Authorities have deployed tens of thousands of additional troops to the already highly militarized region to keep the vote. Government forces laid barbed wire and erected steel barricades on the roads around many of the 2,146 polling stations set up for the first phase.
Pro-Indian parties in the region recently formed a coalition, called the Gupkar Alliance, which is campaigning for the restoration of the region’s special status.
Many local candidates say the police used security concerns as “an excuse to harass them”.
“It has been very difficult from the day we filled out the paperwork until now. The police gathered us up and moved us to a hotel 60 km from my constituency… It takes me two hours to get back to my constituency where I’m supposed to be at night, ”said Rayees Ul Hassan, candidate for the ‘Gupkar Alliance.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu Nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has also campaigned for elections in the predominantly Muslim region with the aim of replacing local pro-Indian parties in Kashmir.
“The parties that united under the Gupkar Alliance are corrupt. Our party does justice. People have understood this and are now following us, ”said Mohammad Ismail, BJP candidate.
India says polls are a vital grassroots exercise for boosting development and solving civic issues. Election Commissioner KK Sharma called on residents to vote and “participate in the biggest festival of democracy”.
The elected members will have no legislative power and will be solely responsible for the economic development and public welfare of the region.
Many Kashmiris have said they are determined to make their voices heard in the polls.
“We had planned to boycott the elections but after the formation of the Gupkar Alliance, it forced us to rethink. We have decided to vote to keep the BJP at bay, ”said resident Ghulam Nabi.
In the past, separatist leaders and armed rebel groups challenging India’s sovereignty over Kashmir have called for a boycott of the elections, calling them an illegitimate exercise under military occupation.
Pro-Indian parties in the region had vigorously opposed Modi’s government after revoking the region’s semi-autonomous status in August last year, overturning its separate constitution, dividing the area into two federal territories – Ladakh and Jammu-Kashmir – and removed legacy protections on land. and jobs.
The Indian government has imposed sweeping restrictions, ranging from curfews to communication blackouts, and enacted new laws in measures that have sparked widespread anger and economic ruin.
Political analysts say the federal government is at stake in this election.
“If you have a large voter turnout, it will show the international community that life is back to normal here and this is what the Modi government wants to project out of these elections,” analyst Majid Hyderi said.
Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan and rivals claim the region in its entirety. The rebels have been fighting Indian rule since 1989. Most Kashmiris Muslims support the rebels’ goal that the territory be united under Pakistani rule or as an independent country.
New Delhi calls the Kashmir rebellion “terrorism” sponsored by Pakistan. Pakistan denies the accusation, while most Kashmiris call it a legitimate struggle for freedom.
Tens of thousands of civilians, rebels and government forces have been killed in the conflict.