SRINAGAR (Reuters) - A good turnout at the start of Jammu and Kashmir elections may mean separatists misread a desire for development and democracy, analysts and voters said on Tuesday, but is not necessarily a vote for Indian rule. While it is too early to draw firm conclusions from Monday's first stage in a seven-part election across a very diverse state, the turnout in parts of the mainly Muslim Kashmir Valley was a surprise for separatists who had heatedly called for a boycott. This year has seen some of the biggest anti-India protests in the Kashmir Valley since an insurgency began in 1989, but voters like 70-year-old Abdul Ahad Bhat said they wanted to cast their ballots even though they had taken part in protest marches.
"Independence is a separate issue from the need for a better life, which a good administration can provide," he said. "So there is no contradiction if a Kashmiri votes today and goes out and raises Azadi (freedom) slogans on the streets tomorrow."
Turnout in the 10 seats contested on Monday across Jammu and Kashmir was 64 percent. More surprising perhaps was a turnout of 59 percent in three seats contested in the Kashmir Valley, up from around 55 percent in the same seats in 2002. Previous elections have seen militants threatening violence to enforce their call for a boycott, and Indian soldiers trying to coerce people to vote. This time the militants said they would not interfere and the soldiers kept a lower profile. Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, chairman of the separatist All Parties Hurriyat (Freedom) Conference which had called for a boycott, questioned the official figures and said free and fair voting was impossible in the presence of hundreds of thousands of troops. But more mainstream political parties appeared to have won some listeners by arguing that the need to choose good government that can build roads and improve civic amenities would not necessarily undermine the independence movement. "This appealed to the people -- for them development still is the immediate need, said Noor Ahmad Baba, dean of social sciences faculty in Kashmir University. "They know independence is a higher, time-consuming goal." "It means ... the Hurriyat leadership does not have a finger on the pulse of the people. Yet this will not undermine the separatist movement because the political parties clearly delineated the freedom struggle from these elections." The biggest surprise came in the separatist stronghold of Bandipora, with turnout reaching 57 percent on Monday, up from 31 percent in 2002, when militant threats almost certainly kept many people away. The mountains around the town had been a hideout for militants from the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba group.
Many voters said they still wanted independence as firmly as ever, but experts said a successful election across Kashmir would give the state and central government the chance to offer better governance and defuse the independence movement to some extent. At least 42 people were shot dead by police when hundreds of thousands of Kashmiri Muslims took to the streets this year shouting "Azadi" (freedom). "It needs to be seen how New Delhi leverages this election," Baba said, adding better governance might only temporarily temper the desire for independence in Kashmir, where more than 42,000 people have been killed during a two-decade-long revolt.
Political columnist Ghulam Nabi Khayal says Kashmiri Muslims will wait and watch for a while. "If they get nothing this time, the Hurriyat will use them," he said.