“The huge participation of people in the polls is most of times used by the state and centre government for chest thumping and give different reasons for this encouraging participation to undermine separatist groups,”
Last month J&K chief minister, Mehbooba Mufti held a closed door meeting with Governor N N Vohra at Rajbhawan in the winter capital Jammu. Though they discussed many issues related to the state in the meeting, however, holding of panchayat polls was on top of the agenda. Once back at CM’ secretariat, Mehbooba Mufti announced holding of panchayat elections in the state from February 15.
Soon after the dates were announced, the government started preparing its men and machinery for these elections which is a long cumbersome process. The last panchayat elections in the state were held in 2011 after the two years of violence that saw huge participation of people despite the boycott call given by the separatist leadership.
Those villagers who turned up for casting their votes acknowledged that Kashmir is a political issue that needs to be resolved through dialogue, however they gave reason for casting their votes for resolving day to day issues like Pani, Bijli and Sadak – (Water, Electricity and Roads).
The term of panchayats ended in 2016 and government was planning to hold fresh elections to elect new representatives; however the situation turned volatile in Kashmir after the killing of Hizb commander Burhan Wani that sparked a series of protests that left around 95 people dead and thousands injured. The situation forced government to defer these polls. The elections couldn’t be held in 2017 as the violence again erupted during the by elections for Srinagar Lok Sabha seat and people stayed away from polling stations.
Due to violent incidents the government in consultation with Election Commission of India and Home Ministry again decided to postpone the by elections for Anantnag Lok Sabha seat that became vacant after Mehbooba Mufti became chief minister and contested elections from Anantnag assembly seat.
However it seems government has decided to hold panchayat elections despite many political parties are still averse of holding these polls in the current scenario when anti militancy operations and gun fights are regularly taking place in the Valley. However major mainstream political parties – NC, Congress and the ruling parties BJP, the PDP and PC has already conveyed to its workers to get ready for polls. The government has also decided to hold these polls in a phased manner.
The elections will be held in those areas first where security situation is peaceful especially in Jammu and in the North Kashmir. However after testing the situation, the officials say panchayat polls will be held in South Kashmir where situation is still not conducive for holding these elections. The separatist leadership and militants have already warned people to stay away from these polls.
Hizbul Mujahideen has even threatened to use acid against those taking part in the polls. Hizbul Mujahideen, operational commander, Riyaz Naikoo in an audio clip could be heard asking his commander, Sameer Tiger in south Kashmir that those who will be participating in the upcoming panchayat polls will be poured acid in the eyes.
The Hizb commander also says that in 2016 due to pellets many youth lost their eyesight and young boys lost their lives now they are planning similar fate for those planning to contest elections.
In the clip Naikoo is conveying another commander that this time they will neither kill nor beat people nor they will issue threats to people who will contest elections. ‘’We will go to their homes and pour acid in their eyes, so that they will become burden for their families.”
Naikoo says that in villages many people are unaware about the repercussion of these polls and are being used by some political agents for their personnel benefits. Separatist leader, Syed Ali Geelani has also asked people to stay away from the panchayat polls.
However Hizb reaction about pouring acid in the eyes of people contesting polls has been criticised by the NC working president and former JK chief minister Omar Abdullah who in a tweet mocked militants for using acid.
‘’If it isn’t pellets it’s acid. One way or the other people are threatened with being blinded.’’
Officials said that elections will be held for more than 4500 panchayats across the state. The number is higher than the last panchayat elections that were held in 2011 a year after massive uprising took place in valley over the extra judicial killing of three civilians of north Kashmir.
After making announcement about panchayat polls, J&K chief minister, Mehbooba Mufti speaking at a function in Jammu said that after panchayat elections, the government is also planning to hold Municipal elections across the state.
Though government has already made the announcement regarding these elections, the intelligence agencies has also warned the government that there could be spike in the violence related incidents in the state especially in the Valley in the wake of panchayat polls. The presence of more than 200 local and foreign militants could jeopardize these elections especially in South Kashmir where many local youths have picked up gun and joined militant ranks after the killing of Burhan Wani.
Nevertheless the government seems committed for holding these elections.
Knowing the threat, JK chief minister will be chairing high level meeting of Unified High Command in Jammu very soon. In the meeting besides top Army officers all the heads of security agencies will be participating. Sources said that security during panchayat polls will top the agenda of this meeting and inputs will be sought from officials about giving secure environment during these polls.
The important responsibility before the government is to ensure security of the people during polls. In the past elections there has been increase in the violent incidents during the polls, however many political analysts feel that situation could go out of hand just like it happened last year when by elections for Srinagar parliament seat was held. Not only violence increased but also on the Election Day many civilians lost their lives. The Election Commission of India despite receiving feedback from various agencies decided to hold elections and resulted into the killing of many civilians.
This time also government should seriously ponder over security situation and then only should give go ahead to elections in those areas where situation is still not feasible for holding elections. The government can’t close its eyes just for the sake of election process. On the other hand militant leadership should also realise that the people who contest or participate in the panchayat elections are ordinary people and by killing them will serve no purpose neither government will be brought under pressure. The locals participate in these elections to get their day to day grievances addressed and empowers them partially and minimize their dependence on these politicians for their basic needs.
In fact if the government wants that Panchayat elections shall be successful and people shall participate enmass, there are suggestions form the security and political analysts that the state and centre government should stop politicizing the panchayat polls as it is the common people who suffer at the end.
“The huge participation of people in the polls is most of times used by the state and centre government for chest thumping and give different reasons for this encouraging participation to undermine separatist groups,” said the senior security official.
Even the Jammu and Kashmir Panchayat Conference (AJKPC), an organisation of over 25,000 panchs and sarpanchs has asked the government not to use these elections for politics and conveyed them that only after proper security they will contest these elections.
“We are ready to contest the panchayat elections, but the state government has to ensure a peaceful atmosphere for the same. We should be provided a secure environment,” Shafiq Mir, chairman, AJKPC said after government decided to hold the elections in state.
Many a times these panchayat members especially sarpanchs became sitting ducks as government didn’t gave them security
Mir blamed the BJP-PDP government of demolishing peace by exploiting the “regional, religious and political” sentiments of the people. “Both these parties took a U turn after coming to power due to which the people of the state have completely lost their faith in democratic institutions,” he said adding that about 15 sarpanch and panchayat members have been killed and about two dozen panchayat leaders injured in the past five years in attacks.
He said that government was responsible for the killings as it did not provide them security despite repeated requests by them time and again.
Though it is impossible to provide security to the thousands of panchayat members, however government both state and the centre should desist from giving it a political color.
These elections are being held on non party basis and the government should make it clear that by these elections they are fulfilling a procedure that is mandatory to get funds. Despite large number of panches and sarpanches in the previous elections they were not given powers which they demanded undermining the autonomy of the grassroots level institution. However, this time panchayat members should be empowered so they can fulfill promises made at grassroots level.