The grass roots democrats

The elections to the village councils and village heads have seen a diverse set of contestants. Kashmir Life profiles some of the elected and contesting panchayat candidates to bring to the light the leaders who are going to be entrusted with running the democracy at the grass roots level.

Experienced: Muhamamd Ramzan Lone
Muhamamd Ramzan Lone is abreast with political developments in his area as he has been a National Conference worker for long. He is one of the four sarpanch candidates for Bangil in Tangamarg in Baramulla district. Lone, who is in shawl business, is confident of his success in the elections scheduled for mid May.
Dressed in Khan suit, Lone an 8th pass is campaigning door to door spending hours daily with the villagers. He claims to have spent only Rs 1000 from his pocket on the elections.

“We will not run away from our villages like the ministers, we are here to solve their problems,” said Lone adding that his focus will be on improving civic amenities in the area.

Lone wants the impartial implementation of National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) in his area. “There is a lot of developmental work that could be taken up in our area and with this Act we can also generate employment for the unemployed youth here,” he feels.

He said his other priorities were to provide electricity and get proper roads built as he wants villagers to be a part of developmental activities.

Veiled: Maimoona, 40, Lasjan
Most of the people in her locality are stunned to know that she is contesting elections. “Is she contesting election? Really! Is she?” were the usual reactions. And enquiries for direction to her home were replied with brooding lips and I don’t knows.

Maimoona, 40, is one of the women contestants in the panchayat elections scheduled for May 17. Her opponents accuse her of being a PDP candidate, which is illegal as the elections are held on non-party basis.

The door at her home is locked and two socks are tied over it. On knocking at the door a women from an adjacent house looked through the window. “Maimoona has gone out,” she said without being asked anything. After few minutes, Maimoona arrived with a couple of other women; her face covered with her dupatta (scarf).

“I had gone to my son’s school. Every day I go to his school to serve him lunch in during the recess,” Maimoona said.

She untied the socks on the lock. The door opened into a narrow corridor having a room on its right. The cemented walls in the house are bereft of any paint.
Her husband, Fayaz Ahmed Thakur, is a carpenter while she works on a yarn spinning wheel. All of their three children are studying.

Maimoona has never been to school. “I went with my husband in the nearby school (which serves as a temporary election office), where we had to fill the forms, I do not know about the detail that we had to fill in it, I just put in my thumb mark on the papers,” she says.

Though she is not aware about the duties of a panch, she is confident about her win. “The family, my husband, in-laws and other people who forced me to contest elections made me to believe that I will surely win,” she shares.

About the responsibilities of a panch she says, “I am being told that it is no big deal, I (a panch) will just have to take care of roads, water and nothing else,” she concludes.

The Victim: Naseem Sofi
Thirty-nine year old Naseem Sofi of Sheikhpora village in Baramulla district runs a runs a Dhaba at Gulmarg. For years he wanted to build a house but could not any financial assistance from the government under Indra Awas Yojna (IAY) which he says, he was eligible for but was ignored by the officials.

Under IAY, the government provides financial assistance of Rs 50000 to poor and homeless families for constructing a house.

“I am a victim of a corruption. I’ve suffered a lot at the hands of influential and corrupt people. But now it is enough,” says Naseem, who successfully contest the sarpanch elections in his area. He wants to bring a change in his village.

Though having little formal education, Naseem talks like a seasoned politician and has a list prepared a list of things he wants to take up once the process of panchayat committees takes off.

Being a father of four daughters, he wants to put more emphasis on girls’ education. “Girls in our village are lagging behind in the domain of education.

I would like to bring change in this area,” he said. Naseem also wants the panchayat to oversee implementation of poverty alleviation schemes like MGNERGA and IAY. “I myself being the person from below poverty line group want to give a special attention towards the problems of this group,” says Naseem. “My Dhaba is running quite nicely this year but I am ready to bear the loss for the sake of the development of my village.”

Widow leader: Hafiza
A widow and a mother of seven – five daughters and two sons, Hafiza could not have imagined of joining politics. However, the 35-year-old illiterate, Scheduled Tribe (ST) home maker won the panch election uncontested in her Haknar village of Kangan area in Ganderbal district.

“I would call it (joining the poll fray) a twist of destiny. It was the villagers who made the decision and persuaded me to contest,” says Hafiza. “I did not have the heart to say no as that would have broken many hearts.”

With no source of income after her husband’s death, the entire village helped her to look after her large family.

The elections were considered a preserve of men and earlier there was little women’s representation but the 33 per cent reservation for women in the panchayat elections saw Hafiza and many other women join the fray.

