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On the eve of first phase of polling, Kashmir is cold and tense

Massive security has been put in place and army choppers flew to remote areas to drop polling staff as part of the last-minute preparations on the eve of the first phase of assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir.

, ET Bureau|
Nov 17, 2008, 03.03 AM IST
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SRINAGAR: Massive security has been put in place and army choppers on Sunday flew to remote areas to drop polling staff as part of the last-minute preparations on the eve of the first phase of assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir.

The Valley is expected to remain under a curfew-like situation in the wake of the boycott call given by separatists.

For the 87-strong legislature, Monday will see polling for 10 seats ��� four in two districts of Ladakh, three each in Jammu���s Poonch and Kashmir���s Bandipore districts. A total of 102 candidates are in fray and 6,06,667 electors, including 2,94,145 women and 8,505 service voters, are expected to exercise their franchise at 1,066 polling stations.

The number of candidates is very high this time, state police chief Kuldeep Khuda said, adding there were only 42 candidates in fray for these segments in 2002. Two of the three Kashmir segments would require two EVMs as the number of candidates is 22 in Sonawari and 19 in Bandipore. Unlike Ladakh and Jammu, Kashmir has till now witnessed lackluster campaigning but it remained peaceful with no militant attacks.

Kashmir commissioner Masuad Samoon said an MI-17 flew chopper many times on Saturday and Sunday to fly 96 polling staffers to remote Gurez (25 polling stations), which was rendered inaccessible after early snow blocked the key Razdan Pass. ���The entire polling staff is local, though we have around 600 non-local polling staff resting in hotels,��� Mr Samoon told ET. Three districts in his jurisdiction required 2,856 employees.

IAF flying machines were used almost everywhere. In Leh, army choppers flew five times in two days to drop polling staff at their respective destinations ��� Lingched, Lingchung and Nelakh (falling in Nubra). In neighbouring Kargil, same number of sorties were made to Shaday, Shun, Satak, Ralakung and Phema polling stations (Zanskar) having 65, 77, 26, 24 and 14 voters, respectively. At a few places, however, the choppers could not land, forcing polling parties to travel on foot. In case the weather deteriorates, Cheetah helicopters will have to make 20-24 sorties to airlift staff and EVMs to 36 polling stations of Zanskar.

Deteriorating weather had forced National Conference to request the election commission to reconsider rescheduling of polls. In fact, the Cabinet secretary spoke to the CEC but the latter put his foot down. A dominant opinion in the commission was that a political party actually forced an election in trying circumstances which can not be rescheduled now.

Unlike Jammu and Ladakh, authorities do not expect a huge turnout in Kashmir segments because of boycott call by the separatists. As the government imposed curfew to thwart every separatist procession, they finally asked people to move towards the belt that goes to polls on the day of polling. ���There is nothing new in these (march calls and boycott) and measures would be taken as the situation demanded,��� Mr Khuda said. ���We will deal with the situation so that law and order is in control and people cast their votes without any fear or threat���. His subordinates insist they would prevent possible interference of the separatists but will not force those people who are ���unwilling to vote���.

Reports from Bandipore and Sonawari said security personnel have converted the belt into a garrison. At a number of places drop gates have emerged overnight and security men are seeking identity from everyone who passes through. All incoming and outgoing vehicles are being listed, reports added. Even in Bandipore town pedestrians are being frisked, as a result of which roads were deserted early during the day. Most of the separatist leaders have either been detained or placed under house arrest.
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