SRINAGAR: Thousands of Indian troops guarded polling stations as Occupied Kashmir on Saturday held its first direct elections since New Delhi stripped its semi-autonomy last year.

On high alert for attacks by separatist fighters, dozens of police and paramilitary personnel with machineguns watched outside each voting station while army men patrolled the streets.

The disputed Himalayan region has been under heavy security since the ruling Hindu-nationalist government imposed direct rule in August 2019.

Two soldiers were killed in an ambush blamed on local fighters in the main city Srinagar on Thursday.

But officials claimed that nearly 52 per cent of the 700,000 eligible voters cast ballots during the first of the eight days of polling, braving the security, coronavirus fears and snow-covered terrain to elect local council members.

Results are expected on December 22.

Thermal scanners were set up at polling booths and staff handed out face masks and hand sanitiser as precautions against the coronavirus.

Top election official K.K. Sharma told reporters polling had been peaceful barring “a small incident of stone pelting” by protesters in the southern Kashmir valley.

At one booth in the Kashmir valley, Faizi, 70, said she had voted “to facilitate development work, like paving the roads”.

While the councils have only limited powers, several Kashmir political parties, including the influential National Conference and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) formed an alliance to use the election to campaign for the restoration of the disputed region’s political autonomy.

The alliance accused the government of harassing its candidates while helping those from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. The election commission denied the allegations.

On Friday, authorities restricted PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti to her home and police stopped reporters from attending a press conference she called.

Mufti was among scores of political leaders held under house arrest for months after the clampdown. Police, however, denied she was under detention again.

The current voting is part of a three-tier process in which residents directly elect their village representatives, who then vote to form development councils for clusters of villages called Block Development Coun­cils. Members for the larger, third and top layer District Development Councils are also directly elected by the residents.

Published in Dawn, November 29th, 2020

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