Sarpanches and panches in Kashmir want security after the killing of Ajay Pandita Bharti, reports Khalid Bashir Gura
The killing of the sarpanch Ajay Pandita Bharti, 40, on June 8 by the gunmen in Anantnag, has deepened fear and uncertainty among Kashmir’s panchayat members, more so in South Kashmir.
This has further impeded the work of grassroots level workers and confined them to their homes or forced them to seek refuge at places far away from their constituencies.
In less than a year, Bharti is the second Congress sarpanch to be killed by militants. On November 26 last year a sarpanch Syed Rafiq Ahmad from Hakura village was also killed during phase two of the Back to Village programme in the area.
After Bharti’s killing, the panches and sarpanches have revived and intensified their demand for adequate security.
In an old video that went viral after his killing, Bharti had expressed worries about the lack of security to panchayat members. “I want to ask Modiji and Amitji, why are the lives of sarpanches and panches so cheap?” Pandita had asked.
Many local body representatives have been put up in several hotels in Srinagar since 2018 autumn due to threat from militant groups. Last September, Home Minister Amit Shah had assured security and Rs 2 lakh life insurance cover to each panch and sarpanch but on ground security was never provided.
“As the Panchayat elections in Jammu and Kashmir were held in 2011 after a gap of 33 years, 19 of our panchayat members were killed since 2011,” said Anil Sharma, who is the president of All Jammu and Kashmir Panchayati Conference (AJKPC). “The situation is not normal and the administration needs to provide security to the elected members who are scared by the latest killing and mulling resignation.”
Sharma, however, said that he has not received any resignation from any sarpanch.
Recently, a video of an abducted woman sarpanch, Gulshan, 50, from Sopore, surfaced on social media, in which she was pleading for life and vowing that she will resign.
In the last panchayat elections held in December 2018, a total of 22,214 panches and 3,459 sarpanches were elected.
“The 2018 panchayat election was a very good initiative taken by Narendra Modi and we came forward to lend our support to it despite the threats and the vulnerable situation in Kashmir,” said one of the sarpanchs wishing to remain anonymous.
After Article 370 was abrogated, the security cover of many people, including sarpanches, was withdrawn. Even sarpanches who were elected during the 2018 elections have been made to stay in hotels, literally under lock and key.
“Repeated demands to provide security to sarpanches in their own villages are never taken seriously by the government, leading to more panic now,” said another sarpanch who is confined to his house.
At a press conference on June 16 IGP Kashmir Vijay Kumar assured security to the grassroots workers. He had urged all the vulnerable village headmen to come forward and seek police protection. But this hasn’t reassured panchayat members. “The killings induce fear among grass-root level workers and impact development works,” said national award-winning sarpanch from Kashmir Ghulam Ahmed Lone from Dardpora Zaloora (Baramulla). He is also vice-chairman block development council Tujar Sharief.
Lone has to travel miles without security cover for official work amidst hostile conditions.. The sarpanch has been demanding accommodation, security and vehicle for travel. “Without security, venturing out for work, to meet people is akin to risking one’s life,” he said.
Lone’s Panchayat received a national award as best performing Gram Panchayat in April 2020.
Shafiq Mir, Chairman of All J& K Panchayat Conference said that in the absence of other representative public institutions in Kashmir in times like these, the importance of grass-root level institutions has grown.”
“But it is the responsibility of government to create a sense of security. How can Panchayat members deliver when they will stay inside homes at some faraway place because of fear,” said Mir. “The objective they were chosen for dies the moment they leave the place they are supposed to serve.”
Aftab Ahmed Beigh a panchayat member from Gulmarg cries discrimination with the families of other panchayat members who were killed before Bharti. “The Pandit sarpanch’s family got ex-gratia of Rs 20 Lakh while the families of those who were killed before him are still scrambling for compensation and running from pillar to post and hardly got one lakh.” Beigh said. “We are being used like tissue papers. The administration has reduced us to cannon fodder, giving us no respect and no share in power”.
A year before Panchayat elections in 2018, Beigh recalls his meeting with Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, who assured them of empowerment, security and funds for development work. “The PM told us that he respects and understands our work as he himself has been a ground-level worker of his party,” Beigh said.