Defying terrorist violence and a boycott call by militant Sikhs, about 60 percent of voters in Punjab State turned out today in elections designed to end three years of communal violence.
The turnout, similar to that of previous elections, was higher than expected and was hailed as a victory for Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and the moderate Sikh leaders who have been trying to defuse the Sikh-Hindu conflict that has killed more than 2,000 people here.
The voting, for state assembly and national parliament seats, will give Punjab, with its Sikh majority, its first elected leadership since 1983, when the central government assumed direct control. Results are to be announced Thursday night.
Many observers have argued that continued progress toward peace in Punjab will require a victory by the moderate mainstream Sikh party, the Akali Dal. These observers have held that Sikhs would view a victory by Gandhi's Hindu-dominated Congress (I) Party as a defeat in their battle for greater political power in their home state.
Most independent observers declined to predict an outcome in the essentially two-way race between the Sikh party and the Congress (I), although J.N. Bambroo, a newspaper editor here in the state capital, said an Akali Dal victory was "possible."
Voting statistics showed a slightly higher turnout in more heavily Hindu urban areas than in the mainly Sikh countryside -- a pattern interpreted by Bambroo and others as a boost to the Congress (I)'s chances.
Fears of election day violence had been heightened during the last two days of campaigning by eight bombings in which three children were killed. Eleven persons had been killed earlier in election-related attacks, and the government showed its worries by deploying an estimated 150,000 paramilitary and police officers who guarded roadblocks, campaign offices and candidates.
But today's voting was generally peaceful, with one man killed and 25 injured in scattered scuffles between supporters of rival candidates, according to the Press Trust of India news agency.
"The voting went smoothly -- much better than we expected," said Punjab's chief electoral officer, Surinder L. Kapur. "Normally, in any election, we have some fights."
Towns and villages visited in an election day tour of the state seemed peaceful, and their polling stations busy.
At Mallpur Arkan, a corn farming village of about 3,000 in central Punjab, nearly half the electorate had voted by 2:30 p.m., and 200 men and women pressed at the doors of the local school, waiting as much as two hours for their turn.
"People here don't understand the boycott idea," explained Nirmal Singh, a college student. "They have not had the chance to vote in five years, and they think it is important to do so now that they can."
Despite the peaceful voting, not even optimistic officials say the violence will end quickly. A senior Punjab security official, P.H. Vaishnav, announced tonight that the paramilitary and police forces will be kept on duty and will guard all 128 winning candidates.