- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 23, 2002

Legislative elections scheduled for October in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, if free of violence, are expected to reduce the tension between India and Pakistan over the disputed territory of Kashmir.

But threats from militant groups and a planned boycott by a coalition of separatist parties could render the elections less than legitimate and delay normalization, analysts and regional political leaders say.

"If the past is any guide, one should not pin too much hope on this election," said Husain Haqqani, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Nuclear rivals India and Pakistan have deployed nearly a million troops on the border. Tensions rose after an attack on the Indian Parliament in December, which New Delhi blamed on Pakistan-based militants. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, under international diplomatic pressure, has promised to stop the infiltration of militants into the Indian-administered sector of Kashmir.

Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes conceded during a visit to Kashmir last week that the flow of militants into India has been significantly reduced. But troops remain deployed on the border.

"If we see that terrorists coming from Pakistan have stopped, then we will believe that the situation is normalizing and then we can do the job of calling back our army," he said.

The elections, if free and fair, could validate India's democratic plans for Kashmir and could lead to military de-escalation, analysts say.

"The presence of Indian troops [after the elections] depends more on India's perception of the threat level from militants," said Mr. Haqqani, a Pakistani.

However, a grenade attack targeted at Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah and the killing last week of an official from his National Conference party point to the volatility of the situation. A militant group pasted posters last week in several Kashmiri towns, warning people against participating in the election campaign.

The All Party Hurriyat Conference, a loose alliance of about a dozen Kashmiri separatist parties that has boycotted previous elections, is weighing its options. It wants the withdrawal of the estimated 50,000 Indian security forces stationed in Kashmir.

A top leader of the alliance was killed last month, and several senior officials have been arrested on corruption and other charges, leaving the grouping weaker.

In the past elections, the separatists have accused the security forces of coercing voters against backing the parties.

Mr. Abdullah said last week that everybody, including the separatists, would be invited to participate in the elections.

India's Chief Election Commissioner, J.M. Lyngdoh, has said that the security forces will not be allowed to coerce people into voting. Also, electronic voting machines will be used in the state for the first time, and voters will be issued identity cards to avoid fraud, Mr. Lyngdoh said.

The elections chief also reversed his earlier opposition and will allow foreign observers to monitor the elections. International monitors with "good democratic credentials" will be permitted, provided they get clearance from the Indian government, he said. "You have got an international angle, and the whole world is watching."

It is in the best interests of India to have international observers, Mr. Haqqani said. "Unless India accepts international observers, there is very little chance that anti-India Kashmiri groups will accept the outcome of the election," he said.

Elections were last held in Kashmir in 1996 amid threats from separatist militants and reports of coercion of voters by the security forces.

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