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Keep your nerve

Jammu and Kashmir is undergoing a much-watched election. As happened in the last Assembly elections in 2008, voters have turned out in large numbers, defying threats by Pakistan-backed militants. That such threats were real was brought home with tragic force on Friday, four days before the third phase of polling. Two civilians, three policemen, and eight army men – including a lieutenant colonel – were among those killed in four attacks on that day. The most daring assault was on a fortified army camp in Uri, in Baramulla district in the state’s north; but there were other gun battles, including one just five km from downtown Srinagar. All the four incidents took place in or near constituencies that will be going to the polls on December 9. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to speak on Monday at two election rallies, which the Bharatiya Janata Party has announced will not be cancelled.

The thinking of those elements of the Pakistani establishment who are behind the attacks is clear. That the militants were from sections of that country’s “deep state” is more than likely – the Indian army has exhibited packets of what appear to be military rations being carried by the gunmen who assaulted the camp. Furthermore, that very Friday a major rally was being addressed by terrorist mastermind Hafiz Saeed in Lahore – a man who is accused of being the motive force behind the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai, and yet is sufficiently powerful in Pakistan that the government reportedly ran special trains for his rally, instead of denying it the oxygen of publicity. In his speech, he said militants from Pakistan had “every right” to go to Kashmir. Altogether, this cannot be seen as anything but deliberate provocation: an attempt to destabilise the elections, reduce turnout and push the government in New Delhi into a narrative-changing response.

So far, New Delhi has kept its head, which is welcome. A hasty response would have been politically satisfying for many of the government’s more shrill backers, but it would have been problematic in the medium to long term. It is notable that these attacks have come in spite of the long shelling on the border and the Line of Control by the Border Security Force, meant to prevent infiltration. Hopefully, this will aid the government in its realisation that more subtle methods will need to be used to ensure security in Kashmir and in the rest of India. The first and most important priority is demonstrating that the electoral process is paramount. A promise of free and fair elections is what distinguishes the Indian state, and that promise should be seen to be the
primary focus.

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