efe-epaBy Shah Abbas Srinagar, India

In the Indian-administered section of Kashmir, the scene of an active secessionist insurgent movement, the decision as to which party or candidate to back in India’s ongoing general elections is heavily influenced by the eternal dilemma of this majority-Muslim region: autonomy, self-rule or complete merger with India?

Kashmir's summer capital, Srinagar, voted on Thursday amid a shutdown and stringent security measures as the second phase of the Indian general elections began.

The Udhampur constituency in Jammu – the region's winter capital – was also opening its polls.

The Indian elections, the largest democratic exercise in the world, are staged over seven phases to accommodate the over 900 million eligible voters in a country of 1.34 billion.

“I am here to vote so that our special status is protected, otherwise, it would be in danger,” a middle-aged voter told EFE soon after he arrived to cast his ballot at a polling station in Srinagar.

In nearby Habba Kadal – one of the city's most volatile areas – another local said he was disillusioned with the election process and advocated boycotting the vote.

“Whenever we take part in an election (...) it is being propagated as our willingness to remain with India, which actually is not true," Kamran Ahmad told EFE. “So it is better not to participate in any such process that is not meant to determine our future."

The Srinagar constituency witnessed low participation rates during the first four hours after polls opened. According to government data, only four percent of eligible ballots had been cast by 11 am in Srinagar, while 26-percent participation was recorded in the Hindu-majority Udhampur constituency.

The four main Unionist political parties in the state – the Jammu and Kashmir National Conference, the Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party, the Jammu and Kashmir People’s Conference and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party – have hammered home their respective campaign slogans of "Autonomy," "Self Rule," "Change" and "Complete Integration With India".

Because the PDP has suffered a major drop in popularity since joining forces with the Hindu-nationalist BJP, most commentators believe that this could tilt the contest in favor of octogenarian JKNC candidate and party president, Farooq Abdullah.

Abdullah has vowed that if people vote for him, Kashmir will be in a position to safeguard its special status in the Indian constitution -- which lets the disputed state have its own constitution.

"This is an opportunity with the people of the state to vote for NC which is committed to go to any extent in safeguarding the special status of Jammu and Kashmir," Farooq told EFE on sidelines of a poll function in Srinagar, which did not witness any major political rallies during the campaign.

Kashmiris started voting in the first phase on Apr. 11, and are set to again head to the polls on Apr. 23, Apr. 29, and May 6.

When the last parliamentary by-elections were held in the region on Apr. 9, 2017, eight civilians were killed in the area of Budgam during anti-election protests, and the election registered the lowest number of votes in the past several decades.

However, authorities this time said that they were taking "stringent security measures for the smooth conduct” of the voting, which included a shutdown of the mobile internet network, preventative arrests and the deployment of heavy forces.

“We have already deployed thousands of extra paramilitary and police personnel in and around the sensitive areas,” a police superintendent in Srinagar told EFE.

He added that “cops in civvies" had also been deployed to keep watch on pedestrians and checkpoints had been strengthened, especially in the southern entrance to the city.

Authorities recently announced the closure of the main highway in the Himalayan region for all types of civilian movement twice a week to mobilize forces. The decision, set to remain in force until the end of May, has received strong criticism across the political divide. Most of the critics have termed the government decision as “dictatorial” and “imperialistic.”

“We were told to inform the students not to attend schools chosen for polling stations from Apr. 15,” a headmistress at a government high school in the Chadoora area of Budgam told EFE.

The Office of the Deputy Commissioner, Srinagar, had issued an order on Apr. 14 that read: “In view of the forthcoming Parliamentary Elections 2019, the class work of all educational institutions requisitioned will remain suspended from Apr. 15 to Apr. 18, 2019.”

Authorities have also launched a crackdown on separatist parties in the region and arrested hundreds of activists, including some leaders.

"The arrests have been made to maintain law and order and ensure the smooth conduct of elections,” police said.

The heavy deployment of government forces in the region – considered the country's most heavily-militarized – has faced sharp criticism.

"Any election process India tries to conduct is nothing but an armed drill to threaten the common people, thereby strengthening its illegal control on occupied land,” Syed Ali Geelani, an elderly separatist leader, told EFE via telephone.

Geelani said that authorities had spread a "reign of terror" across the region ahead of the elections.

The Kashmir High Court Bar Association has described the holding of parliamentary elections in Kashmir as "a futile exercise."

“The holding of such elections in the past has not helped in the resolution of the Kashmir dispute, in any manner whatsoever,” Ashraf Bhat, the group's secretary-general, told EFE.

“In terms of the UN Security Council Resolutions of 1952 and 1957, elections in the state are no substitute to the right of self-determination, guaranteed to the people of Kashmir by the UN Commission for India and Pakistan Resolutions of 1948 and 1949, as well as those passed thereafter, and will not in any manner constitute the final disposition of the state,” Ashraf added.

The Himalayan region is divided between India and Pakistan by means of a de-facto border known as the Line of Control since 1947, when both neighbors gained independence.

Both have fought at least two wars over the region, which they claim in its entirety.

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