Panchayati Raj Institutions were peddled to usher Kashmir in a new era of gross root development but the mysterious assassinations triggered mass resignations and a fierce debate over the system being crippled well before it could deliver. As voters feel disillusioned, JEHANGIR ALI reports the crisis in which the nascent democracy finds itself.
The killing of deputy Sarpanch, Muhammad Shafi Teli, in north Kashmir’s Baramulla town last Sunday night was not an isolated event. There is a chilling method to the madness in which the Panchayat members who were touted to usher in a new era of democracy in the conflict-hit Kashmir are systematically being targeted by unidentified gunmen. Significantly, eight members have been assassinated so far in the valley but (except one case where a chargesheet was filed), not much progress has been made by the state police in most of these cases.
Teli’s killing has spread panic among nearly 34,000 village representatives who were elected to Panchayat bodies last year. Many have tendered their resignations en masse. The readers of one of the major Urdu dailies were greeted on Tuesday morning by paid advertisements from 38 Panchayat members announcing their resignation. Sources in the state’s rural development ministry say more than 800 members have tendered their resignations.
Chief Minister Omar Abdullah was apparently disturbed by the spurt in assassinations of Panchayat members. “Militants are cowards who attacked these defenseless people. They do not attack me because they know they will get a reaction. How many Panchs are being killed in a day in Bihar or in other Naxal affected states? And if they (Army) are saying that the number of militants is increasing in the hinterland, may I ask, what are they doing on the borders?” Omar said. To negate the fast evolving image of Kashmir heading back to the chaos, he said there were only three deaths and 50 resignations ever since elections were held.
J&K’s Panchayati Raj minister, Ali Muhammad Sagar, told Kashmir Life that Omar had written to the security agencies to ensure safety of vulnerable representatives after assessing their level of threat. “I have personally visited a number of constituencies and interacted with them. This was not the right time to hold Block Development Council polls given the kind of violence that is taking place. But to dispel the fears of Panchayat members, we have announced the dates. The opposition is trying to create panic in the state,” he said.
As in any other state of India, the election to Panchayati Raj Institutions was a three tier process. Although the election to the first tier, Deh Majlis (known as Gram Sabha in India) was held last year, it took nearly 16 months for the government to announce the dates for holding second tier elections (notifications being issued on Oct 4 and the process to be completed by the first week of November) for constituting Block Development Councils. This will be followed by the formation of District Development Councils which will complete the process of creating the edifice to which powers will be transferred.
Historically, the participation of the rural population in elections has bolstered the political process in Kashmir valley which began in 1996 after a gap of seven years of Delhi’s remote rule when the violence broke out in Kashmir valley in early 90’s. This process flourished from 2002 onwards with a large turnout in assembly elections taking many political pundits by surprise. Interestingly, more than 60 percent voters belonged to rural areas which were ravaged in violence since the conflict erupted in Kashmir valley. But in big towns like Sopore and Baramulla, which have historically been bastions of separatist leaders, not more than 10 percent population participated in elections. The people of Srinagar city too stay away from elections. So when the first tier of Panchayat elections was held last year, there was a record 79 percent voter turnout. In the run up to these elections, the mainstream political parties had exhorted people to participate in these elections so that the elected Panchayat members bring redressal to their daily issues, something which was not mandated under the district plans of the state government.
“There were three opinions about the large-scale participation of people. Right from Chief Minister, Omar Abdullah to the Home Minister to Prime Minister, the massive public participation was projected as a victory of National Conference. For some people, it was a symbol of a new era of peace in Kashmir valley. Others used the numbers to project it as a verdict that the Kashmir problem didn’t exist. All were wrong,” senior PDP leader and former Deputy Chief Minister, Muzaffar Hussain Baig, told Kashmir Life.
For Panchayat bodies, the funds were allocated by the state government as well as the centre. The finance commission had recommended Rs 495 crore while the union rural development ministry allocates thousands of crores. “Till 2011, we lost Rs 300 crores since the Panchayat elections were not held. We went to the people and exhorted them to participate in the elections so that we could utilize those funds for their betterment. We had promised our people that they will not be dependent on funds from the state government to develop their areas. When the second and third tier elections were not held, the government of India didn’t release funds and our representatives became a joke in their constituencies,” Baig said. The immediate provocation for the large scale killings of Panchayat members seems the portrayal of the massive participation of people in Panchayat elections as a triumph of Indian democracy in Kashmir by the national media which invited backlash. Forget democracy, the elected Panchayat members were not even been able to deliver on the small promises of development they had made to the electorate.