“Panchayat elections are the best way to reach to the grass-root level,” she says.

These days she is busy in surveying the problems in the village and meeting the women in her constituency who approach her to discuss civic problems like potable water and electricity. She intends to raise these problems with the block development office.

“I make it sure to keep a balance between my work (as a panch) and a mother,” she says sitting outside her tin-roofed house, seated on a plastic chair next to a primitive toilet.

Grandma: Haleema Akhtar, 60
Haleema’s husband was a numberdaar. After his death, their son became the numberdaar. The people of the area have good remarks for the family, especially of her husband, Abdul Karim Wani.

In a small room with low ceiling and a television placed just besides the door, Haleema is sitting in her bed with her left leg plastered for last three months.

“Yesterday two cars filled with people came to my door and literally pleaded me to contest elections because they are having good regard of my husband,” she says. She can’t read or write but says, “I am educated enough to feel the difference between good and bad. I am well-qualified to take decision for betterment of the society.”

The 60-year-old mother of five elderly woman is confident of her win in the panchayat elections. “I think they stand nowhere in the race because I am being chosen by the people themselves and they will not like me to lose,” she claims. She believes that she will give her 100 per cent to her job and will do a better job than the higher ranked political leaders. “Ministers have contested election for the betterment of their family now it is our (people’s) turn, we’ll give it a shot”, she said.

The businessman: Hamidullah Dar, Kakawthal
After winning sarpanch elections by a huge margin of 349 votes Hamidullah Dar of Kakawthal, Kreeri in Baramulla district, plans to bring some major changes in his village. He is promising the people an environment “free of fear and harassment” besides giving assurances of employment to the youth.

“People have great faith in me that is why they have for voted for me. I will work for them like a social worker,” says Dar.

Dar has been working for the betterment of the village for years. He claims to have successfully fought for getting a ration depot in his village. He is now planning to work for the progress of the youth. “My focus is the youth of my area. I will ask the government to establish small scale industrial units in my area so that the young illiterate youth may get adjusted in such units,” he said.

Dar rues that paramilitary forces and army are harassing the youth in the area. “It is my top priority to eliminate the fear of the army among the youth. I will restore the trust that troops have lost over the last few decades,” says Dar “I have a genuine faith in constitution of India that is why I have contested this election.”

The 42-year-old businessman runs a tour and travel agency in Srinagar, where he spends most of his time. However, he says that his business wouldn’t be a hinderance in fulfilling his responsibilities as a Sarpanch.

Shopkeeper: Shabir Ahmed Bhat, Haknar
Shabir Ahmed Bhat, 30, is a shopkeeper. He won the sarpanch election by 167 votes in Fraw-Haknar village, some 55 kilometres from Srinagar in Kangan tehsil of Ganderbal district.

He passed secondary school is a matriculate but had to quit studies after that due to family problems. “My village is too remote, has never seen much of development work. We are backward in each sense,” he says.

“We have electricity problems, no bridges, roads, healthcare and drinking water.”Shabir wants to fight for the right of his villagers and provide villagers with all the day-to-day facilities. “Earlier almost all the sarpanchs were illiterate. Although, I am a little educated but I know how a good sarpanch can help to identify the problems in a village and look for best possible solutions,” he says.

The young sarpanch feels that the youth cannot give up without trying and “to improve the system, more effective and efficient people need to join it. “I have prepared a list of problems of my village which needs immediate solution. We cannot compromise either on developmental or political issues in Kashmir,” Shabir says. “Our youth should come forward and try to bridge the gap. We need knowledge, creativity and energy of our youth to shape our state”.

Seeking a job: Naseema Ahad
Naseema Ahad is lucky. She won panch election uncontested from the Burzalla village ward in Waripora Halka in Kunzer, reserved for woman. Until now she was just a home maker with no formal education.

She does not know how the panchayat set up works. Naseema says she has heard that panchayts are meant to do developmental activities. But she wants to “do some good work for the poor people in her area”.

Nasema hails from a poor family has four children. “As a panch I will earn for my family,” says Naeema though she is not aware if she will get some honorarium after taking this job.

Nasema feels that there is a threat in the job, but blames the locals, not happy with her candidature, for fanning rumors about militant threats.

Her husband, a farmer, is highly supportive of her joining the poll fray. “She will have the power and it is her right to exercise it,” he says.

She is cautious talking about her political affiliations as the elections are being held on non-party basis.

Naseema says her first job will be to push for access to potable water as women in their area.

