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Vote Rigged, Opposition in Kashmir Says

India: Some residents report being kept from polls, others that they were forced to cast ballots. Officials declare election is going well.


KRALAPORA, India — At polling stations on the back roads of a Kashmir battleground, opposition supporters complained Monday of intimidation and ballot rigging on the first day of a critical election. But officials declared that voting was going well.

The Jammu and Kashmir state election commission dismissed allegations of widespread irregularities and said overall turnout in what is the Indian-held portion of the disputed territory was a respectable 43.6% despite pressure for a boycott from separatists.

There was isolated violence, including a rocket attack that killed a 12-year-old boy and a hand grenade blast that injured two men. But that was considered a good day in a territory that has lost up to 60,000 lives in 15 years of conflict.

Voters cast ballots for 23 of 87 state assembly seats Monday. There will be three more voting days, staggered over the next month to allow several hundred thousand soldiers and police to guard the polling stations.

But long before the final results are to be announced, arguments over what they will mean have already begun.

Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has acknowledged that past elections were neither free nor fair in the roughly two-thirds of Kashmir that India controls, and promised that this one will be different. Neighboring Pakistan, which has fought two of its three wars with India over Kashmir, repeated Monday that the election is flawed and won't solve a conflict that threatens to spark another war between the nuclear-armed neighbors.

Kupwara district in the northern part of Jammu and Kashmir includes about 120 miles of the cease-fire line that divides the Indian and Pakistani portions of Kashmir. The district is a stronghold of separatist militants battling Indian rule.

On the second floor of the Sheep Husbandry Department's offices in the tiny village of Karihama, three election officials sat waiting for voters at midday. They were guarded by more than two dozen heavily armed soldiers from India's Border Security Force.

An electronic voting machine recorded 115 votes from a district with 364 registered voters, said Suhail Ahmed, an election official wearing an army helmet and bulletproof vest in case guerrillas delivered on their threat to attack.

Troops parked an armored personnel carrier in the middle of the single-lane road that runs through the village. Just outside the village, about a dozen people, most of them women, were walking home from the polling station and complained that they had been forced to vote in violation of the militants' boycott call. They now feared punishment from the rebels, said Aziz Rahman, 70.

Indian authorities denied that soldiers or police coerced voters to cast their ballots despite a boycott by the loose coalition of separatist parties called the All Party Hurriyat Conference, which claims widespread support in Jammu and Kashmir.

During the last state assembly election, in 1996, when the turnout was 53.4%, there were reports of "fingernail parades" after the polls closed. Soldiers and police checked for daubs of indelible ink on fingernails as proof that people had voted.

In the village of Magam on Monday, residents accused troops from an army unit that calls itself the "Storm Troopers" of seizing identity cards and refusing to return them to those without proof that they had voted. When several hundred villagers protested in the nearby hamlet of Uchar Magam, soldiers badly beat 15 women and fired shots in the air to disperse the crowd, said several men, none of whom would give his name because of fear of retribution.

Other people who did want to vote said they were not being allowed to. In the village of Kralapora, in a valley carpeted gold by wheat ready for harvest, more than a hundred angry opposition supporters accused soldiers of preventing them from voting.

As they shouted and pressed against a battered metal gate guarded by soldiers, several children who looked much younger than the legal voting age of 18 were among those inside the compound, waiting for their turn to vote. They all insisted that they were old enough.

Kralapora is in the district represented by Mir Saifullah of the ruling pro-India National Conference. Two hours before the end of voting Monday, Saifullah was inside the voting compound, chatting with police.

"I've come to see how the polling is going," he said in a brief interview. "It's OK," he added, denying that the security forces were meddling in the election in his district.

But a poll worker who refused to be identified whispered that the legislator had told police to slow down the voting so that few in the crowd of opposition supporters outside the gate would get a chance to cast ballots.

Jaifardin Chowdury, son of the local opposition Congress Party candidate, Salamudin Chowdury, yelled that election officials had refused to let him vote.

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