'It Is a Sin to Waste Your Vote'

Why are Kashmiris shunning India's election?

SRINAGAR, Kashmir — On the morning of April 30, the day of India's parliamentary elections in Srinagar, Showkat Ahmad Bhat stood quietly outside his shuttered grocery store. The alleyways in the capital of Indian-controlled Kashmir -- dotted with political banners promising "a new age" -- were mostly empty, aside from the scores of Indian soldiers and policemen deployed to guard against possible disruptions from Kashmir's resistance movement, which seeks independence from India. Bhat and his friends huddled on a street corner, watching which of their neighbors would walk into the lane that leads to the polling booth.

"I have never voted in 46 years of my life and I never will," Bhat says, holding up his unstained left-forefinger to show he did not bear the ink-mark that Indian balloters receive. "Even if all of Kashmir votes in Indian elections, I will still boycott."

Between April 7 and May 16, over 800 million Indians are set to participate in the election that pits the Congress Party candidate Rahul Gandhi against Narendra Modi, the leader of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the overwhelming favorite to take over as prime minister. But while many are voting based on which candidate will jump-start economic growth, crackdown on bureaucratic corruption, and deliver stronger internal security, for Kashmiris like Bhat the question is not who to support -- but whether to vote at all.

Since 1989, when opposition figures began mass protests against Indian rule, Kashmiris have largely boycotted the elections -- refusing to participate in an exercise they feel has little or no connection with their real aspiration of self determination. (All major Indian parties say that Kashmir is an integral part of India.) In the South Kashmir constituency -- which held its vote on April 24, the first of three election phases in the contested region -- around 72 percent of its eligible voters, according to the Election Commission of India (ECI), chose to stay home. A week later in Srinagar, an estimated 900,000 of the city's 1.2 million voters boycotted. In contrast, voter turnout in India's 2009 parliamentary elections was at 58 percent nationally.

Yet years of abstention -- voter turnout in Srinigar was 18 percent in 2004 and 25.6 in 2009 -- has done little to further calls for Kashmiri independence. "They will still form a government, they always form a government no matter how few people vote," says Bhat's friend Mohammad Yusuf. "India rules us with its soldiers and its guns. All this is mere theater."

Not all Kashmiris are abstaining from the election, of course. "It is a sin to waste your vote," 51-year-old Haleema Bano says, covering her face with her white headscarf as she waited her turn in line. "Allah will punish you for it."

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Kashmir is one of the subcontinents oldest conflicts. The region -- an autonomous princely state prior to partition in 1947 -- is claimed by both India and Pakistan and divided along the Line of Control, a highly militarized boundary separating the Indian-controlled state of Jammu and Kashmir from the Pakistani areas to the north. Kashmir's post-partition political tensions cannot be disentangled from its religious demography: The region is predominately Muslim, though controlled by Hindu-majority India. After decades of simmering discontent, a mass armed uprising, supported by the neighboring Pakistan, erupted against the unpopular Indian occupation in 1989. India responded by deploying more than half a million soldiers in the region.

While India's counterinsurgency methods have almost wiped out the armed movement -- the Indian Army estimates there are only 300 active militants in Kashmir -- the spirit of Kashmiri resistance remains active, and often manifests itself in massive street protests. 

These street demonstrations have often led to violence between the police and the protesters. Indian forces have killed hundreds of unarmed protesters in the last few years. During voting in South Kashmir in late April, clashes between Indian forces and protesters left at least 12 police and paramilitary soldiers injured and several young protesters wounded. Suspected militants killed three people, including two village leaders, in attacks on April 21 in an apparent effort to intimidate voters. In the lead-up to the election, police detained roughly 600 Kashmiri activists, including many of the leaders of the independence resistance movement.

In a statement released on April 28, police said that "[n]obody will be allowed to disrupt the electoral process," describing those arrested as "stone pelters and trouble mongers."

Owais Mushtaq, who has been involved in street protests, is one of those so-called trouble mongers. Local police picked up the 20 year old on April 27, along with dozens of other boys from Maisuma, a predominantly pro-independence neighborhood in Srinagar, according to his family. As of May 8, Mushtaq remains detained.

Sitting in the family's small home in Maisuma, his father, Mushtaq Ahmad, recalls the first time his son was arrested: Mushtaq was just 15 then, charged with waging war against the state.

Ahmad himself says he was never involved in resistance efforts, even though at times he longed to join. "Two years ago, half a dozen soldiers beat me up," he says. "I kept showing them my identity card, but they kept beating me. It was there that I swore that my son is actually doing the right thing by throwing stones."

