Elections in India's Kashmir test relations between Muslims and Hindus
In the village of Shalimar, it is an unusual spring. A mantle of snow still caps the Himalayas. There is a nip in the air. Women are bringing in the last of the winter wheat and mustard harvest from terraced, patchwork fields.
But beneath the massive, 16th-century Chinar tree, which dominates the tiny town square, only the talk of politics fills the air.
A statewide political campaign is under way. This Sunday, Kashmir's 3.1 million voters will go to the polls to elect a legislative assembly and two members of Parliament.
Politically, the village of Shalimar - as the rest of the Vale of Kashmir - was the turf of the late Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah, the legendary ''Lion of Kashmir.'' Every conceivable tree and storefront in the village is festooned with the brilliant red flag of the sheikh's National Conference Party. Cassettes of the sheikh's speeches precede the candidates who come to call.
As a leader of the movement for independence from Britain, the sheikh dominated the Kashmir political scene for 52 years. With his death in September 1982, a void was left in Kashmiri politics which will take some time to fill. The sheikh's memory is crucial to the fortunes of the National Conference party, and much of the campaigning is based almost entirely on nostalgic links.
''If there are 3,000 people here,'' said wizened Abdul Aziz Baba of Shalimar, ''a maximum of 200 votes will go to the opposition. We'll vote for the sheikh during this election, and the next time judge how the young lad (the chief minister) is coming along.''
The ''young lad'' is the sheikh's son, Dr. Farooq Abdullah. Dubbed the ''lion cub,'' he has assumed the political mantle from his father. He cannot afford to lose more than eight seats in the state's 76-member assembly. (His National Conference Party won 47 seats in the 1977 elections under the banner of the sheikh.) And he has thus aligned himself with the firebrand Islamic leader Molvi Mohammed Farooq, who is openly calling for ''self-determination'' and a state wide plebiscite.