Kashmir people vote in local polls amid cold and security

An Indian paramilitary soldier walks next to voters standing in a queue to cast their ballots during the first phase of the District Development Council (DDC) and Panchayat by-elections at a polling station in Raiyar-ICH Khansahib in Budgam district on Nov. 28, 2020. (AFP)
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Updated 28 November 2020

Kashmir people vote in local polls amid cold and security

  • Nearly 6 million people across the region’s 20 districts are eligible to elect 280 members of District Development Councils
  • Authorities deployed tens of thousands of additional soldiers in the already highly militarized region to guard the vote

SRINAGAR, India: Thousands of people in Indian-controlled Kashmir voted Saturday amid tight security and freezing cold temperatures in the first phase of local elections, the first since New Delhi revoked the disputed region’s semiautonomous status.
Nearly 6 million people across the region’s 20 districts are eligible to elect 280 members of District Development Councils in a staggered eight-phase process that ends Dec. 19.
Authorities deployed tens of thousands of additional soldiers in the already highly militarized region to guard the vote. Government forces laid razor wire and erected steel barricades on roads around many of the 2,146 polling stations set up for the first phase.
Election Commissioner K.K. Sharma appealed to residents to cast their vote and “participate in the biggest festival of democracy.”
As standard protocol for the coronavirus pandemic, authorities placed hand sanitizers, face masks and thermal scanners at the polling stations, where voters cast their ballot in freezing cold across the region.
India says the polls are a vital grassroots exercise to boost development and address civic issues and will uproot corruption from the region. Separatist leaders and armed rebel groups that challenge India’s sovereignty over Kashmir have in the past called for a boycott of elections, calling them an illegitimate exercise under military occupation.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has fiercely campaigned for the election in the Muslim-majority region in a bid to replace local Kashmiri pro-India parties that had formed an alliance.
The Kashmiri alliance has vigorously opposed Modi’s government after it revoked the region’s semi-autonomous status in August last year, annulled its separate constitution, split the area into two federal territories — Ladakh and Jammu-Kashmir — and removed inherited protections on land and jobs.
The Indian government imposed sweeping restrictions, ranging from curfews to communications blackouts, arrested thousands, including pro-India Kashmiri leaders opposed to the move and enacted new laws in measures that triggered widespread anger and economic ruin.
The current voting is part of a three-tier process in which residents directly elect their village representatives, who then vote to form development councils for clusters of villages called “Block Development Councils.” Members for the larger, third and top layer “District Development Councils” are also directly elected by the residents.
The elected members have no legislative powers and are only responsible for economic development and public welfare of the region.
Officials are also simultaneously conducting the election for hundreds of vacant seats in village councils that remained uncontested during 2018 polls.
The BJP has a very small base in the Kashmir valley, the heart of the decades-old anti-India insurgency, but has significant support in four Hindu-majority districts in the Jammu area.
The Kashmiri alliance has accused the government of interfering with their campaigning, a charge denied by the Election Commission.
The alliance also accused authorities of putting its top leader Mehbooba Mufti, a former top elected official and ally of Modi, under house arrest on Friday. Police denied Mufti was restricted to her home.
Many of the 296 candidates up for election Saturday have been lodged in hotels because of security concerns. In the past, militants have targeted candidates.
Some Kashmiris view the polls cynically as a move to create a new political elite loyal to the Modi government.
“This is an ideological vote,” said Najeeb Khan, a voter in Srinagar, the region’s main city. “People are considering it a referendum against the BJP.”
Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan and both rivals claim the region in its entirety. Rebels have been fighting against Indian rule since 1989. Most Muslim Kashmiris support the rebel goal that the territory be united either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country.
New Delhi calls Kashmir militancy Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. Pakistan denies the charge, and most Kashmiris call it a legitimate struggle for freedom.
Tens of thousands of civilians, rebels and government forces have been killed in the conflict.


Dutch government collapses over benefits scandal

Updated 15 min 52 sec ago

Dutch government collapses over benefits scandal

  • Parents being targeted for investigation because they had dual nationality also underscored long-standing criticisms of systemic racism in the Netherlands
  • The row threatens to leave the Netherlands without a government in the midst of a surge in cases of a new Covid-19 variant

THE HAGUE: Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s government resigned on Friday over a child benefits scandal, media reported, threatening political turmoil as the country battles the coronavirus pandemic.
Thousands of parents were wrongly accused by Dutch authorities of fraudulently claiming child allowance, with many of them forced to pay back large amounts of money and ending up in financial ruin.
The fact that some parents were targeted for investigation by tax officials because they had dual nationality also underscored long-standing criticisms of systemic racism in the Netherlands.
Dutch media said Rutte was due to give a statement at 1315 GMT about the resignation of his four-party coalition cabinet, which comes just two months before the Netherlands is due to hold a general election on March 17.
A hard-hitting parliamentary investigation in December said civil servants cut off benefits to thousands of families wrongly accused of fraud between 2013 and 2019.
The row threatens to leave the Netherlands without a government in the midst of a surge in cases of a new Covid-19 variant that first emerged in Britain.
Rutte had opposed the cabinet’s resignation, saying the country needs leadership during the pandemic.
He had however said that if it resigned he could be authorized to lead a caretaker government until elections — in which polls say his Freedom and Democracy Party would likely come first.
Other parties in the coalition had pushed for the government to take responsibility for the scandal, which Dutch media said some 26,000 people had been affected.
They could have also faced a confidence vote in parliament next week.
Pressure mounted on the government after opposition Labour party chief Lodewijk Asscher, who was social affairs minister in Rutte’s previous cabinet, resigned on Thursday over the scandal.
Victims also lodged a legal complaint Tuesday against three serving ministers and two former ministers including Asscher.
Many were required to pay back benefits totalling tens of thousands of euros (dollars).
Tax officials were also revealed to have carried out “racial profiling” of 11,00 people based on their dual nationality, including some of those hit by the false benefit fraud accusations.
The Dutch government announced at least 30,000 euros in compensation for each parent who was wrongly accused but it has not been enough to silence the growing clamour over the scandal.
Rutte has led three coalition governments since 2010, most recently winning elections in 2017 despite strong opposition from far-right leader Geert Wilders.
Polls say he is likely to win a fourth term in the next election, with public opinion still largely backing his handling of the coronavirus crisis.