NEW DELHI (AFP) ― Rebels shot dead two village heads and another man in Indian Kashmir, police said Tuesday, casting a shadow on the next round of India’s marathon general elections slated for later this week.
The polls are being staggered in the disputed Muslim-majority region and across the subcontinent in a bid to ensure voter safety across the country of 1.25 billion people.
Police blamed the region’s top insurgent group, Hizbul Mujahideen, for the separate attacks late Monday, which they said were an attempt to discourage locals from voting in polls to be held on Thursday.
The attackers entered the home of one village head and shot him dead and killed another senior village official and his 24-year-old son about an hour later in the same area.
|India’s main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi speaks during a rally in Hyderabad, India, Tuesday. (AP-Yonhap)|
Some dozen rebel groups have been fighting for more than two decades for Indian Kashmir’s independence or merger with Pakistan, in violence that has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people.
Security forces searched for the killers as posters were pasted outside several mosques in the main bazaar town of Tral, apparently by the Hizbul Mujahideen, warning that “voting for tyrants will entail punishment.”
Separately, Hindu nationalist leader Narendra Modi tried to strike a conciliatory tone over the contentious issue of India’s Muslims late Tuesday, and to distance himself from inflammatory remarks by a one-time associate.
Polls forecast Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party will end a decade of sitting in opposition and emerge as the biggest party in the next parliament when the election results come May 16, and that he will be India’s next premier.
Modi described Muslims as “brothers” in a television interview with India‘s ABP news, and promised to “reach out to the entire population” if elected, addressing worries that a BJP government could jeopardize the secular foundations of Hindu-majority India.
His comments came as former associate Praveen Togadia, head of the right-wing Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council), faces a police investigation after a video appeared to show him urging Hindus to evict Muslims from their neighborhoods in western Gujarat state.
Togadia insisted to reporters he was only advising how to resolve property rows with Muslims in the video.
Muslims comprise 13 percent of India’s population making them the largest religious minority, and the 63-year-old Modi remains a deeply suspect figure among them.
In 2002, just after Modi began his time as chief minister of Gujarat state, at least 1,000 people -- mostly Muslims -- were killed in religious riots.
Modi has consistently denied he failed to act quickly to stem the violence and no tribunal has found him guilty of any wrongdoing. However a top aide was convicted for involvement.
Expressing unease about a BJP victory, around 75 professors and other academics of Indian origin at some of Britain‘s top universities said in an open letter to Britain’s Independent newspaper on Tuesday the idea of Modi in power “filled them with dread.”
“We are deeply concerned at the implications of a Narendra Modi-led BJP government for democracy, pluralism and human rights in India,” the letter said.
It followed a similar open letter earlier this month to Britain‘s Guardian newspaper expressing “acute worry” at the prospect of a Modi victory, signed by novelist Salman Rushdie and sculptor Anish Kapoor among others.