Security forces shut down roads and stepped up patrols Wednesday in the restive Indian state of Kashmir, a day before voters in the region go to the polls.
Tens of thousands of security forces have poured into the state ahead of Thursday’s vote, which is the second phase of India’s massive elections.
Tensions have skyrocketed in Kashmir since a February suicide attack that killed 40 Indian paramilitaries and led to India and Pakistan exchanging cross-border strikes.
The two countries, which both control part of divided Kashmir, briefly appeared on the brink of war after the exchange of fire, though a more serious clash was averted.
But Indian authorities are taking no chances during voting, deploying tens of thousands of security forces to the state to join the half a million soldiers already stationed there.
“We have made elaborate security arrangements for peaceful polling,” Swayam Prakash Pani, inspector general of the local police force, told AFP.
All civilian vehicles have been banned from the city’s main boulevard, which leads to a poll material distribution centre.
Across the city, police and paramilitary troops in combat fatigues and wielding automatic rifles have been deployed, including along the banks of the Jhelum river that winds through Srinagar.
Barbed wire barricades have been erected and police have issued traffic advisories asking residents to avoid parts of the city.
Many residents have simply opted to stay home, with the traffic in the city dominated by troops and polling staff moving in military vehicles.
A local private transport operator said the government had hired more than 3,000 vehicles to ferry polling officials around parts of the state during the vote.
Security measures taken after the February attack have stirred some resentment, in particular new restrictions on a 200-kilometre stretch of key highway that runs north-south in the state.
After the attack, the stretch of road was ordered closed every Sunday and Wednesday while government forces move along it.
Earlier this month, a patient died inside an ambulance that was forced to stop on the highway as a police convoy moved along it.
On Wednesday, authorities briefly lifted the restrictions, but they are otherwise expected to remain in place until the elections are over.
War of words
India and Pakistan have disputed control of Kashmir since the two countries won their freedom from British rule in 1947.
The rivals have fought two wars over the Himalayan territory and came close to waging a third with cross-border air raids in February.
But the vote also comes against the backdrop of a bitter war of words between Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling party and pro-India politicians in Kashmir over two contentious constitutional articles.
Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has long sought to repeal Articles 370 and 35A, which give residents of Kashmir exclusive access to local land, state government jobs and higher education spots.
Opponents argue that the articles give Kashmir a status that sets it apart from the rest of India.
But supporters of the articles in Kashmir say their repeal would risk changing the demographics of the Muslim-majority state.
They also accuse Modi of exploiting tensions in Kashmir in a bid to pander to nationalist Hindu voters.
The prime minister — who is seeking a second term from the country’s 900 million voters in the record-breaking election — campaigned only in Hindu-majority parts of the state.
Another five days of voting strung out over several weeks will follow Thursday’s polls, with results expected on May 23.