The independence movement in Kashmir has been buoyed by serious abuses by Indian forces. Human Rights Watch and other organizations have implicated Indian armed personnel in extrajudicial killings, disappearances, and torture. Militants have also committed atrocities, in particular targeting civilians perceived to support India. About 70,000 people have reportedly been killed in the conflict and thousands have been detained in Indian prisons.

As Ahmad spoke, Mushtaq's mother and two sisters were trying to stay busy, dusting off the window sills while a soap opera played unnoticed on the TV in the corner. "Only my body is here," Mushtaq's mother says. "My heart is there, in the prison."

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Despite the heavy deployment of armed personnel, protests started in late afternoon on election day. As police were withdrawing from their polling stations, scores of resistance activists amassed, throwing stones. Indian police opened fire, killing a young protester, Bashir Ahmad Bhat, a 26-year-old mason, and wounding five others.

The Kashmir government immediately instituted a curfew, which remained in force for the next two days in many places throughout the city. The killing sparked clashes between protesters and police across the region, wounding several more people. The deployment of armed forces remained heavy through May 7, when elections were held in the constituency of North Kashmir. As in Srinagar, police clashed with protesters during North Kashmir's polling hours.

While boycott calls are nothing new during election season, Modi's ascension has revived the debate. The BJP politician is considered a hardliner when it comes to state policy towards the contested region. Modi's track record of right-wing Hindu nationalism politics is a point of concern for Muslims across India -- his critics point to his alleged role in the 2002 anti-Muslim Gujarat riots, in which over 1,000 people were killed in sectarian attacks -- yet for many Kashmiris, a Modi administration would be just another in a long line of abusive regimes. "The Kashmir policy of India has always been fascist but they have been carefully sugarcoating it in narratives of democracy and secularism," says human rights activist Khurram Parvez of the Coalition of Civil Society, a Srinagar-based human rights organization. "For us, Modi's coming will be an unveiling of the real India."

This is the India that Bhat rejects in boycotting the country's elections. Standing just a few miles from where Bashir Ahmad was killed, watching the few people trickle down the alley towards the polling station, Bhat pointed towards a street corner and relapsed into an old story: Two decades ago, he says, Indian Army soldiers killed two people on this corner. He remembers seeing the blood of a middle-aged woman shot in the stomach -- he ran from his grocery store, he said, but he couldn't help her.

"If I walk to the polling booths, I will have to answer that woman's dying face and many more dead people along the way," says Bhat. "And I can never do that."



The World's Most Dangerous Water Fight

Vietnam and China are coming to blows over oil. Will it spark a dangerous new era of power politics in Asia?

NOTE: This story was updated late Wednesday to include the State Dept. release on the situation.


China's muscular efforts to extend its control over broad reaches of the South China Sea have already clashed -- literally -- with neighboring countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines that appear increasingly determined to push back against Beijing.

Just days after Beijing dispatched an oil rig to waters claimed by both China and Vietnam, Chinese naval vessels apparently rammed and damaged at least one Vietnamese patrol boat in the area. Though no shots were reported to have been fired, Vietnamese media said Chinese ships used water cannons to enforce an unusually large three-mile no-go zone the Chinese have established around the rig.

The incident, the latest escalation in a regional flashpoint already primed for conflict, underscores the lengths China seems prepared to go to defend its ambitious territorial claims as well as the unintended consequences of China's take-no-prisoners approach to foreign relations. More specifically, experts on the region said that China risks creating a coalition of the exasperated among the oft-bickering nations of Southeast Asia who are increasingly speaking out against Beijing's aggressive territorial claims.

What's more, by picking a fight with Vietnam, China could complicate its relationship with Russia. Moscow has assiduously cultivated closer ties with Vietnam in part to hedge against Chinese expansion in Southeast Asia. Russia will finance and build the construction of new nuclear reactors in Vietnam, which will tie the two countries together in an energy relationship for decades, for example.

The two countries are even closer when it comes to defense. Hanoi's most ambitious recent arms purchase was the acquisition of six modern, Kilo-class Russian submarines -- meant explicitly to give Vietnam more naval muscle to deal with China's rapidly growing navy. Russia has sold Vietnam a number of other naval vessels, including frigates and small craft, and is trying to lock up a supply arrangement for its own ships at Vietnam's Cam Ranh Bay naval facility. The moves are widely seen as a part of a concerted Russian bid to rebuild its influence in the region and check Chinese expansion in Asia. China and Russia have had a sharp geopolitical rivalry for years along their huge border, and growing Chinese influence in Central and Southeast Asia has Russia nervous about China becoming too dominant in Asia.

The new clashes came Saturday and Sunday, when Vietnamese patrol boats sailed to an area of the South China Sea about 140 miles off the Vietnamese coast, but which lies in waters also claimed by Beijing, to protest the arrival of China's first deepwater oil rig, the massive, billion-dollar Haiyang Shiyou 981.

