Free and Fair: Elections in Kashmir. (Global Notebook)

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Elections in India look more like religious festivals than political events as women with infants in their arms travel on pilgrimages from remote villages to urban voting booths.

Thousands of people stand for hours in long lines to cast their votes. Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), Congress, Communist Party of India--the names of Indian political parties roll off the people's tongues like mantras. For months before and after the election, party symbols such as Congress's calf and sickle or BJP's saffron lotus proudly adorn flags, walls, truck fenders, storefronts, and makeshift billboards. Democracy has been integrated into India, and participation in this complex political system has become the inalienable right of every Indian.

Despite the people's enthusiasm for voting, elections in India are far from fair, and there is often disappointment and suspicion over the outcomes. The populations of Jammu and Kashmir traditionally have valued democracy and elections as much as the rest of the country, but their elections have still suffered from fraud. The elections of 1987 so inflamed the state's disillusionment with India--its government, policies, and democracy--that the cry for independence resounded throughout Kashmir. Insurrectionist and separatist movements arose overnight, beginning Kashmir's continuing legacy of violence. In contrast to the turbulent history of elections in Jammu and Kashmir, the fairly administered state legislature elections in October 2002 revealed the Kashmiris' renewed sense of trust in democratic India.

The fall 2002 vote reflected a dramatic change: holding free and fair elections had become a priority for the central government. The BJP, which dominates India's central government, encouraged local political parties to run for election and tried to increase the voter turnout. With Kashmir now in the international spotlight, the administration of the elections and the legitimacy of their results affected the image of the New Delhi-based national government and provided an assessment of the state of affairs in Kashmir.

Abdul Ghani Lone, a leading figure of the separatist All Party Hurriyat Conference, had planned to include his son Sajjad and other second-rung leaders of his party in the October 2002 elections. In 1994, when violence in the region was at its peak, Lone welcomed Pakistani militants to aid Kashmiri guerillas, referring to them as mehmaan mujahideen, which translates as guest crusaders. Over the last few years, however, Lone changed his position, believing the foreign militants compromise Kashmir's fight for freedom, and his party enrolled in the elections to promote its cause democratically. Lone reflected the changing Kashmiri attitudes toward India. After over a decade of conflict, there is now a push to give power back to traditional leaders and retest the validity of India's democracy.

However, not all Kashmiris welcomed such efforts. Before the elections began, violence increased to dissuade voters from going to the polls. On May 21, 2002, Lone, a potential mediator between pro-dialogue moderates in the secessionist camp and the New Delhi government, was assassinated by militants who opposed the political center's plan for state elections. His murder raised the question of whether this election, which many Kashmiris hoped would be a step toward their state's return to normalcy, would actually unlock Kashmir from its present stalemate in which India, Pakistan, and independence-seeking militants insist on retaining their claims to the disputed territory. …