It was both a show of enthusiasm and a prayer. The danger to the candidate was palpable. A platoon of Indian soldiers flanked him, edgily scanning the crowd and fingering their self-loading rifles, which they wielded for his protection. Merely by running as a moderate separatist in Kashmir's state assembly elections, the dapper 52-year-old has captured wild popularity. But as the letter he received that morning threatened, Sofi would be well advised to withdraw from the contest. Otherwise, warned the letter, in the name of Allah the Almighty, the Beneficent, the Merciful, he would wind up dead. The threats aren't idle: last Friday, militants fatally shot one of Sofi's challengers, independent candidate Sheikh Abdul Rahman.
India uses elections in Kashmir as proof that the people there accept rule from New Delhi—even when the elections prove nothing of the sort. This round might be different. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has promised "free and fair" elections for months—and even apologized for past mistakes in Kashmir, an unprecedented gesture. Rigging will be harder than usual with the world watching. Moreover, the election promises to deliver Kashmir a new generation of leaders that may finally free it from the prejudice and intransigence of the past. Backed by India, the National Conference is led by Omar Abdullah, the 32-year-old scion of the state's most powerful political clan. He's expected to win the elections and succeed his father as chief minister. On the other side, the anti-election All Parties Hurriyat Conference, an alliance of 26 political, social and religious parties that adamantly opposes Indian rule, was co-founded by Mirwaiz Omar Farooq, a 29-year-old moderate cleric known for his openness to others' views.
Most crucially, the mood in the Kashmir valley, the cradle of the insurgency, has changed. Thirteen years of fighting and refusing to participate in elections has achieved precious little, say many former militants. They also complain that what was once an indigenous freedom struggle has been usurped by Pakistani militants whose pan-Islamic ideals and fundamentalism are at odds with this fight for self-rule and with the moderate Sufi Islam of the Valley. The foreigners, Indian intelligence sources claim, number half of the 2,500 militants in the area.
Disillusioned, some former separat-ists have gone "moderate"—supporting the elections. Initially, candidate Sofi abided by the Hurriyat's call to boycott, deciding not to run from his constituency in the Kupwara district, a former rebel hotspot. But he relented. "One man came to me and said he would kill his four sons if I did not take part as there was no point going on like this," says Sofi. So he quit the alliance last month to run as an independent. "The Hurriyat is right that the elections don't address the core issue of Kashmir's status," admits Sofi. "But they are ignoring the people's condition, their basic day-to-day suffering." Adds Mohammed Shahbaz, 29, one of 15,000 people who cheered Sofi as he filed his candidacy: "We still want freedom from India. But we are changing our tactics. We want to throw out this corrupt local government. And we want to try being at the table with India and there, inshallah (God willing), we will win."
This rising willingness to break with the past has prompted all sides to rethink. Hurriyat's Farooq has made an intriguing compromise: he supports the call for candidates to boycott these "irrelevant" elections, but hasn't asked Kashmir's voters not to participate. "People must let their conscience decide," he says.
As a result, turnout is expected to rise as high as 30%. (In the 1996 election, New Delhi claimed a turnout of 45% but independent observers estimated it at 5-8%.) India hopes the exercise will produce a broad spectrum of representatives who subscribe to the reality of Indian rule. In Islamabad, President Pervez Musharraf last month dismissed the elections as a "farce." But sources within the Pakistani administration say he recognizes real possibilities for Kashmir's most convincing election in memory. One senior official says the Pakistani government is working on a peace plan for Kashmir, which Musharraf might disclose at the United Nations General Assembly meeting opening on Sept. 10.
But history shows that when hopes are raised in Kashmir, they have merely found a greater height from which to fall. There is plenty to fear. The Indian army says the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), the main Pakistani militant group in Kashmir, is planning a "spectacular"—a terrorist attack designed to sabotage the election. Indian intelligence claims to have intercepted a Sept. 1 radio conversation between an LeT unit inside Kashmir and its commander. TIME obtained a transcript of the recording, which ran like this:
Headquarters: "How many targets have you got for the elections?"
Unit: "We have got four targets and two have been identified by our comrades in the Jaish-e-Mohammed. We are meeting with all our comrades to discuss our plans, which we will then carry out."
HQ: "Do a great action instead of small actions."
Sofi, and 13 other separatist candidates in the districts of Kupwara and Baramulla, have put their lives on the line at a time when the tide of assassination is rising. But New Delhi is taking chances too, sending soldiers to protect the same activists whose cries of azadi (freedom) would a few months ago have met with arrest, even execution.
As Omar Abdullah kicks off his campaign to become chief minister, he talks of a new beginning to a crowd of 5,000 in the town of Uri. "This is not like the elections of the past," he declares. Abdullah is a good performer and an easy charmer. Within minutes hope is written across the faces in the audience. But as he speaks, Abdullah stands on the same Kevlar anti-shrapnel blanket that protected his father, the current chief minister; behind him, security officials are manning a device that jams signals that could detonate a remote-controlled bomb. "This time everything is new," says Abdullah. What he means is, it could be.