ANANTNAG, India: Mohammad Amin Pandith, a smallholder and father-of-three from Indian-controlled Kashmir, was lured from his home at night by a man in army uniform, dragged along a potholed lane and shot in the back of the head.
His execution, one of three deadly attacks on village elders in the last week blamed on militants determined to derail elections, spread fear through the hamlet of Gulzarpora and made locals wary of voting when polls open on Thursday.
It also underlined how hard it will be for next prime minister to reach a lasting political settlement in Jammu and Kashmir, a Muslim-majority region that has been largely pacified by a huge security presence, yet is not at peace.
"People are very afraid," Pandith's brother Abdul Rahim told Reuters.
He said Pandith's "crime" had been to act as village headman for a regional party now in opposition. The 45-year-old did the job, which paid 2,000 rupees ($30) a month, not out of conviction, but to pay for his children's education.
The general election, staggered over several weeks and ending on May 12, may well propel Hindu nationalist leader Narendra Modi to power, a prospect that has Kashmir's 12.5 million people scrabbling to determine what it would mean for them.
India's sizeable Muslim minority of 150 million is wary of the 63-year-old, whom many blame for failing to prevent communal riots in 2002 in which more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in Gujarat, where he is still chief minister.
Modi denies the charges, and says they are repeated by allies of the ruling Congress party to tarnish his reputation at a time when opinion polls make his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) favourite to lead the next government.
In its election manifesto, the BJP vows to uphold India's territorial integrity and abrogate a clause in the constitution that grants Jammu and Kashmir a degree of autonomy.
India, Pakistan or independence?
That puts Modi at odds with locals in Gulzarpora and many beyond who have long favoured independence from India.
Of more than 30 men gathered at a neighbour's house to discuss Pandith's murder, not one expressed allegiance to a mainstream political party. Asked if they preferred independence to staying with India, given the choice, all raised their hands.
In another sign of a more assertive policy should Modi come to power, during a recent campaign speech in Kashmir's Hindu-majority district of Udhampur he criticised the ruling Congress party for being soft on Pakistan, which also claims the region.
India blames Pakistani forces for coordinating and carrying out attacks on its troops and civilians in Kashmir.
Udhampur has already voted – elections to the region's six seats are staggered for security reasons. The BJP candidate there, Jitendra Singh, came to support a colleague in Anantnag, which lies in the broad Kashmir valley.
"We do not wish to enter into a dialogue with Pakistan from a position of weakness," Singh said at the BJP's heavily-guarded office in Srinagar, the state's summer capital. "We cannot allow terrorist attacks and a dialogue to continue at the same time."
Pakistan is playing a waiting game on Kashmir until India's new government shows its hand on the issue.
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif promised to revive Kashmir talks and made this a focal point of his own election campaign last year, but the efforts stalled after a spate of violence on the disputed border in August.
The Kashmir conflict dates back to independence in 1947, when its Hindu ruler dithered over whether to join India or Pakistan. A war broke out between the newly independent states that ended in stalemate the following year.
India and Pakistan fought a second war over Kashmir in 1965, and another undeclared war in 1999, after both became nuclear powers. The 1948 ceasefire line still divides the territory.
Although a truce reached in 2003 has broadly held, Indian Kashmir still bears the scars of an insurgency that flared in the 1990s in which 70,000 people died and 8,000 disappeared, human rights activists estimate.
Relative peace has only been achieved through the deployment of more than 700,000 police and soldiers who, campaigners say, have abused special legal powers to shoot protesters and carry out extra-judicial killings with impunity.
"This is democracy at gunpoint," said Khurram Parvez, convener of the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society.
Change or no change?
Talk of a "wave" of support for Modi across India brings a wry smile to the lips of Mehboob Beg, who is seeking re-election in Anantnag on a joint ticket of Congress and its regional ally, the Jammu & Kashmir National Conference, that runs the state.
"The more the wave is in favour of Narendra Modi, the more it will help us," Beg told Reuters before addressing a crowd of 3,000 in Kokernag, a township that hosts a large police base.
Playing up the secular ideology of Congress and independence leader Jawaharlal Nehru's roots in the region, Beg said: "Congress understands Kashmir better than the BJP and Modi. This is a Muslim-majority state, for God's sake!"
Next door, South Kashmir police chief Vijay Kumar estimates that 40 separatist militants are active in the area, 10 of them foreign. He is deploying more than 30,000 security personnel to guard 1,600 polling booths in the constituency.
Even that may not be enough to encourage people to vote. At 39 percent, Jammu and Kashmir had the lowest turnout of any state in 2009 elections, due to widespread rejection of the political choices on offer.
"Elections cannot be a substitute for self-determination," said Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, a hereditary Kashmiri religious and political leader who declares the election illegitimate but still views himself as a "pro-freedom" moderate.
Even hardline separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani does not rule out talks if New Delhi meets conditions including recognising Kashmir's disputed status and cutting back troops.
"We are not against dialogue, but we want meaningful, results-oriented dialogue," the 84-year-old told Reuters at his home, where he has been under house arrest for most of the last four years.C. Uday Bhaskar, a fellow at the Society for Policy Studies in New Delhi, played down prospects of renewed violence, saying: "People prefer jobs to guns." But he saw little chance of a strategic shift if Modi claims power.
"The experience of the last 60 to 65 years suggests that a change in government doesn't mean a change in security and foreign policy," he said. "You only see a change in emphasis." – Reuters