Kashmiris wary as Narendra Modi challenges for power in India

Apr 24 2014, 13:31 IST
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SummaryMohammad Amin Pandith, a smallholder and father-of-three from Indian-controlled Kashmir, was lured from his home at night by a man in army uniform, dragged along a potholed lane and shot in the back of the head.

Mohammad Amin Pandith, a smallholder and father-of-three from Indian-controlled Kashmir, was lured from his home at night by a man in army uniform, dragged along a potholed lane and shot in the back of the head.

His execution, one of three deadly attacks on village elders in the last week blamed on militants determined to derail elections, spread fear through the hamlet of Gulzarpora and made locals wary of voting when polls open on Thursday.

It also underlined how hard it will be for India's next prime minister to reach a lasting political settlement in Jammu and Kashmir, a Muslim-majority region that has been largely pacified by a huge security presence, yet is not at peace.

"People are very afraid," Pandith's brother Abdul Rahim told Reuters.

He said Pandith's "crime" had been to act as village headman for a regional party now in opposition. The 45-year-old did the job, which paid 2,000 rupees ($30) a month, not out of conviction, but to pay for his children's education.

India's election, staggered over several weeks and ending on May 12, may well propel Hindu nationalist leader Narendra Modi to power, a prospect that has Kashmir's 12.5 million people scrabbling to determine what it would mean for them.

India's sizeable Muslim minority of 150 million is wary of the 63-year-old, whom many blame for failing to prevent communal riots in 2002 in which more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in Gujarat, where he is still chief minister.

Modi denies the charges, and says they are repeated by allies of the ruling Congress party to tarnish his reputation at a time when opinion polls make his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) favourite to lead the next government.

In its election manifesto, the BJP vows to uphold India's territorial integrity and abrogate a clause in the constitution that grants Jammu and Kashmir a degree of autonomy.

INDIA, PAKISTAN OR INDEPENDENCE?

That puts Modi at odds with locals in Gulzarpora and many beyond who have long favoured independence from India.

Of more than 30 men gathered at a neighbour's house to discuss Pandith's murder, not one expressed allegiance to a mainstream political party. Asked if they preferred independence to staying with India, given the choice, all raised their hands.

In another sign of a more assertive policy should Modi come to power, during a recent campaign speech in Kashmir's Hindu-majority district of Udhampur he criticised the ruling Congress party for being soft on Pakistan, which also claims

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