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India to hold polls in troubled Jammu and Kashmir

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By Bappa Majumdar

NEW DELHI, Oct 19, (Reuters) - India will hold elections in troubled Jammu and Kashmir state in November, ending months of central rule in the disputed region, the election commission said on Sunday.

Polling will take place from Nov. 17 to Dec. 24, a senior election commission official in New Delhi said, to replace a Congress party-led coalition which fell in July over a Hindu land transfer row.

"The commission has decided that elections will be held in seven phases in Jammu and Kashmir and the first phase will begin on November 17," Chief Election Commissioner N. Gopalaswamy told reporters in New Delhi.

Last week, India announced elections in five other states but deferred announcing election dates in Kashmir after frequent protests against Indian rule paralysed life there.

The six state elections will test the political temperature in India before a general election in early 2009. The ruling Congress party has been losing ground to the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party in state elections over the past year.

Kashmir has witnessed some of the biggest pro-independence demonstrations over the past two months since a separatist revolt against Indian rule in the Himalayan region broke out in 1989.

There had been pressure to suspend the state election, due this year, after at least 40 people were killed by security forces and more than 1,000 wounded in regular protests.

Separatists have said they will boycott any state election, while security experts said there could be more protests in the region over the polls.

"There will be threats made to people, asking them not to vote, not just election officials," Major General Ashok Mehta, a security analyst, told Reuters.

"But holding elections is a wise decision and more delays would have been a loss of credibility."

The election commission said there will be a massive deployment of security forces across the region during the poll.

Only 29 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the Kashmir valley when elections were last held in 2002.

(Editing by Paul Tait)

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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