Srinagar, India-administered Kashmir – The first local elections in Indian-administered Kashmir since 2005 have been marked by the withdrawal of candidates following threats and a boycott by two of the region’s main, pro-India political parties.
Despite 70 percent of seats remaining uncontested, the Indian government’s decision to go ahead with the four-phase local polls beginning Monday saw 50,000 paratroopers deployed in addition to nearly 700,000 soldiers already stationed in the disputed region.
Separatists and armed rebels have warned voters to stay away.
At least 45 candidates have withdrawn their nominations amid threats from rebel groups, such as Hizbul Mujahideen, and the killing of two political workers last week.
Of the 598 seats, votes are being cast for only 178 seats, while 236 seats only had one candidate nominate themselves to run and 184 seats had no candidates nominating themselves at all.
With the region’s biggest parties – the National Conference (NC) and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) – boycotting the polls, they are a contest between India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the opposition Congress, as well as a few independent candidates.
On Monday, roads in the disputed region were deserted as large numbers of security forces guarded the streets and polling booths. Srinagar was dotted with checkpoints and barricades.
In south Kashmir, authorities shut down the internet, claiming to have done so to ensure smooth polls in a violence-prone district.
Last year, by-elections in two Kashmir districts witnessed just seven percent turnout and the killing of eight civilians as protesters tried to stop the polling.
This year, the region’s chief election office decided not to reveal the names of the candidates who are running.
To ensure a smooth conduct of polls, a senior police officer told Al Jazeera that preventive arrests had been made, without specifying how many have been detained.
“We have detained some stone throwers and separatist leaders so that there is no untoward incident,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
— ANI (@ANI) October 8, 2018
The NC and PDP maintain they boycotted the election to safeguard an exclusive citizenship law, known as Article 35-A, which is currently being challenged in India’s top court.
Article 35-A empowers the Jammu and Kashmir state legislature to define “permanent residents” and provides them with special rights and privileges. It also bars non-state subjects from purchasing property and having government jobs in the disputed region.
Kashmiri politicians and activists fear a repeal of the law by India’s Supreme Court could end up changing demographics in the Muslim-majority state. Hearings in the case, which has triggered widespread protests in Kashmir earlier this year, have been postponed for two months in view of the current elections.
“We have stayed away from the polls because the government of India is not taking a clear stand to safeguard Article 35-A. The elections at this time are not in the interest of people. So many polling booths have no contestants, what does this mean?” Ali Muhammad Sagar, a senior NC leader, told Al Jazeera.
But insiders in the NC and PDP admit it’s not just their stand on 35-A that forced the boycott. It was also the fact that they could not find candidates to contest.
“It was hard to get the candidates ready in a situation when it is life-threatening. We had multiple reasons and one of them was the security of candidates,” a senior PDP leader told Al Jazeera.
Rafi Mir, PDP’s spokesperson, said the “time was not conducive for the polls as the region is witnessing violence”.
“We told the India government that the time is not right for elections as people will not participate. The election is happening but the candidates who are contesting are forced to stay in hotels,” he said.
The views were echoed by the NC, which called the local polls “planted and manipulated”.
India-administered Kashmir state is currently under the direct rule of the federal government after a coalition between the BJP and the PDP fell apart in June this year.
“We do not understand the point of this election. This is like holding elections under the barrel of a gun. It is enforcing elections here when people are not willing to vote or participate,” said a local resident, Tariq Ahmad, 45.
“India is enforcing its narrative and its democracy on Kashmiris.”
The candidates have been unable to do any public campaigning and have been kept in well-guarded hotels away from their homes amid threats from the rebels to “withdraw or face the consequences”.
“It is hard to go out and ask people to vote. We have been able to get some support and now we call people on their phones to vote for us,” said Bhat, a candidate who did not want to reveal his first name.
The people who have filed their papers to contest the elections are all in protective custody in police stations,security force camps or in homes with lots of security.Unfortunately my colleagues have become easy targets to send out a message to the candidates & potential voters. https://t.co/HpgxOsJzjm
— Omar Abdullah (@OmarAbdullah) October 5, 2018
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Sheikh Showkat Hussain, an academic based in Kashmir, said that India is trying to “gauge the mood of people and prepare the ground for 2019 parliamentary elections”.
“It has been hard for India to conduct parliamentary elections. Last year, it was a big embarrassment for them in just two seats,” he said.
Hussain said: “India will try to use the candidates of local polls for mobilising people in the upcoming 2019 parliamentary elections.
“How can they head these municipal bodies tomorrow when they are not able to approach voters? The government’s decision to conduct elections seems to have boomeranged and casts a shadow on the upcoming polls,” he said.