A by-election was held on Sunday after parliamentarian Tariq Hameed Karra resigned in the wake of flaring tensions following the killing of separatist leader Burhan Wani last year. The Budgam area in Indian-administered Kashmir, previously known for its brisk polling, witnessed an unusual boycott with voter turnout less than seven percent.
There has been widespread unrest and armed encounters between rebels and government forces since July, when a popular rebel leader was killed by Indian security forces.
Thousands of people marched towards polling booths and hurled stones at the Indian security forces. Police initially used tear gas and later used live ammunition to disperse the stone-throwing crowds. Security forces killed eight civilians and wounded more than 200.
Kashmir’s Chief Electoral Officer Shantmanu said only 6.5 percent of voters cast their ballot on Sunday. This was 26 percent less than the 2014 elections and the lowest in the past three decades. "Violent protests happened at many places in Budgam. Protesters damaged and snatched EVMs [electronic voting machines] at some places,” he said.
Government officials were also injured in the clashes.
Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir Mehbooba Mufti before the vote said any attempts to disrupt polling would not be tolerated. "Whosoever tries to take law in their hands, whoever they might be, strict actions will be taken against them," she said.
The killings have sparked widespread protests throughout the valley region which lies between India and Pakistan. Anti-India sentiment was high during the funerals, which grew into protests.
India and Pakistan both stake claims to the region in its entirety – but they govern separate parts. More than 500,000 Indian soldiers are deployed in the region, making it one of the heaviest militarised zones in the world. Ahead of the polls, the Indian government deployed an additional 20,000 paramilitary forces throughout Kashmir. Of three wars which have been fought between the two countries, two were over control of Kashmir.
For decades, the rebel groups in Indian-administered Kashmir have clashed with police demanding independence or a possible merger of the state into Pakistan. India accuses Pakistan of backing the separatists, a charge Islamabad denies.
The situation is tense. A heavy police presence can be seen across the city – roads have been barricaded and the movement of vehicles has been restricted. Shops, government offices and businesses are shut. For a second day, the government has suspended internet access in an effort to prevent further protests.