Voters defy Kashmiri separatists' boycott call

Results on who will govern the restive state for next six years should be available in a week.

Kashmiri Muslims stands in a queue to cast their vote outside a polling station in Srinagar.
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SRINAGAR, INDIA // Habibullah Najar, the 75-year-old muezzin at a Srinagar mosque, was removed from his role this week and is now facing a "social boycott" from his neighbours. His offence: he voted in the assembly elections in Indian-administered-Kashmir on Wednesday, defying a decree issued by separatists. Kashmiri separatists were against people's participation in the elections held under the framework of the Indian constitution because they argue such an exercise cannot be a substitute for a vote on independence. They also view the elections as only strengthening New Delhi's hold on the disputed Himalayan region. Feeling hurt over the manner in which he has been scolded by his neighbours and friends, Mr Najar refuses to meet anyone. "Please leave us alone. We're passing through a very disturbing situation," said his grandson, who refused to divulge his name when visited at their home in Choata Bazaar, a congested Srinagar locality, yesterday. Others who cast their ballot in the old part of Srinagar were publicly punished in a bizarre move launched by separatists, which the campaign leaders deny being a part of. Some had their heads forcibly shaved; others were severely thrashed or forced to hold their ears in public view as a means of contrition. Over the past few days, groups of youths, many of them wearing bandannas to cover their faces, roamed the streets searching for targets. A fisherwoman was not allowed to sell her stocks at a makeshift marketplace outside the city's grand mosque on Friday after some people claimed they had seen her on television voting in the election. Onlookers said some "offenders" were left unscathed after they apologised and pledged not to repeat the "mistake" they had committed. Syed Ali Shah Geelani, a separatist leader, has cautioned that the acts of vengeance could lead to a civil war in Kashmir. He sees it as an Indian "conspiracy" aimed at "driving a wedge between sections of our people". Sajad Gani Lone, another separatist leader, said that some people were trying to strike at the cohesive and indivisible identity of the Kashmiri nation. "Anybody who voted was a Kashmiri. Anybody who boycotted was equally a Kashmiri," he said. "Here we must not fall into a trap as nothing will please the Indian state more than identifying a Kashmiri by different names." He called for an end to such "divisive designs". The overall turnout was higher than expected. "We still stand by the principle of dissent embodied in the boycott call. We do not see the turnout as a defeat. It can at best be described as a setback," he said. Officials said that Srinagar, a city of 1.2 million people, half of them eligible voters, had a 21.67 per cent turnout on Wednesday, but that it came mainly in segments on the peripheries of the capital. In contrast, the old part of the town, which has been the hotbed of the separatist campaign, had an even lower voter participation. A vast majority of residents stayed away, perhaps in support of the freedom campaign or out of fear of suffering the consequences if they voted. Police said those involved in the revenge campaign will be "sternly dealt" with. "Once they are identified we'll move against them under law. We can't endure with this kind of lawlessness," said B Srinivas, the Kashmir valley police chief. Aga Sayed Hassan, a Shiite cleric and politician, who was part of the group who call for the boycott, has said it was an "ill-advised" move "taken in haste". Mr Lone wants the separatist leadership to understand why some people defied them. "Some fellow leaders and intellectuals have started to express their disapproval through statements and newspaper columns by depicting the people of Kashmir in poor light. "The verdict of the people is supreme. If the people have not adhered to the leadership's boycott appeal it highlighted the need for introspection? Rather than accusing people, we need to sit together and examine what are the causes of dissent. "The people have conveyed a message and a capable leadership should decipher the message, rather than shoot the messenger," he said. The Indian government, on the other hand, seems elated over the completion of what was believed to be a major challenge. "The people have, once again, shown their faith in democracy, despite many constraints, difficulties and threats. Indian democracy has triumphed yet again," said N N Vohra, the Kashmiri governor. He has ordered the release of some of the separatist leaders sent to jail on the eve of the election and restrictions imposed on others, including Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, the chief Muslim cleric and chairman of the Hurriyat (Freedom) Conference alliance, have already been lifted. Results on who will govern the restive state for next six years should be available in a week.