Jammu and Kashmir Panchayat polls: State preparing to hold elections under a cloud of militancy
Normalcy has been restored in Kashmir, after witnessing a five-month-long agitation. But the resentment among locals persists, eight months after the death of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani
Once Assembly elections in five states end later this month, it will be poll season in Kashmir, with the state preparing to hold local body elections from March. Given the security and political situation in the Valley, these elections will be a delicate time for the region.
On 30 January, Minister for Rural Development, Panchayati Raj, and Law and Justice, Abdul Haq, announced in the J&K legislative Assembly that the government is fully committed to hold Panchayat elections by March 2017 and preparations in this regard have already begun. He also said that elections to municipal corporations and urban local bodies will be held afterwards.
But is the Valley ready to hold elections yet?
Normalcy has been restored in the region, after witnessing a five-month-long agitation. But the resentment among locals persists, eight months after the death of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani. Protests may seem to have died down, but security forces' battle with local militancy continues. Many reports have suggested that nearly 100 youth, primarily from south Kashmir, have taken up arms against the State. Their actual militant activities are yet to be seen, but they are issuing a spate of videos on social media, threatening Kashmiris who are at odds with the azaadi sentiment.
Complicating this battle is the locals' anger towards the security forces, particularly the paramilitary forces. They have been blamed for using excessive force against the protestors during the five-month-long agitation. Given this backdrop, it will be a big challenge for the state government to hold the elections.
The militants' video threats have evoked concerns among a section of people, especially those associated with the government. In one such recent instance, they threatened people, specifically government employees, to refrain from attending the 26 January Republic Day function. The employees' problems were accentuated when the state government issued orders making it compulsory to attend these functions.
In a tricky situation like this, it will potentially be a major headache for the security establishment to stop militants from carrying out any untoward incidents.
And there is a precedent for militant violence targeting policemen and Panchayat representatives. In 2011, when Panchayat elections were held after more than 20 years in Kashmir with an unprecedented voter turnout of 83 percent, in the run-up to Assembly polls, there were incidents of violence targeting the candidates.
Many hoped that a revival of the lower rungs of the government will solve much of the basic governance problems that common Kashmiris face. Those hopes were short-lived as militants and unidentified gunmen launched a specific campaign targeting the sarpanchs and panchs. The killing spree claimed lives of almost a dozen panchayat members by 2013 — many say the number is even larger — creating a fear psychosis.
When Panchayat members demanded security, some state government officials expressed their inability to provide security to as many as 34,000 of them. As a result, many Panchayat members, fearing for their life, resigned en masse.
Five years down the line, those memories and also what happened post-Burhan Wani's killing are still afresh among the Panchayat members. A range of former sarpanchs this reporter spoke to expressed their reluctance to contest the upcoming elections.
"I won't submit a form for the next election, as the situation is not favourable. Hundreds died in the 2016 unrest, and people are yet to come out of the trauma of the recent unrest as well," Bashir Ahmad, a former sarpanch from Pulwama district of South Kashmir told Firstpost. He also says that it's not fair to hold elections now.
Another former sarpanch from South Kashmir, Ali Mohammad, told Firstpost: "Panchayat members are for development of rural areas and always fear of getting killed. We risked our lives to fulfill the basic needs of people. I may fight Panchayat elections in the future, but not this time when situation is unstable."
However, a senior police official from South Kashmir while speaking on condition of anonymity, said that much fuss was being created about the threat to the sarpanchs and panchs. "Panchayat members killed last time were targeted by the militants at the individual level, like for allegedly being an informer or drug addict or some other reason. It was militants' way of disciplining the sarpanchs. There is no connection between this violence and Kashmir issue," he said.
On the issue of providing security to the Panchayat members, the police official said it was possible but also feared its abuse. However, former sarpanch Bashir Ahmad believes that if the government would have provided security, Panchayat members would have become more vulnerable to attacks.
Opposition leader and former chief minister Omar Abdullah, under whose administration the previous Panchayat elections and the killing of many Panchayat members occurred, took a dig at the government for planning to hold the elections. "We won't question the weaving of alliance between the PDP and BJP, but the people would certainly want to know how it has benefitted them and the state — and the answer is for all of us to see," Abdullah said.
These views have been echoed by the Congress, which accused Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti of imposing the elections on state. "You are thrusting the Panchayat polls on the people. We warn you (Mehbooba) that it will cost you dearly and the consequences will be grave for you," said state Congress chief GA Mir.
For many prospective voters, whether it's time to conduct elections or not is a secondary issue. What Kashmir has gained from the past elections and agitations is a predominant issue for them. "We have seen many agitations, but people have voted normally after that. In Kashmir, you can't blame anyone. If elections are conducted on time, people will vote normally," said a local from Anantnag, wishing not to be named.
Sheikh Showkat Hussain, who teaches law at the Central university of Kashmir, said, "By-polls are overdue for Srinagar and Anantnag Lok Sabha seats, so the government wants to test the water level by conducting the Panchayat elections first and then to go for the by-polls."
He, however, believes that the government won't be able to conduct elections on time. "My doubt is whether the Panchayat elections will happen on time, as the situation remains volatile in the Valley and elections are a tactic to show normalcy," said Dr Hussain.
Whatever the case, these elections will be an uphill task for the state government, which may also complicate the challenges for the government and the security establishment in New Delhi.
In the past, voter turnout of Kashmiris in elections has always been touted by India as an indication of Kashmir's desire to stay with India. A police official that Firstpost spoke to conceded that "Issuing militant threat videos is a propaganda that will not affect elections per se, but individually it definitely will have an impact."
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