To a certain extent, this cool lakeside city in the heart of the Kashmir valley looks like any other metropolis in the throes of election fever. Minibuses festooned with banners blare political slogans, party flags are strung across boulevards and two attractive scions of the region's leading political clans are competing for the city's parliamentary seat.
But there is something missing from this frenetic pantomime of democratic normalcy: When the polls open on Sunday here, as they will for the opening round of parliamentary elections across India, almost no one in the city of 500,000 plans to vote.
That's the way things are in Kashmir, a scenic mountain region where many residents feel alienated from India and have long sought independence.
Residents give varying reasons for their abstinence, including intimidation by separatist guerrillas. But a larger reason is that major opposition groups have called for a boycott of the vote, labeling the process a fraud aimed only at proving to the world that India is a democracy and that Kashmir is a happy participant in it.
There are signs of tension. It is hard to ignore the uniformed squads with rifles on every corner, braced for another spate of stone-throwing by angry teenagers or the next grenade attack by Pakistani-backed insurgents. The insurgents have threatened to disrupt the elections and have stepped up a campaign of assaults on the Indian military in the past two months, leaving more than 75 people dead across the valley.
State police officials said they are prepared to protect the polls and that a security force of 20,000 will be on duty Sunday. The state of Jammu and Kashmir is holding elections over the next three weekends, beginning with Srinagar and Kargil--the mountainous border area where Indian troops battled Pakistani-based fighters for 10 weeks this summer.
The election boycott was called by the main political opposition groups, which mostly seek independence for Kashmir.
"Elections can serve no purpose here. For 52 years, we have seen only suppression and corruption from India. What the Kashmiri people want is justice and freedom," said Yasin Malik, 33, a former guerrilla leader who was heading the boycott drive until last Friday, when he was arrested while trying to stage a rally. Chain-smoking and huddled in a blanket in his jail dormitory, the gaunt, steely-eyed man vowed never to abandon his cause.
Indeed, many Kashmiris are so alienated from Indian authority that they need neither intimidation nor rabble-rousing speeches to persuade them not to vote. In more than 30 interviews this week, shopkeepers, students, professionals and farmers expressed contempt for the political process and a strong belief that no election run by India could bring any good to Kashmir.
Moreover, almost every person said he or she had at least one relative who had been killed by Indian security forces, had been active in the separatist insurgency or had in some way been victimized during the decade of political violence. Most Kashmiris are Muslim, and many feel humiliated by the presence of the largely Hindu Indian army.
"There is no point in voting. Every time we try to select our leaders, the authorities have denied our wishes," said Mutahir Khan, 22, an engineering student. "The army harasses us, and there is almost no one who has not lost a friend or relative to violence. Everyone in Kashmir is waiting for change, but generations pass and nothing happens."
Ten miles north, in the village of Lawaypura, a dozen men gathered around a cluster of shops as dusk fell on Thursday. Police and army trucks loaded with troops roared past on the highway every few minutes. One shop owner, Manzoor Ahmed, spoke up, and the others nodded in agreement.
"After so many years and so many deaths, we have lost hope in the system. The parties come and put their flags up at night, and we take them down the next day," said Ahmed, 30. "If the army comes knocking on our doors again and forces us to vote, we will know what to do with the ballots. We want our freedom, and nothing less."
What these Kashmiris are talking about is a dream of political self-determination that has eluded them for more than a half-century, ever since the region was abruptly split between India and Pakistan in the negotiations in 1947 that ended Britain's century of colonial rule. After an appeal, the United Nations called for a plebiscite on Kashmiri self-determination in 1948, but India never accepted it.
At first, Kashmir was granted special status with limited self-rule. But gradually this autonomy was eroded, and the state was integrated into India. In 1987, several opposition leaders ran for Parliament and narrowly lost, claiming the results were rigged. Soon after that, an armed insurgency arose, setting off a decade of violence between guerrillas and Indian security forces that left at least 20,000 people dead.
In the past several years, the insurgency has largely been quashed and the ruling party here, the National Conference, has boasted of spearheading a return to normalcy. This week, 29-year-old Omar Abdullah, son of Farooq Abdullah, chief minister and the party's parliamentary candidate, has been campaigning on a platform of restoring peace and prosperity to the long-afflicted region.
"We have been in power for three years, and you can see the change. People walk freely now," said Sajjad Safi, a National Conference campaign aide. "We know people in town will not vote, but our strength is in the villages. Why should we rig the vote? The people are with us."
Omar Abdullah's rival, Mehbooba Mufti, appears more realistic about Kashmir's problems. Mufti is campaigning on a theme of respect for human rights and dialogue with the armed insurgency groups and separatist political parties.
"People are disillusioned and indifferent to the voting process," said Mufti, 35, who has been holding small campaign rallies across the region. "They want a change, but when you start trying to convince them to participate, they think the government will rig the elections. The only hope for ending the bloodshed is a real, unconditional dialogue with the militants."
National Conference aides said they are confident that if voters feel protected they will turn out, and that they expect support from farmers, business owners and tourist workers, such as the men who drive the gondola-like boats known as shikaras that carry visitors around Dal Lake. But after a high-profile boat trip by Abdullah Thursday, even the gondoliers' enthusiasm seemed to drop like a mask after a performance.
"None of the parties have done anything for Kashmir," whispered one shikara union official. "They don't care about the people or their problems, only about money. I must vote because if I don't, everyone will know it," he added sheepishly, "but the people do not support this election. What all Kashmiris want is freedom."
CAPTION: Standing in boat, State Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah campaigns for his son, Omar Abdullah, waving from speedboat. Kashmiris who dream of self-determination will sit out the elections.
CAPTION: Kashmiri separatist leader Yasin Malik was heading a drive to boycott parliamentary elections before he was arrested on Friday.