Saturday, April 11, 2009

Kashmir separatist to contest Indian polls


SRINAGAR, India, April 11, 2009: A leading Kashmiri separatist said Saturday he would run in India's elections starting next week, marking a radical departure for the movement which has until now boycotted polls.

Sajad Lone, 41, heads the People's Conference, a separatist group in Muslim-majority Indian Kashmir, which has been racked by a deadly revolt against New Delhi's rule since 1989.

"I have decided to contest the upcoming parliamentary polls with a commitment to use this mechanism as a method to represent the voice of the Kashmiri people," Lone said.

"This is to take the strength and merits of our cherished (independence) aspirations to the central stage of India, where it cannot be ignored or censored," he said.

The announcement came a day after the hardline wing of the region's main separatist alliance, the Hurriyat (Freedom) Conference, announced a campaign against participation in the general elections that start Thursday.

Separatist groups have long argued that taking part in elections in Kashmir was tantamount to accepting Indian sovereignty over the scenic Himalayan region.

But elections in Kashmir last year witnessed an unprecedented 60 percent voter turnout --- a figure the government in New Delhi was swift to hail as a "victory for democracy" and a vote for national integration.

"It's a setback to the separatists as boycott is their accepted strategy," said Tahir Mohiudin, editor of the widely read Urdu weekly Chattan, or Rock.

The insurgency against Indian rule in Kashmir has claimed 47,000 lives, according to official figures.

Lone is one of Kashmir's most vocal separatists, arguing the cause in television debates, newspaper interviews and seminars.

"Fighting elections is a change of strategy not ideology," Lone said, adding his decision to contest should not be construed as a "victory for Indian democracy or defeat for separatists."

Flanked by senior People's Conference leaders, Lone said he would still challenge India's rule in Kashmir.

"My aim is to enter parliament and represent Kashmir in India," he said.

"I am in my humble capacity trying to reorient our struggle and bring it in tune with the existing realities as I perceive them."

He said he would tell Indians that Kashmiris "don't want to remain with you and that they (Indians) need to address this issue."

Kashmir, trigger of two of three wars between India and Pakistan, is held in part by the two nuclear-armed rivals but claimed in full by both. AFP

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