In 2011, as Jammu and Kashmir geared up for panchayat elections after a long hiatus, Ghulam Hassan Panzoo, then a teacher in the government’s service, resigned from his job to contest the polls from his village with the hope to drive forward development projects there.
He won with 740 votes in the village – Panzoo in north Kashmir’s Kupwara district – that had about as many households, he said. After years of neglect infrastructure schemes had started to be undertaken but the awe that the law on papers inspired in him was soon replaced by frustration and dejection. Having taken an early retirement, 18 years before the completion of his services, Panzoo found himself struggling for money and maintaining his authority as a sarpanch.
The reason was not the militancy, but friction with the Legislature. Lawmakers do not want to share power, said Panzoo, who now heads an apolitical outfit, the Jammu and Kashmir Awami Movement that works to strengthen these local body institutions. An FIR was filed against him, over the cutting of trees on a public land, after he took the initiative to build an eidgah in his village, which was a long-pending demand. “MLAs want to get involved even in the marriages of people in villages,” he rued. “They feel small when we run our affairs by ourselves.”
This year, as the state again gears up for panchayat and municipal elections, Panzoo has found new hope as he mobilises candidates for both elections. Early on Friday morning, the Central government announced new measures to empower the local bodies. Home minister Rajnath Singh announced on Twitter the empowerment of panchayats under the 73rd Amendment of the Constitution of India besides increasing their funds, tenfold, and allowing them to levy and collect taxes for local development.
This, Panzoo said, will go a long way in empowering the institutions at a time when the state is under Governor’s Rule and the interference of legislators is minimal. Singh tweeted: “Local bodies are also being vested with significantly enhanced devolution of powers in line with best practices in the country. This will enable them to address most of the local issues in their jurisdictions.” But the hope rekindled by the Centre’s decision may still not ensure a smooth conduct.
Between a rock and a hard place
“One can do wonders,” remarked a Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) worker on the scope of the developmental works and public outreach that can be achieved through local bodies but being a party member, he is faced with a dilemma: whether to toe the party’s official line of boycott or quit and brave militant threats to contest the elections.
Eventually the resident of Pahalgam in south Kashmir’s Anantnag district gave up on his ambitions. It isn’t just the fear of the gun in the Valley this time, militants have repeatedly warned of acid attacks against contestants. “Anyone can throw acid, it does not require a militant,” he said. “It is only the threat of militancy that is stopping me this time.”
After the recent fiasco in the Valley that once again surprised some in the security establishment, as separatist militants abducted policemen and their relatives, they made their intentions clear and exhibited their capabilities of striking civilians and off-duty policemen in their homes. Weeks later, three policemen were killed after militants took them from their homes.
Both the PDP worker and Panzoo pleaded that the elections have nothing to do with politics and are purely about local governance. The baggage of politics and statements of “referendums” from the Central government that come with every poll in the state have put these grassroots workers in a tight spot. “Our job is not to make or amend laws. That is for the Assembly,” said Panzoo. “We are small people with even smaller statures.” Their views, however, are not shared by everyone.
Amid paranoia over attempts to further dilute the state’s special status, the popular wave in the Valley seems opposed to the polls. Riding this popular wave, the state’s largest regional unionist party, the National Conference, declared a boycott of the elections, officially calling for the Centre to clear its stand on the special provisions of the state, particularly Article 35A that, among other things, empowers Jammu and Kashmir to define its permanent residents. A sensitive topic in a region where fears of demography change run high. The PDP followed their lead.
The response to the elections from the Muslim-majority Kashmir province and the Jammu region with a significant Hindu population is in sharp contrast. While the Valley’s main political parties and separatists are up in arms against the polls, the Jammu province has largely welcomed it. Javed Baig, the PDP legislator from Baramulla, said this had further “divided the state” on political and communal lines. The PDP, he said, took the step to boycott after the National Conference used the “veil of 35A” and the party could not contest elections lest it be seen as not concerned about safeguarding the provision, he said. “In Kashmir, participation is seen as betrayal while Jammu is seeing this differently; it sees Kashmir’s reaction as a pro-Muslim stance,” he said. “We are heading towards a split in the state.”
Pertinently, the NC and PDP made no such statements during the council elections in Kargil. Threat to workers’ security may have been one of the reasons for regional parties’ decision to boycott. Still, by filing nominations, Baig said that candidates had reposed their faith in the government to give them security. “If they don’t, who will be responsible for innocent killings? Kashmiris will be killing Kashmiris,” he said.
But the boycott announced by the regional parties has offered hope in other quarters, which are looking to see the rise of alternative leaders. For one political activist in Handwara, the emergence of alternative leaders who could deliver governance could shake the “old guard of politics who ran fiefdoms”. Perhaps understanding this, both regional parties have reportedly fielded proxy candidates.
Opening for BJP
The boycott of these polls by the regional parties has led to fears of the Bharatiya Janata Party seizing the opportunity to directly carry out activities in the Valley. Panzoo believes the NC and PDP have “left an open space” for the BJP to take over local governance in the Valley. “They have paved the way for the BJP and RSS to come up in Kashmir,” he said.
Veer Saraf, the BJP’s in-charge for south Kashmir, said he was “dead sure” that the party would “capture many municipalities” in the first phase of the polls that begin on 8 October. The party has fielded candidates in several wards including in north Kashmir’s Handwara where Sajjad Lone’s People’s Conference is the only regional party to participate in the elections.
Various candidates in several wards in the municipal polls, scheduled before the panchayat elections, are expected to be elected uncontested. The BJP is counting on this to make inroads in the Valley. Saraf said, “Vis-à-vis Kashmir, we are a new party but we have passed the first phase by fielding candidates.” The party, he said, was going door to door to mobilise voters.
The municipal and panchayat polls are also a litmus test for the BJP which claims to have more than three lakh workers in the Valley alone. Either way, these elections will decide the course of future polls in the state and present new challenges for the security establishment that for now claims to be on top of things.
For New Delhi, however, conducting the elections after announcing them, seemingly without consulting the regional parties, has never before been so important. Unionist political workers and security officials point to the violence and low voter turnout on the day of parliamentary bypolls in central Kashmir’s relatively peaceful Budgam district, last year, on 9 April, as having boosted the morale of the separatists. The deferment of the bypolls for the Anantnag seat, vacant since 2016, was seen as having accepted defeat. Polls for that seat were not undertaken even as general elections are around the corner in the country.
In Handwara, a retired school teacher and a supporter of People’s Conference said the town was pragmatic and would participate in the polls if they weren’t afraid for their security. “Even kids would come out to vote like it used to happen,” he said. “Just tell Pakistan to take back their gun.” The importance given to the election process and the concerns for safety made one socio-political activist in Handwara, Tahir Lone, accidentally call it an “operation”. “In Kashmir, legislators are representatives of India, if they feel pushed to the wall, what will the common masses feel?” he asked. “India’s credibility is at stake now.”
Updated Date: Sep 28, 2018 18:34 PM