Day one: Kashmir has poll fever and a shiver
15 September 2002
The Indian Express
New Delhi: With the world watching and keeping its fingers crossed, the stage is set for polling in the first phase of the Jammu and Kashmir elections tomorrow. Twenty-three constituencies in five border districts of the state will go to polls amid unprecedented security arrangements, the terrorist threat looming large. This was driven home when Minister of State for Tourism Sakina Itoo survived a bid on her life this afternoon while campaigning for the Noorabad seat in Anantnag district. This will, however, see voting only in the third phase on October 1. Heavily-armed militants ambushed her cavalcade near Damhal Hanjipora, Kulgam. A CRPF officer and a jawan were killed and three persons, including a civilian, injured in the attack. And from Muzaffarabad in PoK, Syed Salahuddin, leader of the United Jehad Council, send an ominous warning. In an interview with Reuters, he said the militants would attack security forces if they tried to force people to vote but spare civilians who wished to do so. The districts where polling will take place tomorrow include Kupwara, Baramulla, Kargil, Poonch and Rajouri, with a total electorate of 14.4 lakh. Two candidates in Leh have already been elected unopposed and elections in Lolab constituency were countermanded after NC candidate Mushtaq Lone was shot dead. Elections will now be held there on October 8. Security officials said they have taken all measures to ensure safety and security of voters, candidates, polling staff and foreign diplomats, keen to observe elections in the tough conditions. While elite Black Cat commandoes of the National Security Guards will be providing security cover, in plain clothes, to the foreign diplomats, Army and Air Force helicopters — Chetaks, Cheetahs and Mi-17s — will be on a standby as part of the Quick Reaction Team (QRT). In a direct appeal to the electorate, Chief Election Commissioner J M Lyngdoh said here today that ‘‘none of you who does not wish to vote is to be forced to do so. But there are many of you, going by the media coverage of the election fest, who wish to vote, despite the needless bloodshed and tribulation you’ve been through.’’ ‘‘Most of all, the intrepid media and diplomatic corps in strength and from many parts of the world are presently your guests just to see you voting. Don’t disappoint them,’’ he said. Lyngdoh said no coercive measures would be used by the security forces to force voters to exercise their franchise and that full security measures have to be taken to ensure protection for the voters, candidates and election staff. Stressing that all machinery was in place to ensure free and fair polls, he said, ‘‘For the first time, the voters in J-K will have to identify themselves. Those who have identity cards will use them and those who don’t have the cards have been asked to provide specified 21 documents for identification.’’ The EC has deployed 17 senior bureaucrats as special observers and 48 additional observers who would be monitoring every stage of the election process. ‘‘Our team of special observers gave us in their report valuable recommendations on who, among the Government functionaries, were reliable and who were not. So, some of them had to be transferred based on the report,’’ Chief Election Commissioner J M Lyngdoh said in New Delhi today. He assured that 5,000 employees from Uttar Pradesh and Punjab will be on poll duty. ‘‘There would be at least two officials from either UP or Punjab in each polling booth,’’ he said. On the question mark put over the objectivity of locals on poll duty by Ghulam Mohammaed Sofi, formerly of the People’s Conference, in Handwara, Lyngdoh said, ‘‘After the candidate’s complaint, we looked into the matter and of the 26 staff of the agriculture department employed for poll duty, we have sought the transfer of 10 officials.’’ Out of these 10, eight are polling officers and two are presiding officers. Meanwhile, in a major success for security forces, BSF claimed to have arrested nine militants of pro-Pakistan Jaish-E-Mohammad, including its district commander, Javaid Ahmad Baba alias Abu Hamza, from various parts of Srinagar and seized a huge amount of arms and ammunition from them. In other incidents since last night, eight persons, including six militants and an Army man, were killed in the Jammu region. A powerful Improvised Explosive Device was also detected in the area. Officials diclosed that IEDs appeared to be a major threat and steps were being taken for protection against them. ‘‘Roads of the areas, going to polls tomorrow, will be under round-the-clock patrolling tonight. Generally, road opening parties come in the morning and scan the roads for any buried IEDs. But now the roads are not going to be left unpatrolled even for a few minutes,’’ an official coordinating security arrangements from the capital said. However, J&K police chief A K Suri told a foreign news agency that militant strikes were expected and that he could not guarantee a violence-free voting day. The fear of terrorist strike was mainly in outlying regions like Surankot, Mandi and Loran which were close to the LoC and where houses were scattered.