The proposed devolution of powers to Panchayat members would have enabled them to work for the larger good of the people in their constituencies. “But it hit a dead end for two reasons. One, because the government didn’t want the Panchayat members to gain the sympathy of voters. Two, because the elected Panchayat members lacked the powers and the resources to deliver on their promises made them irrelevant players in governance. People started poking fun at them. Instead of delivering on the promises they had made, those elected in the first-tier elections were asked to act as attendance markers in various government departments, as if they were some kind of government spies” Baig said.
Congress state president, Prof Saif ud Din Soz had written a letter to Chief Minister seeking incorporation of the twin amendments. The letter was released to the media which didn’t go down well with Omar Abdullah. “If the issue was left unresolved in the two meetings of the coalition coordination committee, it would have been better that the communication on the issue should remain between the two individuals and not becoming a public document,” he said. Omar is opposed to the idea of implementing the twin amendments.
A senior official in the law ministry said the state has its own Panchayati Raj Law formed in 1989 and that there was no provision to adopt the amendments of Indian constitution since J&K has its own constitution. “There is nothing in 73rd or 74th amendment which is not contained in J&K’s Panchayat Raj law. If there was any apprehension about the provisions of our law, they should be rectified by amending our own law rather than applying amendments of the Indian constitution. There are some areas like reservations of seats which need to be addressed. This talk of adopting the amendments is all about playing politics,” he said. In fact, the state government has earlier amended the law which led to the formation of separate Election Commission and Finance Commission for Panchayat Raj institutions.
The state law, the officer said, is much stronger and better than the Panchayat related law of the parliament. “There is no concept of Panchayat adalat system in the central law while as it exists in J&K law,” the officer, who was speaking on the condition of anonymity, said. “The only difference is that the central law wants an elected Panch to head the District Development Council – the ultimate tier of the PRI, but the state law has the provision of a minister being nominated to this position with an elected Panch being a co-chairman.”
Interestingly, the lawmakers are resisting the devolution of powers to the PRI members fearing they will get neutralized as new gross root leaders are emerging with access to lot of funds and discretion to decide the priorities. Even chief minister Omar Abdullah admitted this phenomenon last week. “A lot of lawmakers including two ministers from the coalition met me suggesting that government should not give any authority to the elected Panchayats at the block level,”
Omar revealed in a crowded news conference. “(Despite that) we have already transferred powers of 14 departments.”
Surprisingly, now when the Panchayat members are being killed, no one from the electorate who had voted them to power has spoken out against their assassinations, “The common people have realized that the elections were just a farce. The elected members were not able to deliver on the promises they had made. The representatives have got alienated. This situation benefits the National Conference. Thousands of our people have resigned in north Kashmir which has been our stronghold. Why didn’t any elected representatives from Uri or Tangmarg or Sonawari resign? Our constituencies are being deliberately targeted. Sometimes I wonder whether these ‘militants’ are acting for Lashkar-e-Toiba or National Conference,” Baig said.
“I think the opposition has no issue to talk about and it is making an issue out of a no issue. Our government has made every effort to strengthen democracy in Kashmir and we will ensure that each Panchayat member is secured,” Sagar said. But securing 34, 000 elected representatives is a daunting task and it will invite deployment of more troops which will have its own consequences. The failure of J&K police to arrest the culprits involved in these assassinations has only worsened the situation. While the J&K police and the government maintain that there are only 100 active militants in Kashmir valley, the failure to protect the Panchayat members when the violence is at an all-time low has raised questions about the efficacy of the security grid and the credibility of such claims. When contacted, Inspector General of Police, Shiv Murari Sahai, said that only three Panchayat members had been killed, “We have issued a detailed statement on the progress made in these cases. Please go through it,” he said, and hung up the phone. “With a majority of our disenfranchised and disillusioned representatives resigning, National Conference will manipulate the voting process in coming elections. Many people say since elections are going to happen, efforts are being made to create a low-poll scene which has supported the National Conference historically. They are setting a dangerous precedent,” Baig said.
A couple of Panchs took the first flight to Delhi where they met the ‘heir apparent’ Rahul Gandhi. Though it did not turn out to be a Rahul versus Omar crisis but the credibility of the regime is slightly dented. The delegation, interestingly, has sought the adoption of twin amendments in the state law, security to more than 34000 elected members of PRI and a compensation of Rs 20 lakh to every elected Panch or Sarpanch who was assassinated.
Democracy, it seems, is taking a turn for the worse in Kashmir. Or is it?