India votes on chance for Kashmiris to signal opposition to Modi | National

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s campaign speeches hailed the suppression of the uprising in Kashmir as one of his greatest achievements, but many in the disputed region see India’s elections as a chance to signal their opposition.

In a widely expected victory in the biggest poll in history, Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) did not field any candidates in Kashmir for the first time in almost three decades. Experts say that if that happened, they would be completely defeated.

The Modi government revoked Kashmir’s limited autonomy under India’s 2019 constitution, accompanied by massive security restrictions, mass arrests of local political leaders and months-long telecommunications blackouts.

Since then, violence in the Muslim-majority region has subsided, and the BJP has consistently maintained that its people support change.

However, some Kashmiri voters in this year’s national elections will want to express their frustration at the loss of their territory’s special status.

“I’ve never voted before. But this time… I will show that I am not happy with what India is doing to us,” a middle-aged man in the main city of Srinagar told AFP, declining to be identified for fear of retaliation.

“How can India say that Kashmiris are happy when in reality we are suffocating in a state of fear and misery?”

– “Express your objection” –

Kashmir has been divided between India and Pakistan since independence in 1947. Both claim full rights to it and have fought two wars for control of the Himalayan region.

Rebel groups opposed to Indian rule have been waging an insurgency on the New Delhi-controlled side of the border since 1989, demanding independence or merger with Pakistan.

Tens of thousands of soldiers, rebels and civilians have been killed in the conflict over recent decades, and last month there were a series of shootings between suspected rebels and security forces.

India is in the midst of a six-week election, with voting split into stages to ease the logistical burden of organizing the vote in the world’s most populous country.

Modi and his ministers have advocated ending Kashmir’s special status, claiming during campaign rallies that it has brought “peace and development,” and the policy is popular with voters elsewhere in India.

But many valley residents have chafed at growing restrictions on civil liberties that have curtailed media freedoms and effectively put an end to once-common public protests.

Many people are also unhappy with the 2019 decision to scrap constitutional guarantees that reserved local jobs and land for Kashmiris.

Open campaigns for separatism are illegal in India, and established democratic parties in Kashmir have long differed over whether to cooperate with the then government in New Delhi or seek greater autonomy.

But animosity towards Modi’s Hindu nationalist government has helped paper over differences between rival parties by creating a common sense opposition, parliamentary candidate Waheed Ur Rehman Para told AFP.

“Today there is enormous silent solidarity in Kashmir towards each other, regardless of party lines,” he said.

The pair are running for the seat that includes Srinagar, the territory’s largest city, on behalf of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which was a BJP ally before 2019 but is now campaigning for the restoration of Kashmir’s autonomy.

Voters were preparing to “tell Delhi that consent to decisions regarding Kashmir is paramount and should rest with the people,” he said.

– “I want to win every heart” –

Political analyst and historian Sidiq Wahid told AFP that Kashmiris see the elections as a “referendum” on the Modi government’s policies in the territory.

“The BJP is not fielding any candidates for a very simple reason,” he said. – Because they would lose, simple as that.

Modi’s party still has a presence in Kashmir in the form of a heavily bunkered and almost empty office in Srinagar.

The complex is under constant paramilitary protection by some of the more than 500,000 troops India permanently station in the region.

The BJP appealed to voters to instead support smaller and newly formed parties that publicly agreed with Modi’s policies.

India’s influential Home Minister Amit Shah, a close Modi acolyte, said at an election rally last month that the party had made a tactical decision not to field candidates.

He said he and his allies were in no hurry to “see the lotus bloom” in Kashmir, a reference to the BJP’s flower campaign emblem, but would instead wait for the people of the valley to realize what a good work it was.

“We will not conquer Kashmir,” he told the crowd. “We want to win every heart in Kashmir.”