Local body elections are being held in the disputed territory for the first time in 13 years, but a boycott by both separatists and major pro-India parties dealt a strong blow to New Delhi.

Security personnel patrol streets in India-administered Kashmir's Srinagar city on October 5, 2018, ahead of Panchayat and municipal elections.
Security personnel patrol streets in India-administered Kashmir's Srinagar city on October 5, 2018, ahead of Panchayat and municipal elections. (AFP)

The low voter turn out for local municipality elections held in India-administered Kashmir on Monday came as a jolt to the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Experts on the ground say the BJP was expecting a medium to high voter turnout in order to assert its policies in the disputed territory and also portray it as a success to the people across the country to garner votes for the upcoming general elections in 2019.

"Normally Kashmiri people used to participate in the local government polls over governance-related issues only without relating it to the future of the region or its status as a disputed territory," said Hameeda Nayeem, a Kashmiri human rights activist. 

"But the BJP government in New Delhi wants to make these local body elections a national issue and portray it positively as a seal of approval for its occupation in Kashmir."

The region's two main pro-India political parties, the National Conference and Peoples Democratic Party boycotted the polls, citing fears over the possible removal of the Article 35A of the constitution, which bars Indians from outside the disputed territory from buying land there.

It confers special status to the permanent residents of India-administered Kashmir, thereby maintaining its Muslim-majority character.

India's Supreme Court recently delayed the hearing until January 2019 for the case challenging Article 35A  – which had been promulgated by a presidential order in 1954.

Many argue the BJP seeks to change the demography of the Muslim-majority region by tampering with the land ownership laws.

Though New Delhi projected the civic polls as a vital grassroots exercise to boost development and address civic issues, many locals on the ground described them as "an illegitimate exercise under a military occupation."

Almost 1.7 million residents are registered as voters for the urban polls, which are being held after a gap of 13 years. Village council elections will be held separately in November.

First of the four-phase polls were held on Monday, while the other phases will be held on October 10, 13 and 16.

According to officials, 244 candidates have already been selected unopposed, and there are no contestants for more than 170 out of a total of 1,145 council seats. 

Voter turnout on Monday was slightly over eight percent in Muslim-dominated areas of the Kashmir valley, the heartland of anti-India dissent.

Naseer Ganai, a senior journalist from the region, told TRT World that, "In the past, voter turnout from rural areas used to be considerably higher as compared to urban areas since the people usually did not pay heed to the strike and boycott calls by separatist of pro-independence groups."

The last time local body elections were held in India-administered Kashmir in 2005, it came one year after India and Pakistan had held peace talks following a four year pause in diplomacy.

It had also come at the heels of a brutal crackdown by the Indian military to subdue the first wave of rebellion in the disputed Kashmir valley.

In 2008, a government decision — later revoked — to transfer land to a Hindu shrine in Kashmir set off a summer of protests. The following year, the alleged rape and murder of two young women by government forces set off fresh violence.

In 2010, the trigger for protests was a police investigation into allegations that soldiers shot dead three civilians and then staged a fake gunbattle to make it appear the dead were militants and claim rewards for the killings.

Even though local bodies were elected for a five-year-term the elections that were due in 2010 were not held until this year.

Around the same time diplomatic channels between India and Pakistan came to a standstill and a second wave of rebellion against Indian rule had begun to intensify.

"This time around turnout the situation is different and concerns related to militancy in rural areas, especially in southern Kashmir, have been a major factor behind the low turnout and hampered electioneering activities," Ganai said.

Shops, businesses and most schools were closed in India-administered Kashmir as part of a strike called by separatist leaders, including Senior Hurriyat Conference leader Syed Ali Gilani, All Parties Hurriyat Conference leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and chairman of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front Muhammad Yasin Malik.

Indian authorities have already detained Gilani, Farooq, Malik and other pro-independence leaders ahead of the polls.

Many locals also complained that authorities had not disclosed the names of candidates nor revealed the election schedules.

Nayeem, a professor of English at the University of Kashmir, said even if the separatists had not given a boycott call, the voter turn out would have remained low. 

"You can imagine the state of farcical polls that the colonial fascist BJP regime could not even manage to cooperate with its former allies the NC and PDP," she said. 

She added, "Despite New's Delhi intimidating tactics of deploying heavy military presence to usher voters out, the turnout has still been really low in the valley barring Jammu and Ladakh areas."

Mobile internet services were partially blocked or restricted in many parts of the disputed region.

Access of media personnel was also restricted in some parts of the valley.

Some people withdrew from the elections after armed rebels threatened candidates and accused them of being "traitors and sellers of martyrs' blood." Three political activists affiliated with the NC party were shot dead a few days before the polls. 

Ganai said that locals who had shown up to cast their ballots were also hesitant to appear on media as they feared of repercussions in case they were identified.

A curfew was also imposed in parts of Srinagar city, the summer capital of the disputed region, to prevent anti-India protests.

Authorities deployed 40,000 additional soldiers in the already highly militarised region to guard over 800 polling stations across the disputed region as government forces laid razor wire and erected steel barricades on roads.

Anti-India sentiment runs deep in Kashmir, a Himalayan territory divided between India and Pakistan but claimed by both in its entirety.

Rebels have been fighting Indian control since 1989, demanding that the region be united either under Pakistani governance or as an independent country. India accuses Pakistan of arming and training the rebels, a charge Pakistan denies.

Nearly 100,000 people have been killed in the uprising and the ensuing Indian military crackdown.

Source: TRT World