|Thursday, 19 September 2002|
Indian PM happy with turnout in Kashmir polls
NEW DELHI, India, Sepa Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee on Tuesday said he was happy with the turnout of hundreds of thousands of voters during Monday's first leg of staggered elections in disputed Kasdhmir state.
Vajpayee, returning to New Delhi after attending the United Nations General Assembly sessions in New York, said Monday's 44-percent voter turnout in five border districts of Kashmir was "satisfactory."
Some 670,000 of the 1.49-million electorate cast their votes despite a boycott of the polls called by Kashmiri separatists and Muslim militants.
"Yes, it is a very big thing and it is according to our expectations," Vajpayee told reporters at a New Delhi airport on his return from the United States.
"It was satisfactory.
"It is also clear the people of Kashmir wants peace and are eager to lead a life of normalcy," Vajpayee said, when asked about the first day's balloting.
Vajpayee, however, predicted the litmus test balloting on September 24 in the regions of Srinagar, Badgam and Jammu would draw higher response.
"It is expected the turnout in the next phase of the elections will be even higher," he said of Srinagar, the urban hub of Muslim militancy and Jammu, Indian Kashmir's Hindu-majority winter capital.
Badgam district is widely considered as a militant-infested region.
Meanwhile, poll-linked violence left two people dead, officials said in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian Kashmir.
Separatists, meanwhile, claimed the first day's voting had been marred by coercion of voters by Indian troops.
Islamic rebels have vowed to kill anyone participating in the vote and have launched a bloody campaign in the runup to the balloting, killing two candidates including the state's law minister.
Overnight, militants dragged a worker of the pro-India People's Democratic Party out of his home in northern Baramulla district and shot him. Abdul Hamid Parrey of Nagabal village had campaigned for the elections Monday.
Militants also threw a hand grenade Tuesday at the office of India's main opposition Congress party in Srinagar. It went off harmlessly.
Twenty-five pro-poll activists have been killed in Kashmir since India on August 2 announced the dates of the election. Fifteen were from the long-ruling National Conference party.
Turnout in previous elections in 1996 in the same five districts was 61 percent while for the state it was 54 percent, but in the past six years hundreds of thousands of Kashmiris have migrated to other parts of India, seeking jobs.
Overnight, Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani said the polling was "a befitting reply" to Pakistan, which has questioned the legitimacy of the Indian-organised elections -- in the past marred by allegations of vote-rigging.
"Conducting successful polling is in itself a befitting reply. I think the international community would regard these as successful elections," he said.
Tensions between India and Pakistan since December, when the Indian parliament was attacked by gunmen New Delhi claims were sponsored by Islamabad, have focused international attention on Kashmir.
India allowed some 28 foreign diplomats to monitor the voting unofficially.
Like Vajpayee, Advani too said he hoped the next three rounds of voting, the last on October 8, would "similarly contribute to strengthening of democracy in the state".
"From all accounts (the) polling was free and fair and there were no allegations of rigging in any constituency or any report of coercion by anyone," he added.
However, numerous residents interviewed by AFP said security forces had forced them to vote.
Abdul Gani Bhat, chairman of the separatist umbrella group the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, said turnout was inflated in the closing hours "through intimidation and fraud".
"The people were beaten, forced and coerced into voting in many of the villages in Kashmir," said Bhat, who had called for a boycott of the polls.
Produced by Lake House