Chinese naval and coast guard vessels sent to escort the rig outnumbered and outgunned the Vietnamese force, police officials said at a press conference in Hanoi, and pounced on the Vietnamese ships. Officials in Hanoi said the most serious incident, the high-speed ramming of one ship on Saturday, took place about 10 miles from the rig. (Vietnamese officials presented photos of the incidents, available here.)

On Tuesday, in a separate incident, the Philippine coast guard arrested a Chinese fishing vessel that Manila says was illegally fishing for endangered species in its waters. Philippine complaints about the encroachment of Chinese fishermen in disputed waters lying between the two countries were one of the driving forces behind a landmark legal case Manila brought against Beijing in The Hague in March.

Even before the naval incidents became public, China and Vietnam had traded rhetorical barbs in the wake of the deployment of the drilling rig. Chinese state media urged the country to teach Vietnam a "lesson" by taking a hard line. After the ramming, Vietnam's foreign minister again asked his Chinese counterpart to remove the contentious rig, which he called a violation of Vietnam's sovereignty. He also said that Vietnam "will take all suitable and necessary measures to safeguard its legitimate rights and interests," according to a release from the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry.

A spokeswoman at the Chinese Foreign Ministry on Wednesday said that Vietnam should stop interfering with what China views as legal activities and denounced the Philippine detention of the fishing vessel. The spokeswoman dismissed comments from the U.S. State Department, which on Tuesday called China's deployment of the drilling rig "unhelpful and provocative," saying that the United States "is in no position to make irresponsible remarks on China's affairs," Xinhua reported.

The State Department responded late Wednesday, sharply rebuking China for the episode. "China’s decision to introduce an oil rig accompanied by numerous government vessels for the first time in waters disputed with Vietnam is provocative and raises tensions," State Dept. spokesperson Jen Pskai said in a release. "This unilateral action appears to be part of a broader pattern of Chinese behavior to advance its claims over disputed territory in a manner that undermines peace and stability in the region." The United States, she said, is "very concerned about dangerous conduct and intimidation by vessels operating in this area," and reiterated U.S. desires for maritime disputes to be settled according to international law.

China's resort to more aggressive tactics, including the use of both naval and coast guard vessels to protect its drilling rig, seems to be boomeranging on Beijing in a way that the country's earlier, less overt moves into disputed seas did not.

The Philippines set a precedent earlier this year when it sued China over Beijing's snatch and grab of several specks of land in the South China Sea claimed by both countries. Vietnamese officials, their nationalism at a high pitch with the 60th anniversary of its victory over French forces in the battle of Dien Bien Phu, have deployed both strong words and strong vessels to push back against what they see as Chinese intransigence.

Other countries in the region, notably Indonesia and Malaysia, also seem to be moving away from the neutral stance they had traditionally maintained toward the maritime disputes, and are now vocally protesting Chinese behavior.

Indonesian defense officials, though not ones from its foreign ministry, have publicly expressed concern about Chinese behavior in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak used a joint appearance in the administrative capital of Putrajaya last month to stress the need for all countries to preserve freedom of navigation and avoid the use of force in maritime disputes, a clear, if unstated reference to China.

"Indonesia has been more outspoken, and the U.S.-Malaysia joint statement during Obama's visit went farther on maritime issues than most expected," said Ely Ratner, the deputy director of the Asia-Pacific program at the Center for a New American Security. "One likely byproduct of this incident will be enhanced coordination among the claimants to different areas of the South China Sea, especially the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam, which is already occurring in unprecedented ways."

What's less clear is the impact that China's aggressive behavior will have on its newly improved relations with Moscow. The two countries are close to finally signing a huge energy deal that would see natural gas exported from Russia's far east to China's energy-hungry northeast. Both countries need that: Russia's European markets are gun shy of relying too much on energy exports from Moscow in the wake of the Ukraine invasion, and China wants to find reliable supplies of affordable energy.

Russian-China ties are advancing in other areas, as well: The two countries will hold joint naval maneuvers this month in the East China Sea, another body of water where Chinese claims collide with those of another country, in this case Japan. During his Asia swing last month, Obama reaffirmed the U.S. defense commitment to Japan, including the Senkaku Islands, which are a source of fierce brinksmanship between Tokyo and Beijing.

China's aggressive approach to disputes with neighbors in the South China Sea could make its rapprochement with Moscow tougher to pull off, said Ratner. "China's bullying around Asia is going to put limits on how close it can get with Russia, because some of the victims of that bullying are close with Russia," he said.

Vietnam Coast Guard - AP