Millions of voters defied a separatist call to boycott assembly elections in Kashmir and voted amid tight security in the third phase of the polls on Tuesday, but the turnout was lower than the first two rounds with voters in separatist stronghold staying away.
The Election Commission said 58% of voters turned up to cast their ballot, lower than record over 70% numbers in the first two phases when Kashmiris battled bone-chilling winter temperatures in a bid to keep the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from gaining in the Muslim-majority state.
Sixteen constituencies in the Valley went to the polls under the shadow of violence after 21 people were killed in a string of militant attacks last week, including one on an army camp in the border town of Uri, but that didn’t stop people in central Kashmir where the turnout was a high 73%. Uri recorded a record high turnout of 79% while the highest percentage in the state was in Charar-i-Sharief were 82% of people came out to vote.
Militant attacks and poll boycott cast a shadow on voter turnout in many areas including the separatist bastions of Sopore and Baramulla in North Kashmir and South Kashmir's Tral and Pulwama.
Sopore logged the lowest numbers at 30 percent while Tral and Pulwama recorded 38 percent voting and Baramulla was moderate at 45 percent. Sopore is the hometown of separatist leader Syed Ali Shah and Tral was one of the worse affected in Friday’s militant attacks, with two civilians killed and 10 injured in a grenade attack in a crowded market.
Many people said they were voting for peace and development in Kashmir which has been torn by a separatist revolt for about 25 years.
"We have borne the brunt of wars between the two countries. The Kashmir issue is too big and complex to be resolved by my vote. Our village got road this year only. Earlier we used to trek on foot. I am voting for a pakka road and hope to see some employment generation here," said Muhammad Hanief, a 50-year-old government employee.
Chief Minister Omar Abdullah and three of his cabinet colleagues are among 144 candidates whose fate will be decided in the third phase of polling spread across the three districts Budgam, Pulwama and Baramulla districts.
The Abdullah scion, however, faces tough competition from Congress which is banking on the local credentials of candidate Nazir Ahmad Khan. Analysts say his National Conference is widely expected to lose in the face of deep anger in the state, especially since the devastating floods in September, while the Peoples Democratic Party is seen emerging as the single largest party in the 87-member assembly.
Some areas in South and North Kashmir witnessed stone pelting and a petrol bomb was hurled by unidentified men at a polling station in Gulmarg constituency. No casualties were reported in the incident, but polling was generally peaceful.
PDP patron Mufti Muhammad Sayeed said the massive turnout was "not only a message to the divisive forces but also an assertion to resolve problems democratically".
“Jammu and Kashmir is sending out a loud and clear massage not only to the divisive forces but also that it wants the problems facing the state resolved through the democratic process," Sayeed said in Khiram area of Bijbehara constituency.
Jharkhand too defied a Maoist call to boycott the polls with 61.35% of voters turning out to vote in 17 constituencies in a bid to end years of political instability in the state which has seen nine chief ministers and been under President’s Rule three times since it was created 14 years ago.
Barring a few incidents of exchange of gunfire between security forces and Maoists in Giridih district and clashes between two political parties in Ichagarh before polling began, the third round passed off peacefully.
A total of 289 candidates are contesting 17 out of the state’s 81 assembly seats, including former chief ministers Babulal Marandi, former deputy chief minister Sudesh Mahato, former assembly speaker CP Singh and three cabinet ministers—Annapurna Devi, Rajendra Prasad Singh and Jaiprakash Bhai Patel.