- POSTED: 24 Apr 2014 16:23
Indian Kashmiris trickled into polling stations Thursday in the shadow of militant violence, in the latest stage of the country's five-week election that saw much higher turnout elsewhere in the country.
ANANTNAG: Indian Kashmiris trickled into polling stations Thursday in the shadow of militant violence, in the latest stage of the country's five-week election that saw much higher turnout elsewhere in the country.
Millions cast ballots in the teeming financial capital Mumbai, the home both of Bollywood and of sprawling slums, as well as in the electorally important southern state of Tamil Nadu.
The mammoth national election has been staggered in a bid to ensure the safety of the 814-million-strong electorate, with results due on May 16 when the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is forecast to take power.
The Muslim-majority and volatile Kashmir valley, where a separatist movement against Indian rule is centred, posed a heightened challenge for security forces on the first of three days of polling there.
Voting was light to non-existent at heavily guarded polling stations in areas of Anantnag constituency after a campaign of intimidation by local militant groups, who killed three people this week and warned locals not to take part.
"I voted because if we send the right person to the Indian parliament he will raise our voice for azadi (freedom)," said defiant resident Umair, reflecting widespread separatist sentiment in the area.
In the town of Tral, 35 kilometres (20 miles) from the main city of Srinagar, the streets were empty except for paramilitary forces and police, with not a single vote cast at one polling station by noon.
The three -- two local officials and another man -- were killed in the region on Monday night and local separatist groups who want Kashmir to become independent or merge with Pakistan have called for a vote boycott.
Very few in the picturesque Himalayan valley, surrounded by towering snow-capped mountains, would be expected to support election frontrunner Narendra Modi, a hardline Hindu nationalist who is leading campaigning for the BJP.
Modi, the chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, remains a divisive figure after being accused of failing swiftly to curb anti-Muslim riots in his state in 2002. The unrest cost at least 1,000 lives.
The 63-year-old appeared before hundreds of thousands of cheering supporters on Thursday as he filed his nomination papers to contest a seat from the holy Hindu city of Varanasi in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
Dressed all in white, he was flanked by his controversial aide Amit Shah, who was briefly banned from campaigning for inflammatory comments he made this month in an area hit by anti-Muslim riots last year.
The streets were a sea of saffron, the BJP's colour which is associated with Hinduism, with the mainly male crowd decked out in BJP caps or carrying the party's lotus emblem flags.
Modi, elected three times in Gujarat, has steered clear of advancing his party's Hindu nationalist agenda on the campaign trail, presenting himself as a centrist economic reformer capable of delivering clean governance.
All polls show him as vastly more popular than his rival Rahul Gandhi from the ruling Congress party, which has been in power for 10 years but faces its heaviest ever defeat.
Millions of voters, from Bollywood stars and business leaders to slum dwellers, turned out to vote in the western megacity of Mumbai, standing in queues in a rare show of social mixing.
The city's favourite son, cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar, voted early and urged others to follow suit.
"I have voted, have you? A wonderful start to my birthday, as a responsible citizen of our great nation," the 41-year-old wrote on Twitter accompanied by a "selfie" of his inked finger.
At a school in the suburb of Juhu, popular with the middle-classes and Bollywood stars, the media jostled to get pictures of actors such as Dharmendra, Sonam Kapoor and Bobby Deol.
The Bollywood movie industry turned unusually political last week after more than 50 filmmakers, actors and writers, many of them Muslim, signed an appeal urging Indians not to vote for Modi and instead choose a "secular" party.
Also going to the polls on Thursday are voters in Tamil Nadu state, where Chief Minister Jayalalithaa Jayaram is hoping to win enough support to play a pivotal role in shaping India's next government.
The former film star, known as "Mother" to her followers, is one of the country's powerful regional leaders who could play a kingmaker role if Modi fails to win a majority and needs coalition partners.
In all, constituencies in 12 states voted on Thursday including Assam, West Bengal, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan.