Jammu and Kashmir local body polls, Part III: Latest abduction, murder of civilian in Sopore has villagers fearing ballot box
The BJP sees the killings in Jammu and Kashmir's Sopore region as a message to those who want to participate in the upcoming municipal and panchayat polls.
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 II, part IV, part V and part VI of the series here.
Harwan, Sopore: The recent killings by unknown gunmen, suspected to be militants, have sent shock waves across Sopore in Jammu and Kashmir, with leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) fearing that the renewed violence may reduce their chances of winning a majority in the upcoming local elections in one of the most troubled towns of the region.
On Monday, local residents found another body in an orchard. The deceased, identified as Mushtaq Ahmed Mir, was abducted and later found at least 3 kilometres from his house in Sopore's Harwan village.
Harwan and its adjoining villages had witnessed a remarkable polling percentage in the last panchayat elections, held in 2011 after decades. A small hamlet of about 200 houses, Harwan is located on the foothills of the Yamberzal mountains in Sopore town.
Suspected militants had abducted the 45-year-old from his home two days before his killing. The police said a masked gunman had entered Mir's house in Harwan around 8.30 pm on Sunday and abducted him.
The Block Medical Officer of Sopore, Dr Sami, said Mir's body bore multiple bullet wounds. "There were a few cuts on his head, inflicted by some blunt object, and a few bullet wounds on legs and hip," he added.
Habla Begum, the physically challenged wife of the slain labourer, said the gunmen had covered their face and asked her husband to accompany them, claiming they had lost their way. "He said goodbye to me with a terrified face," she said.
"When I told them my husband is innocent, they promised me they will release him after 10 minutes. I want to ask them, why was he killed? What was his sin?" said .
At least three dozen villagers offered Mir's funeral prayers on Monday afternoon, with dozens of women were beating their chests to mourn his tragic killing.
The villagers said Mir was a low-rung political worker who had played a crucial role in the last panchayat and Assembly elections in his area. His is the third killing in Sopore's Harwan village this year, and people suspect that the previous two men were killed for their proximity with security forces.
Behind Harwan, in the backdrop of towering, lush, green peaks, a road leads to the Lolab Valley, where security forces say many foreign militants have taken refuge. The only thing that separates Harwan and Lolab is an army camp that sits atop mountains.
Due to the rising violence, the BJP constituency in-charge of Sopore, Farooq Ahmad Rather, is now a worried man. He was hoping that the situation would remain "as it as" as his party's chances had brightened after both the National Conference and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) decided to boycott the municipal and panchayat polls, seeking clarity on the Centre's stand on Article 35A of the Constitution.
"I had 15 people ready to fight the elections, and they would have won hands down because they had no opposition at all. But only six people are ready now after Mir's killing,” Rather said. "These killings have created a kind of terror that will stay in the minds of people for a long time."
The right-wing party sees the killings as a "blunt message" to the political leaders and activists who may want to participate in the upcoming municipal and panchayat polls.
Sopore town and its adjoining villages in North Kashmir were once a hub of militancy, much before South Kashmir become the epicentre of such violence. It was, and still remains, the bastion of pro-Pakistan Jamaat-e-Islami.
Kashmir's tallest separatist leader, Syed Ali Geelani, represented the Sopore constituency three times in the Legislative Assembly. In fact, he remains the only elected representative to garner the highest number of votes in the history of the town before the state plunged into a political turmoil in the early nineties.
For some time, the town remained out-of-bounds for security forces, until 1993, when the army launched one of the biggest combing operation in the Kashmir Valley. Despite massive human rights violations and a developmental deficit — the roads in Sopore are a perfect case of underdevelopment — it still is one of the richest towns of Jammu and Kashmir. The money generated by the apple economy has made it financially vibrant.
Ghulam Rasool Dar, the former mayor of the Municipal Council of Sopore, said that despite lack of funds and their belief in grassroots democracy in the worst of times, he had begged the chief of local bodies and politicians to help them at least change the situation of the roads.
"They just wanted us to contest the polls and then get killed. They had no plans to develop any part of Sopore or any other area of Kashmir," Dar said. When asked whether he would stand in the local body elections, the former councilman said, "The question doesn't even arise."
Not one person has submitted his nomination form for the municipal elections in Sopore, the deadline for which is 27 September. Baramulla, Handwara and other areas of North Kashmir face the same situation.
The latest killings have affected the BJP's electoral calculus of taking over the Sopore municipality and panchayat. The party was banking on the boycott by two major regional parties and the Congress, whose MLA represents the constituency.
"More than anything, these killings have dampened the spirit of the people associated with us," Rather said. "We might win fewer seats now because there is a threat and people are afraid."
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