When a parliamentary candidate sets out to campaign in this south Kashmir region of wheat fields, grazing sheep, hidden guerrilla camps and omnipresent army patrols, he can never be sure whether he will come back alive.
During the past month, as India has voted by stages for 543 parliamentary seats and Anantnag has prepared for its turn, one local candidate from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been assassinated, another from the opposition Congress party has been attacked twice by gunmen, and two more have survived land-mine explosions or rifle fire. The voting, postponed after the BJP politician's slaying, will finally take place Monday.
"We are fighting elections because we believe in democracy, but we are fighting a war at the same time. It is a miracle my colleagues and I have escaped," said Peer Zada Mohammed Syeed, 46, the Congress candidate, who had just returned to a fortified election compound from a final campaign tour of Anantnag under heavy guard.
Kashmir, a turbulent region bordering Pakistan where separatist Muslim guerrillas have been battling Indian security forces for a decade, is only one of a half-dozen trouble spots across India that have been plagued by political violence since the election season began in early September.
Today marked the final phase of voting--in which the BJP is expected to return to power--in all but a handful of districts, including Anantnag. Voters went to the polls in 11 states, and election officials said tonight that 17 people had been killed, most of them in two northeastern states where separatist guerrilla movements are active.
"We got through a big voting day today, and it has gone off well," said M.S. Gill, India's election commissioner, noting that 650 million people have now voted. "We conducted this election in a very difficult situation, with limited forces. I think we can take some kind of satisfaction."
In most of the country, the elections have been peaceful, with little voter enthusiasm for the third national poll in four years. Yet despite a massive deployment of national police and a staggered voting schedule designed to improve safety, at least 350 people have been killed in Kashmir and across India in attacks on campaign routes, security posts and other sites.
In Bihar state, Maoist insurgents accused a village leader of "betraying" them by voting, then chopped off his hand with an ax. In Maharashtra state, a candidate of royal ancestry hacked an opponent to death with a sword. In Assam state, separatist gunmen kidnapped and killed a BJP candidate who had offered to negotiate with them, and dumped his body in a rice paddy.
"I am just waiting for it to be over," Gill said last week. "We are desperate to keep democracy on the rails, but the areas with the most violence are the ones with the most poverty, the highest illiteracy, the least justice. People ask us to give them ideal voting conditions for six weeks, when some areas have been neglected for 50 years."
Bihar, where some 50 people have died in election-related violence, is a prime example of this volatile mixture. One of India's poorest states, it has an entrenched land elite, a combative lower-caste political movement and an array of armed groups from communist rebels to landlord vigilantes. On one voting day alone, Sept. 18, guerrilla land mines killed 31 people.
"We see caste lines hardening, and the stakes are so high that elections become especially violence prone," said Ashish Nandy, a political scientist in New Delhi. In Bihar, he added, "the lower castes have no alternative means to power, such as industry or wealth, so getting your own MP [member of Parliament] is everything. It is a matter of life and death."
Nowhere, however, has the toll been as high as in Kashmir. Since August, the guerrillas, increasingly composed of Pakistan-based Islamic groups, have dramatically stepped up their attacks, partly to compensate for their defeat in a high-altitude border conflict with Indian troops earlier this year.
In September alone, more than 300 civilians, guerrillas and members of the security forces have been killed. In addition to police posts and army patrols, rebels have attacked politicians of all stripes, movie theaters and video parlors, which they view as un-Islamic entertainments, and the state's executive office building in Srinagar, the regional capital of 600,000.
"This is not a surprise, it is part of our life. We have been fighting an insurgency war for 10 years, and anything can happen," said Mushtaq Ahmad Lone, the minister who oversees law and order in Jammu and Kashmir state. "Now, the foreign mercenaries have tried to disrupt the elections and harass people from voting. But despite a few incidents, they have not succeeded."
Many Kashmiris, however, have shown no interest in elections, insisting that the Indian government must instead allow them a long-promised referendum on independence. Voter turnout last month in Srinagar, where opposition groups had called for a boycott, was less than 12 percent. In north Kashmir, turnout was a bit higher, but there were widespread reports of soldiers dragging people to the polls.
In Anantnag, a conservative farming area, many people said they too had little confidence in the electoral process and did not intend to vote. Most said they feared the army more than the rebels, but the steady reports of sabotage at police posts and on campaign routes--along with thousands of extra troops patrolling the roads--have lent a tense and ominous mood to the final days before the election.
"This is not an insurgency, it is a proxy war from Pakistan. The silent majority of Kashmiris want to vote, but these miscreants are intimidating them," asserted Maj. Gen. R.K. Kaushal, a top army commander here. "I am not going to push an unwilling person to vote, I am here to protect those who wish to. But is it right for us to just sit here and let the good citizens be threatened?"
Defying danger and lack of interest, candidates campaigned gamely Saturday, their caravans hugged by security vehicles as they rushed from stop to stop, urging people not to be afraid. But even some candidates complained that the process was unfair; Syeed and others said the government had denied them adequate security and used state workers to assist with the official campaign.
Among the most frustrated of all candidates was Mohammed Youssuf Ganai, 32, a former guerrilla who became disillusioned with violence, surrendered to the army in 1993 and is now running for Parliament for a party of former rebels called the National Panthers. Such converts to democracy are vulnerable to attack from both the government they once fought and the forces they abandoned.
"Our message is a return to normalcy, but there is none here. People are in complete fear psychosis, and they do not have the freedom to vote," Ganai said angrily. "There is pressure from every side. I have chosen the nonviolent path, but I am choked between two guns."
Special correspondent Rama Lakshmi in New Delhi contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Extremists who are boycotting the Indian elections planted a land mine that destroyed this truck in Assam state.