J&K Panchayat Elections: Govt should postpone local polls; providing security for all contestants is impossible

While the govt would not want to give in to threats from militants, it would be possible to explain a postponement of Jammu and Kashmir Gram Panchayat polls without referring to the threats

David Devadas January 27, 2018 11:31:07 IST
J&K Panchayat Elections: Govt should postpone local polls; providing security for all contestants is impossible

The government would do well to defer the Gram Panchayat elections that are scheduled to take place in Jammu and Kashmir from 15 February. There are several indications that the elected panches (members of Gram Panchayats) will become targets of militant violence, even if the election process itself goes off without major mishap.

According to one well-informed journalist, militant groups have been instructed to focus on targeting the newly-elected panches over the next several months. Those in the know say that the police have also expressed deep reservations over holding these elections and about the security situation they will have to face thereafter.

JK Panchayat Elections Govt should postpone local polls providing security for all contestants is impossible

Representational image. PTI

Hizbul Mujahideen commander Riyaz Naikoo, even announced in an angry video a few days ago that he would pour acid into the eyes of those who contest the elections — so that they would remain a burden on their families for the rest of their lives, as he graphically put it.

Such threats come against the background of an increase in the number of local boys joining militancy. The number of fresh recruits is larger than the numbers killed in recent months.

The threats also gain potency in the light of the violence that had occurred at polling booths during the bye-election for the Srinagar Lok Sabha seat on 9 April 2017. Eight people had died in the violence in Budgam and other parts of the Srinagar Lok Sabha constituency. The situation could have been worse in south Kashmir had the bye-election for the Anantnag seat, which was slated for 12 April, not been postponed.

It was easy to ensure security for Farooq Abdullah, the one MP who was elected in April, also since as a former chief minister, he already had top-level security. But providing security to tens of thousands of panches would be well-nigh impossible.

Republic Day threats

Over the past week, there have also been threats against school principals, teachers, and others preparing for programmes on Republic Day.

A video recording on social media showed a school principal acknowledging that girls were being prepared for a dance. Apparently facing militants around the camera that recorded him, the school principal was coerced to say that he regretted it. He also said that he would not repeat the mistake and that he did not care about losing his job.

The school principal was told to name the school in the video and was then instructed to name the teacher who was training the schoolgirls to dance for the Republic Day programme.

Narrow-vision ideologues detest cultures they see as liberal and alien. Similarly, the more radical of the militant groups view electoral democracy as representing the work of the devil. Not only would the success of Panchayati Raj strengthen political processes at the ground level, the success of these elections could be projected as another signal of 'normalcy' and stability.

No wonder then that several former panches and sarpanches have been brutally tortured and killed over the past year or two, particularly in militant strongholds in Pulwama district in south Kashmir.

Compulsions of state

People have become keenly conscious of the risks of this process, and the turnout, therefore, may be low. There may nonetheless be enough candidates, since there are many who seek the power, influence, and control over public expenditure that being a panchayat member brings with it.

However, many of those who contest may not adequately consider the dangers while others may seek to make covert deals, including monetary ones, with local militants.

The previous Panchayats' term ended in July 2016, when there was massive unrest following the killing of militant commander Burhan Wani. But, although the elections are long overdue, just getting through the formalities of democratic processes is inadequate. The aim must be representation and responsiveness, not the likelihood of further bloodshed.

A top policymaker acknowledged this risk but spoke of the 'pros and cons' in the situation. While the state would not want to give in to threats, it would be possible to explain a postponement without referring to the threats.

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