Jammu and Kashmir local body polls, Part II: Few women seek office in face of violence from militants, govt apathy
Aasha said it is difficult for women to stand against the corrupt politicians of Jammu and Kashmir, who never take women representatives seriously.
Editor's note: With municipal and panchayat elections round the corner in Jammu and Kashmir, Firstpost will run a series of ground reports on different aspects of the polls, as well as the state of panchayati raj institutions and how they can empower democracy at the grassroots. The series will also look into the state of security arrangements, as voters and candidates face threats of attacks by militants. Read part I, part III, part IV, part V and part VI of the series here.
Wussan, Tangmarg: When Aasha Bhat, a Kashmiri Pandit, got elected sarpanch in a Muslim-dominated village, politicians and television crews made beelines outside her single-storied, crumbling house in north Kashmir's Wussan village. Her fortunes changed overnight: she became the face of women's empowerment and “hope for the Valley and Kashmiriyat.” She was even invited by Bollywood actor Aamir Khan to appear on his show Satyameva Jayate.
It was a feel good story. Her victory symbolised how women can act as a binding force between communities sitting on the fault lines of history. Besides, the participation of women in the last panchyat elections added a different and critical dimension to the whole idea of participatory democracy. It was, so to say, a ‘mini-revolution’ in a conservative region and it combined the idea of women's empowerment with grassroots politics.
But reality soon dawned. Aasha and her husband, Radha Krishan, never left Kashmir, unlike the majority of the Kashmiri Pandits. For decades, they lived in abject poverty, but never left their ancestral village. Aasha has been working as a sanitation worker at a local school for the past three decades. Her salary has increased from Rs 25 per day to Rs 75 per day.
“When I thought of fighting elections, my Muslims neighbours supported me. I defeated Sarwa Begum by 11 votes,” Aasha, 59, said at her crumbling home. “People had expectations. They wanted to see some change in their lives, but the government did not support us,” she said. “My village is very dear to me. I can’t live outside its boundary. All I wanted was to help my neighbours, but the government did nothing.”
Aasha said it is difficult for women to stand against corrupt politicians, who never take women representatives seriously. When she fought for the macadamisation of a road which passes through her village, she ended up paying a bribe for its completion. “From chowkidars to ministers, everyone is corrupt,” she added.
“My villages is backward, I wanted it to progress, but I am so fed up now. I have no reason to fight again. That is why I went back to sanitation work at the school,” Aasha Bhat said. “Forget women's empowerment, my own sons mocked me for failing to help the people who had faith in me.”
In the 2011 panchayat polls (between 13 April and 27 June), over 79 percent of the electorate exercised their franchise. The process, which stretched over 17 phases, saw 5.07 million voters elect 4,130 sarpanches and 29,719 panchs. The three-month process saw 29 women seal their victory as sarpanches: A dismal success rate of less than one percent. Anantnag and Shopian in south Kashmir elected four women as sarpanches out of 453 posts. Aasha was among them.
These women, initially, became local power centres. Wherever they got elected, locals would flock to their homes for birth certificates of their newborns and other small matters. In many places, they ran dispute resolution mechanisms which became an eyesore for political brokers. This also earned them many enemies: they became targets for ‘unknown’ gunmen and at least four of them were killed in the run-up to the election.
In January 2013, Zoona Begum was closing the main gate of her home in Sopore's Yemberzalwari area when she was shot by suspected militants. On that ill-fated day, after more than two years had passed since her election, a stranger appeared at the her door. In a threatening tone, he told Zoona that she ought not to have fought the election. Zoona told him it was “none of his business.”
“When I closed the door, I felt something hit my forehead. It felt like a stone,” Zoona added. It was a bullet. The projectile hit her forehead, bore through her mouth and exited on the left side of her neck. “I spent a month in the ICU and then three more years getting medical treatment. It cost more than Rs 6 lakh. My husband had to sell land to pay the medical bills,” Zoona said, speaking from her home in north Kashmir,
Scarred for life, Zoona said she will never contest another election. “Because it means nothing,” Zoona added. “It is only to parade elected representatives before TV cameras. I thought concerned women like me will take change of the village affairs and community development, but that was all a cruel joke.”
Despite the Jammu and Kashmir government ordering 33 percent reservation for women in 4098 posts of sarpanches and 29,402 panch segments, and call for rotation of wards reserved for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, the Valley may yet again witness negligible participation of both men and women in the upcoming panchayat elections due to rising violence. The killing of three policemen in Kapran on Friday sent a clear message.
“The threat to our lives and our families is greater this time around," Aasha said. “There are more important issues that need to be resolved, and that is why I will not be fighting the election.”
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