Kashmiris Seek Normalcy Amid Election Bloodshed

S By Mark Magnier

sRINIGAR, India – As India and Pakistan trade charges over the legitimacy of a bloody election in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir and analysts ponder the implications for the global war on terrorism, taxi driver Mohammed Ramzan Dar worries about school fees, why none of his neighbors have jobs and how to afford his daughters’ weddings.

For many people in this beautiful but strife-torn region, the outside world is missing the point. With election results expected Thursday, they say far too much attention has been paid to security and geopolitical issues and far too little to the sorts of bread-and-butter concerns affecting them most.

“The politicians don’t give us anything,” said Mehrajdin Bhat, a 25-year-old student, who voted against the government on material rather than ideological grounds. “We need roads, services, jobs. That’s what’s really important.”

The Kashmir region, with its predominantly Muslim population, has been divided between mainly Hindu India and mostly Muslim Pakistan for more than five decades. The two nations have gone to war twice over the embattled area.

The current fighting, which has gone on for more than a decade, has devastated Kashmir’s economy, undermined people’s confidence in the future and left, by some counts, as many as 60,000 people dead, mostly civilians. Few believe the politicians are addressing these issues.

India has heralded the election’s 44 percent voter turnout as a significant achievement in the face of so much violence. It sees the voting–which occurred on four separate days, beginning last month and ending Tuesday–as a way to bolster its legitimacy over the disputed region. Pakistan has termed the election a sham, calling instead for a U.N.-sponsored plebiscite on succession.

With hardly a family left untouched by the violence, most Kashmiris dream of peace. Still, many find it’s far easier to focus on concrete local issues rather than illusive negotiations far beyond their control.

“Those are issues for big people,” said Tanveen Ahmad, a local civil servant. “Seventy percent of young people here are unemployed, social problems are increasing and people are stressed. We just want a bit of bread and a normal life.”

The ruling National Conference, a pro-India party that could see its majority slip or even disappear Thursday, is viewed by many as inept or worse. National Conference officials declined to comment.

“I voted against them because they’re a dynastic party and extremely corrupt,” said Hilal Ahmedpir, 25, owner of a public telephone booth that was fired on during the election. “We really need a change.”

Pakistan-backed Kashmiri militants fighting for succession aren’t much better, others say. “In the early ’90s, most of them enjoyed a lot of sympathy with the local people, but then opportunists took over,” Ramzan Dar said. “Now many wear nice clothes, ride expensive motorbikes and extort money from rich Kashmiris. They’ve lost their ideals. We’re suffering and they’re not sharing the pain.”

Money spent on about 1 million soldiers positioned along the India-Pakistan border and all the security forces in Kashmir could be better spent on hospitals, social issues and regional development, said Saier Rasool, 25, a carpet salesman. “The money is being wasted, along with our futures.”

Jammu and Kashmir state police chief A.K. Suri said Wednesday that 310 civilians, 370 militants and 150 security force members had been killed in violence since Aug. 2, when the elections were announced.