By Aijaz Hussain
The Associated Press
SRINAGAR, India (AP) — Voters cast their ballots in the fifth phase of state elections in Indian Kashmir on Saturday, Aug. 13, as scattered clashes between protesters and government forces left one person dead.
A 20-year-old protester died after police opened fire to control a spiraling protest at Koil village, about 16 miles (25 kilometers) south of Srinagar, Kashmir’s Police Chief B. Srinivas said.
Two other protesters were wounded, he said.
The elections for Kashmir’s state legislature started on Nov. 17 and are to be held in seven phases through Dec. 24.
Voting was relatively peaceful in the first four phases, with a higher than expected turnout of more than 60 percent. Saturday was the first election-day death in clashes between protesters and police since the staggered voting began.
Anti-India sentiment runs deep in Kashmir, where most people either favor independence or a merger with Pakistan. Kashmir is divided between the two rival countries, and both claim it in its entirety.
Militant separatist groups have been fighting since 1989 to end Indian rule. The uprising and a subsequent Indian crackdown have killed about 68,000 people, most of them civilians.
On Saturday, thousands of paramilitary soldiers and police officers wearing bulletproof jackets and carrying automatic weapons patrolled polling stations.
Hundreds of protesters chanting pro-independence slogans clashed with forces in several areas, a police officer said on condition of anonymity, in keeping with department policy.
Police fired warning shots and tear gas to drive away protesters, and at least 17 paramilitary soldiers and policemen were injured, the officer said.
At Sambura and Karimabad villages, residents alleged that soldiers and police coerced them to vote.
“They threatened us to vote, which we refused to do. As a revenge they came in and beat up our women to disgrace us,” said Tawheed Ahmed, a resident of Karimabad.
Srinivas denied the allegations.
Muslim separatist leaders have called for a boycott of the elections, saying they will only entrench India’s hold on the restive region.
However, early voter turnout was high, despite the security and the chilly weather.
More than 800,000 of the state’s 6.5 million eligible voters live in the 11 areas where voting was taking place Saturday.
The elections come after some of the largest protests against Indian rule in Jammu-Kashmir, the country’s only Muslim-majority state, and a tough crackdown on separatist leaders. ♦