Jammu and Kashmir local body polls, Part IV: Miscreants set panchayat offices on fire to 'warn' contestants, voters
Nearly a dozen panchayat buildings have been set on fire by arsonists after the announcement of Urban Local Body and Panchayat Polls in Jammu and Kashmir. The message is clear: no matter what, no one should take part in the upcoming 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 III, part V and part VI of the series here.
Pulwama: At Tanghar-Rajpora, some 40 kilometres from Srinagar, the half-burnt Panchayat building has turned into a public spectacle. Built some six years ago, villagers arrived in droves in the courtyard of the building to check its charred doors and windows as streaks of smoke rose in the air.
“It was built in 2012,” Mohammad Ramzan, a former panch, said, as he peeped into a room through a half-burnt window to assess the magnitude of devastation caused by the fire.
The single-storied white and red-coloured building, situated in a desolate part of the village, was locked when the arsonists arrived on Tuesday night. No one knows who it was!
Inside the building, a half burnt steel locker, few wooden chairs and some tables have turned into charcoal. There was not much in its four rooms. Those who put it on fire had emptied it first.
It was one among nearly dozen Panchayat buildings set on fire by arsonists after the announcement of Urban Local Body and Panchayat polls this month. “The message of the arsonists is clear: No matter what, no one should take part in the upcoming polls,” said Showkat Hamid, a resident of Nazneenpora village in Shopian district, where unidentified people set a panchayat office ablaze on Tuesday.
“The damage was minimum,” Showkat said, “but the message was clear.” On the same day, another attempt was made in Nagbal village of Tral and one more in Drabgam area of Pulwama district.
Showkat, a post graduate in Philosophy from the University of Kashmir, said the majority of people see these buildings as the only symbol of the government’s presence in the locality, so they end up becoming the first targets.
“People want to send a message to those who want to be part of this exercise: today it is a panchayat office, tomorrow it can be your home,” he said.
The upcoming elections are seen as a “forced decision” by New Delhi to portray that the situation is under control in Kashmir. But after the two major regional parties of the state — Peoples Democratic Party and National Conference — decided to boycott the elections, the perception about the process has changed.
The state Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), however, reiterated on Wednesday that it was determined to contest the polls in every ward of Kashmir. The party believes that those who are boycotting the elections are doing “great injustice” with the people of Kashmir.
“It was the demand of general public that these elections should be conducted,” BJP state president Ravinder Raina said.
But people in villages have expressed apprehension about the polls with militant groups threatening to carry out acid attacks. The boycott by the regional players has not helped New Delhi, so much so that the state’s information department and chief electoral officer have not revealed the names of the people who have submitted forms for the urban local body polls, which are going to be held in first phase of the local polls.
There are close to 5,000 panchayat office in almost every zone of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, and close to five hundred places are without it because the government failed to procure the land, said Sheetal Nanda, secretary, Rural Development and Panchayati Raj, in Jammu and Kashmir.
“None of them have been substantially damaged, apart from Budgam, but there is concern over their safety," she said in Srinagar.
But on the ground, the government’s claim on the numbers seems to be a far cry from the reality. There have more than a dozen attempts by unknown people to set the buildings on fire that were hardly reported and the state government has shut down mobile internet in two volatile districts of Pulwama and Shopian in south Kashmir as a “firefighting measure”.
In the ongoing, every day turmoil in the embattled Valley, the news about the arsonists’ rage is often underplayed, as both the state and Central governments have refused to delay the elections, arguing the state is losing huge amount of funds that are needed for development in villages.
“It is just impossible to take development forward if we still delay the elections. It means a loss of Rs 4,335 crores if the the elections are delayed,” said Jammu and Kashmir’s chief secretary, BVR Subrahmanyam.
But these financial considerations mean nothing for people on the ground. Ghulam Rasool Bhat was at his home when flames started billowing out of the panchayat office in Seer Jagir area of Tral. Bhat lives more then 500 meters from the the building but he did not dare to come out.
"We held two meeting there to discuss the plan for the development of the area when I was a sarpanch. But those ideas never materialised because of lack of funds,” Bhat, who is in his late 60s, said, while a group of labourers harvested his paddy field. "It was a nice building on which a lot of money was spent. Now it's gone,” he added.
“Now I would never be part of it because I am not fighting again, so I don’t even think about it,” said Bhat.
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