By Fayaz Bukhari
SRINAGAR, India (Reuters) – India’s main opposition Congress said on Wednesday it would boycott local elections in Kashmir, joining two other parties in a setback for government efforts to restart political activity after it revoked the state’s special status two months ago.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has faced international condemnation for his handling of the situation in Kashmir, particularly over communication restrictions and the detention of hundreds of people including politicians that accompanied the withdrawal of its autonomy in August.
The government says normalcy is slowly returning to the Muslim-majority territory and was hoping that the elections to sub-district councils set for Oct. 24 would help bolster its case that ordinary Kashmiris wanted faster economic development.
But the Congress party state chief Ghulam Ahmad Mir said with scores of members detained, an election was pointless.
“We have decided to stay away from the polls which should have been deferred taking into consideration the prevailing situation in the state as was demanded by all the opposition political parties”, Mir, who himself was under house arrest till last week, told reporters in Kashmir’s main city of Srinagar.
Authorities detained hundreds of separatists fighting for Kashmir’s secession from India as well as local politicians for fear of large scale protests over the decision to withdraw Kashmir’s decades-old special rights and divide the state into two federal territories.
Many have since been released. Two other regional parties – National Conference and the Peoples Democratic Party – whose leaders are still detained, will also stay out of the polls.
“They (the government) want to give the impression that there is normal political activity but there is nothing normal about the situation,” a source with knowledge of the Peoples Democratic Party leadership’s thinking told Reuters.
On Sunday, National Conference leader Hasnain Masoodi said that unless political leaders were released, elections were futile.
“As of now there is no question of any democratic process and given the atmosphere that is around, the BDC elections seem irrelevant,” he told reporters in Srinagar, referring to what locally are known as block development councils.
Both parties also boycotted the village-level polls in the Kashmir Valley last year, leading to the election of heads for only around 60% of village councils, according to official data.
(Reporting by Fayaz Bukhari; Additional reporting and writing by Devjyot Ghoshal; Editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise)