing at all," says Bhat, displaying his index finger, unstained by the ink used to identify voters. "The one option that I would walk a hundred miles to vote for, they haven't kept it on the voting machine."
"Independence. Independence from Indian rule," adds Bhat and his two friends, who both joined him in the boycott. "If Independence from the Indian rule was an option, every Kashmiri would vote and that would be a democratic election. Rest is just a farce."
The first phase of voting in Jammu & Kashmir on April 24 saw almost three-quarters of eligible voters boycott the polls. The day was characterized by pro-independence protests and stone-throwing clashes between protesters and the Indian police. Militants had killed three people in south Kashmir, including two village leaders, in the run-up to the elections and on the day of voting killed a polling official and wounded three soldiers.
Though the Indian Army’s counter-insurgency operations have almost wiped out the militancy -- the military claims less than 300 militants remain active in the region -- resistance to Indian rule continues and is instead manifested in the form of street protests and stone-throwing clashes with police.
To avoid similar protests and clashes in the Srinagar constituency’s elections, police launched a massive crackdown on youth and arrested more than 600 across Kashmir; local newspapers and human rights organizations believe the number to be more than 1,000.
One of the arrested boys was Waseem Ahmad Sofi, a 15 year old student who the police say is a regular "stone-thrower." Sofi was wounded during the April 24 clashes and recuperating in the hospital when the police arrested him under the dreaded Public Safety Act, which allows imprisonment without trial for three years.
"Is this the country that they expect us to vote for where they take a minor and put them in a prison without the right to a trial?" Showkat Ahmad, Sofi’s brother, tells the Anadolu Agency.
On April 30, the day of elections in Srinagar, thousands of army personnel were deployed to ensure voting was undisrupted. The city's winding streets and alleyways were dotted with political banners promising "peace" and "progress" but emptied of residents, the large military presence darkening its desolation.
According to the Election Commission, only a quarter of the 1.2 million electorate voted that day. By the time the voting in the state of Jammu and Kashmir had been completed Wednesday, the turnout had only rarely peeked above 50 percent.
The poll boycott happened despite most leaders of the pro-independence movement being arrested before the election began. The leaders had been calling for a plebiscite on whether Kashmir should be independent or join either India or Pakistan.
India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, had promised Kashmiris the right to self-determination and when the conflict over Kashmir escalated between India and Pakistan, soon after the partition, the United Nations Security Council passed resolutions favoring a plebiscite. India withdrew its support for the plebiscite however, when it became clear that a majority of Kashmiris wanted independence from India.
Mirwaiz Umar, a leader in the pro-independence Hurriyat (Freedom) Conference who has been under house arrest for more than three weeks, called the elections "undemocratic" and "meaningless."
"While the pro-India leaders are campaigning for the people to vote, we have been put under arrest and still the people of Kashmir have showed that they won't be part of this illegitimate elections," Umar tells the Anadolu Agency.
Umar said Kashmir's representatives in India's parliament rarely speak about the realities of Kashmir. "It is telling that there have been more interventions in the parliament by a parliamentarian from Hyderabad than all of Kashmiri parliamentarians put together," he says.
Muhammad Faysal, who also campaigns for a referendum on Kashmir's future, condemned the election in stronger terms. "Basically elections are a facade of the Indian occupation to give it a democratic look by installing its puppets," says Faysal.
"Kashmiris have been against this occupation since 1947. For Kashmir, their only worry and the biggest issue is the occupation and its horrific cost on lives of Kashmiris. That's why majority of Kashmiris boycott elections."
The boycott was not observed by everyone in Kashmir however, despite militant threats and social pressure, because of personal concerns about jobs, roads and electricity.
Abdul Ahad Cheken, a 53 year old motor mechanic, voted in Srinagar, after voting for the first time only in 2008. "If my two sons got a job and we could get out of poverty, I would feel I have got freedom," Cheken said. Voter turnout was also higher in the Jammu part of the Jammu & Kashmir state, where Muslims are a minority.
The ascendance of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party's Narendra Modi has also contributed to a new political landscape. Modi's controversial presence as the favored prime ministerial candidate has given many Kashmiris greater desire for independence.
Modi has been criticized for his alleged role in 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat, where he is chief minister, and has spoken aggressively about both Kashmir and neighboring Pakistan during the election campaign. For many Kashmiris, Modi coming to power will simply expose the Indian policies they feel they have suffered from for decades.
By Zahid Rafiq (Additional reporting by Assed Baig)