As delimitation concludes, the disturbing story of J&K’s panchayat leaders - Hindustan Times
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As delimitation concludes, the disturbing story of J&K’s panchayat leaders

May 09, 2022 07:11 PM IST

The fear now is that with the delimitation exercise nearing completion, elections will be conducted this year for the newly constituted Union Territories. All contestants – including those already members of the Panchayats — will become fresh targets again

Talib Hussain Khan, a block development officer, has been locked up in a college hostel in Kashmir’s Anantnag district for the last seven months. The one time that he was allowed to step out was on April 22, when he and other members of Panchayati Raj institutions were herded in buses and taken to Jammu where Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed them to mark the national Panchayati Raj Day. He and hundreds of other sarpanches (village heads) and block and district-level officers, joined a convoy with a prayer on their lips.

Activists of National Conference shout slogans and hold placards during a protest against the delimitation commission in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir, January 1, 2022. (Waseem Andrabi/Hindustan Times) PREMIUM
Activists of National Conference shout slogans and hold placards during a protest against the delimitation commission in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir, January 1, 2022. (Waseem Andrabi/Hindustan Times)

Khan, who has 18 panchayats in his block, was not even allowed to go home – some 16 km from the college hostel – on Eid. The festival is important but fearing a threat to their lives, the administration did not allow him to make the journey home. “Earlier, separatists use to be put under house arrest but now it’s us. We are soft targets,’’ says Khan.

At least four sarpanches were killed in the run up to the PM’s rally in Samba, Jammu on April 24. It was Modi’s first visit to Jammu and Kashmir since the Centre revoked the state’s special status and cleaved it into Union Territories in August 2019.

According to Shafiq Mir, Chairperson, All J&K Panchayat Conference, “Whenever there is any political activity, the panchayats are targeted. The militants consider us to be representatives of the government but the same government has not empowered us. If it had, the people would have come out in our support.”

Jammu and Kashmir has 40,000 panchayat members and the process of electing them started within two months of the hollowing out of Article 370, when the Valley was under unprecedented security. High profile visits and elections usually see a spike in violence and the panchayat members are easy targets. According to Mir, 28 have been killed over the last ten years and about 45 injured.

The insecurity on the ground

“I put my life on the line and contested in 2019. At the time, several promises were made to us but neither have I got any security, nor do government departments help me with development work,” says Aijad Ahmed Sheikh, a sarpanch from South Kashmir’s Shopian district.

He was attacked by “armed gunmen” the same year and made to spend four days in a police station. “Imagine, that was the government’s way of securing me,” he says, adding, “Of what use am I when I get little help for the development projects I propose. My own people in the village think I’m a government stooge and the government only thinks of me when they want to fly the tricolor.” Sheikh says he visited Delhi to meet Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders but returned empty handed.

Families of police and government employees get a “martyrdom package” if they are killed in the line of duty but members of the panchayati raj institutions are neither beneficiaries of any pension or social welfare schemes. The administration usually ends up keeping the under-threat panchayat members locked up in hotels and hostels. Meetings are held from time to time with senior officials but quoting intelligence reports, the members are advised to stay locked up.

Anees-ul-Islam, a sarpanch who is also the in charge for all members from South Kashmir, says at least 500 to 600 were kept in hotels and not allowed out even for Eid. According to him, many are willing to resign but fear that their resignations will upset the administration. “We are already being targeted by militants and the fear is that we might be targeted by the administration. The fear of the Public Safety Act being slapped is real. Why do you think there are no protests in Kashmir?” he asks.

Several sarpanches HT spoke with said they are unable to visit their villages and monitor development works. “We should be visible 24X7 tending to various works like improving roads and bridges and improving water and electricity supply, but what should we do when we can barely visit out areas twice a month, that too under police protection?” says one of them.

The members – often showcased as evidence of grassroots democracy and paraded in front of envoys in Srinagar and Delhi – are an extremely unhappy lot. A lot of them contested as independents in 2019 when the under-detention mainstream leaders boycotted the process. That year, according to the government’s own data, more than 60% of the seats went uncontested. By-polls were held again the subsequent year.

Politics of 370

Mainstream parties such as the National Conference and People’s Democratic Party – which joined hands to form an umbrella group, the People’s Agenda for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) and seek the restoration of Article 370 – fought the District Development Council elections in 2021. Together, they swept the polls – even though the BJP emerged as the single largest party.

The parties, however, have not been able to entirely secure the panchayat members because the UT is largely administered by New Delhi. Just before Eid, the National Conference, headed by former chief ministers Farooq and Omar Abdullah, tried to focus attention on the plight of the sarpanches. Sharing messages from several captive members who sought his help to go home for Eid, he tweeted, saying, “On the one hand, @PMOIndia addressed them in Jammu and on the other, the police holds them captive.”

Similarly, Mehbooba Mufti, who heads the PDP, tweeted after the killing of a sarpanch on April 15. “There seems to be no end in sight to the bloodbath in Kashmir. Yet, nothing seems to move the GOI enough to change its approach towards J&K.”

The police, unwilling to come on record, say they just don’t have the manpower to secure 40000 members of the Panchayati Raj Institution. The members themselves are not sure of what to do. They earn a pittance and end up becoming soft targets. While block development officers are paid R15,000 a month, each sarpanch gets a salary of 3,000 a month and panch’s only 1,000.

The fear now is that with the delimitation exercise nearing completion, elections will be conducted this year for the newly constituted Union Territories. All contestants – including those already members of the Panchayats — will become fresh targets again. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that successive governments over the decades have linked voter turnout with normalcy.

The already under-threat Sarpanch, Aijaz Ahmed Sheikh, sums up the siege mentality. When asked if would participate in the panchayat elections due in 18 months, he says, “I’ll think about it if I stay alive for the next year and a half.”

The views expressed are personal

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