Kashmiri Militants Attack Polls After Call for India Election Boycott

Violence disrupted the Indian election in the disputed Kashmir region on Monday, as separatist militants attacked two polling stations and the police responded with what residents called excessive force.

Militants in the Pulwama district hurled grenades at the polling stations, the police said, and protesters threw stones at security forces, hoping to shut down the voting, which is being conducted over five weeks throughout India. The police fired pellet guns in response, injuring at least a dozen people, according to residents.

The mountainous Kashmir region, whose people are mostly Muslim, has a history of contentious voting. It has been caught up in a longstanding, often brutal territorial dispute between Hindu-majority India, which controls much of the region, and Muslim-majority Pakistan.

Last week, the Indian police arrested or detained hundreds of people in southern Kashmir after separatist leaders called for the polls to be boycotted. Syed Ali Geelani, the chairman of a separatist organization, said in a statement that the elections were a “vast military exercise” and that the Indian state had overseen “ruthless killings” in Kashmir.

For the first time, the Election Commission of India divided voting in south Kashmir into three phases this year, hoping to blunt expected protests and violence.

Leading up to the voting, the Indian government also deployed thousands of troops in the region. By the end of the third phase of voting on Monday, only 3 percent of Kashmiris had cast ballots in south Kashmir. In other parts of India, the turnout has been several times that figure.

Asif Ahmad, a political science student from Pulwama, said the Indian government was “desperate” to show that it could conduct peaceful elections in Kashmir. He said that residents were “being coerced in the name of democracy,” and that many wanted to send a message by staying home.

“We don’t want these sham elections,” he said. “We want India to deliver on its promise of a plebiscite and resolve the Kashmir dispute once and for all.” Pakistani officials have long called for a referendum that would allow Kashmiri residents to choose between Pakistan and India.

In recent years, the nature of the conflict has changed. In the late 1980s, Kashmiri guerrilla fighters regularly crossed the border into Pakistan to receive arms training. Now, the fight is more localized. Homegrown militancy has spread, and India has responded by killing hundreds of young Kashmiri fighters.

Violence flared again in February, when a Kashmiri militant rammed a vehicle filled with explosives into a convoy of Indian paramilitary forces traveling on a busy highway, killing at least 40 soldiers in the worst attack in the region in three decades.

That attack set off a tense military standoff between India and Pakistan, where a banned militant group, Jaish-e-Muhammad, claimed responsibility. Since then, a crackdown on separatist leaders in Kashmir has intensified, worsening residents’ antipathy toward Indian security forces, who have been accused of grave human rights violations by the United Nations.

Last week, when a protester, Shahid Riyaz Thoker, 13, was apprehended during a midnight raid at his house in the village of Muran, his father said, security forces “dragged him by his hair.”

“This is the price of living under an occupation,” the father, Reyaz Ahmad Thoke, said.