Poller Difference

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Polls for urban local bodies were held in 2005 and Panchayats’ in 2011. While the governor’s administration is keen to hold these polls, most of the political parties are unwilling to oblige. In this situation, can this exercise take place at all, asks Tasavur Mushtaq

Wailing relatives of slain sarpanch in North Kashmir’s Baramulla district.

Petrified Polls

Confined to the kitchen corner of her single storey house in Shopian, 72 year old Hajra Banoo looks around aimlessly. Hard of hearing, the ailing widow is hostile to talk. With blurred vision, wrinkled face and distorted denture, her eyes are moist and red. Her response mostly is a sigh and that too when she hears the name of her son, Ajaz Ahmad Bhat.

Bhat, 40, lost his life to a volley of bullets in the courtyard of his house in 2014. His family watched the death while sobbing silently.

In 2011, the family had festivities when Bhat was turbaned and taken in procession amid slogans. Then, he was elected as the Sarpanch after he defeated his rival. Watershed moment in the history of local elections in Jammu and Kashmir, 2011, witnessed the successful completion of the panchayat polls, nearly after four decades. Those were held in 16 rounds between April and June.

With a state-level average voter turnout of about 77.71 percent, the elections were held for 4130 sarpanchs and 29,719 panchs, out of which 9424 were women. The overwhelming number despite 2010 unrest in which 120 youth were killed, emerged as the new narrative for the unionists. The local municipal polls, however, were held 13 years ago in 2005. Kashmir has 47 municipal bodies including the 73-ward Srinagar Municipal Corporation (SMC). Jammu has 37 bodies including the 71-ward Jammu Municipal Corporation (JMC).

Down north, Gulzar Ahmad was jubilant to register a victory in his village in Baramulla. A primary school drop-out, he saw his victory as “vote for local development”. But the situation changed. Early 2012, he was heard on village Masjid loudspeaker, resigning from the post and seeking an apology. Reason? In the past week, two Sarpanchs had been killed in his district.

“The fear of my life and no support from the government was the reason for my resignation,” Gulzar, now in mid-50s, said. He was one of more than 700 who resigned.

“On one single day, there were 50 resignations published in our newspaper,” one manager in one major newspaper said.

The Announcement

It was Prime Minister Narendra Modi announcing in his August 15, 2018 speech from the Red Fort, the panchayat elections, within “next few months”. N N Vohra, the then governor, though personally not supportive of the idea, gave the exercise a time frame: urban local body polls in September-October and phased panchayat polls between October and December. His successor Satya Pal Malik sees it his first assignment.

Already over delayed, the panchayat polls were scheduled for 2016. Burhan Wani killing pushed it to 2017. Mehbooba government cancelled it though BJP was not on board.

Finally, Malik led State announced the final schedule.

The Retreat

Reiterating that the government will put in all “efforts” to conduct polls, governor Malik exhorted the people to come out and vote “for the betterment of people of the state.”

Accompanying Malik, NC president Dr Farooq Abdullah in his own style denounced militants and separatist leadership for boycott calls. He urged people to participate instead.

“They won’t let these polls take place as they don’t want peace to prevail in the Valley,” Dr Abdullah said. In appreciation, Malik said “Only Farooq Abdullah can say things, others remain silent about.”

Few days later, Farooq led NC boycott the same polls. Reason? Centre failed to take effective steps for protection of Article 35-A of the Constitution in the Supreme Court.

Farooq briefed media insisting the decision was taken in a “hurried manner” and without taking into consideration the prevailing situation, “created by the powers that are unnecessarily fiddling with Article 35-A.”

Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) followed the suit. “We will go to any extent to protect Article 35-A as people of the state had sacrificed a lot for it,” Mehbooba said. “How can we go to people and ask for votes when the sword of Article 35-A is dangling on our head. There is a sense of insecurity among people and therefore we have decided that our party will not contest the polls.”

However, the state bureaucracy boss, the chief secretary BVR Subrahmanyam reiterated that the government will go ahead with the elections as per the schedule. The thought process is that elections on non-party basis will save the show.

The Challenges

NC and PDP, two major regional parties have opted out of the contest. Separatists have reiterated the boycott. Militants have issued threats with acid. Will the grassroots exercise actually take place?

The government has constituted two committees to ensure smooth inter-departmental coordination to facilitate the elections.

Security situation, particularly in south Kashmir, is a major challenge. How to protect the contestants and then how to encourage voters to participate?

But the administration is keen to hold polls. With Dilbagh Singh as the next police chief, officials say, Centre has already deployed around 237 companies of Central Armed Police Force (CAPF).

This condition has added to the tensions. “It is their ego which wants them to conduct the elections. What will happen to those who will participate as candidates or voters,” asks a young leader of PDP and adds, “If the situation is really feasible, why they could not hold parliamentary election for the south Kashmir seat despite all the men and machinery.”

Even if the Sarpanchs and Panchs are elected, a police officer says, “How would be they able to connect with the people, when a policeman has been issued an advisory to visit home in case of emergency just for two hours and that too under security cover.”

The officer believes the situation on the ground has drastically changed from 2011 to 2018. “See we should accept 2018 is not 2008. We all know what happens in the valley and can anticipate the costs.

“We are caught in a mayhem; election in no way should be the priority now,” a south Kashmir politician said. “Life matters.”

Pertinently, in the by-elections for Srinagar in 2017, only seven percent voters cast their votes and seven killings took place.

The Regret

Ali Muhammad, 45, braved threats in 2011 and jumped the bandwagon. He won and wanted to work for the people. As 37 year old sarpanch, Mohammad Shafi Teli was killed at his doorstep in Nowpora, Ali was caught in the quagmire of life and death.

“We put ourselves to risk without any proper system of security, but we were made scapegoats,” Ali said, “The government does not care; our life is their number.”

As the figures suggest, 16 panchayat members have lost their lives since 2011 while over three dozen are reported to be injured.

Ali says, there was a role of lawmakers as well in their “intimidation.” “The MLAs had the sense of insecurity and there was a tussle that we are interfering in their matters,” Ali said. “That added to the crisis.” He said the entire exercise of Panchayat polls was turned into “a mockery” as no elections were held for second and third tier positions.”

Mumtaza laments the day she allowed her husband to enter into the process of elections. Few years after being elected as Sarpanch, he was shot dead outside Masjid. Since then, Mumtaza says, her life has become a “hell”. “My husband stood for the idea of democracy but after he was killed, nobody bothered to think about his family,” she said, insisting “this regret of not stopping him would go with me in my grave.”

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