The Graduate: Mehraj-ud-din 30
He would have made any other career, but Meraj-ud-din in his early thirties had other thoughts about his future. Contesting against some of the politically affluent men in his Anderhama Drugmulla village of the frontier district Kupwara, he won the sarpanch seat with a margin of 72 votes.

Claiming that most of his opponent contestants had backing of different political parties, “Anyone having political intentions will be into the fray”.

Mehraj-ud-din feels that the ultimate aim is the development of the village. “In this type of the government (village councils) you are closer to your society,” he says adding that the best way to start a career (in politics) was to work from the grass roots.

Acknowledging that politics has become murky, Mehraj says, “Politics in itself is not bad but inclusion of people with vested interests has earned it a bad name.”

After completing his graduation he could have got a government job in the educationally backward district but he chose politics. “A person should be of revolutionary ideology. If one remains confined to himself without caring for others then how will one differentiate between an animal and a human being,” he says.

Too optimistic about the development of his village, he feels, his move will surely help for the upliftment of his village, while frequently referring to social worker Anna Hazari’s village of Felegan Siddi in Maharashtra.

Asha: Jawahira Nisar
She is educationally the most qualified contestant in her constituency. She is 10th pass. She has been an Asha worker (a low level health worker), a job that fetches her a few hundred rupees a month. She says she is content with her job.

She claims to have been motivated by family members and neighbours to fight the electiona. “I had no intention to be among the panchs but family and friends insisted. Then I thought if I can be of any good to my people, there can be no other better opportunity than this,” says Jawahira.

Her husband, Nisar Ahmed Dar, is a businessman. She has five children- three daughters and two sons.  Water scarcity, bad roads and electricity problems are few issues that Jawahira is planning to work on if elected.  “As far as I think I have good chances of winning because people in the area know me well, they think good about me otherwise they would not have insisted me to join the fray,” she says.

However, she says that if her job of an Asha worker gets affected after being a panch she will resign. Popular Peasant: Ghulam Mohammed Malik Lolab Under the lap of lush green forests is a small village Kanthpora Lolab, Ghulam Mohammed Malik has been elected as the sarpanch. He is a peasant. His son who too is a farmer, says that people have placed their trust on him. “I know that I am the servant of the people and I will carry out my duties religiously,” Ghulam Mohammed says. Kanthpora is cut from the rest of the Lolab by a river without a bridge.

Tailor made leader: Bashir Ahmed Mir,Budina
A carpet-weaver-turned-tailor, Bashir Ahmad Mir is all set to look after the development works of Budina Halqa of Mirgund area in Budgam district. In his early forties, Bashir contested the panchayat polls and defeating experienced candidates. He won by a margin of 24 votes from his nearest rival.

“I was not interested in these elections. The young people of my village insisted me to contest the polls,” he claimed.

Bashir has been an active participant in the social work of his Paller village. He heads the local Taeziet Committee, which helps in performing the last rituals of the deceased. The committee also raises funds for the very poor of the village.

The father of three has already made his mind to take the village forward in the development works.

“We will try to solve the basic problems of water, electricity and schools,” the sarpanch said.

Bashir belongs to a poor family and lives in a mud-brick house, while most of the houses in the locality are more recent concrete constructions. “They all build their houses after selling their lands,” he says.

A local resident said that the sarpanch has “received threatening calls” but Bashir refuded to talk about it.

Mir claims to have studied up to 5th standard but cannot read or write. “I studied up to primary, but I am not able to do anything with the letters.” What makes him happy is the ability to mark his signature rather than a thumb impression.

The dreamer: Mushtaq Ahmad Doie
Some people are not interested in politics but negligence by politicians force them into it. The people of village Tangmarg Ahrabal narrate such a story. “We have to do something ourselves. So, we will represent our candidate who can help us get the basic necessities of life,” said a group of people sitting on shop-fronts as they discussed the importance of having their own candidate for the panchayat elections.

Their candidate is Mushtaq Ahmad Doie, a young Gojri-speaking man representing his tribe, from a village without bijli, sadak or pani.

He can’t read or write. He uses his thumb impression for signatures. But that does not stop him from dreaming, his spirit of doing the impossible writ large on his face.

Mushtaq wants a school in the village. People must have jobs, he says. Repairing of streets, support in agriculture, implementation of IAY schemes and sanctioning of a Primary Health Centre in the village are other demands of Mushtaq.

Power panch: Sadiq Mir, Sabden
Fitness coach Sadiq Mir belongs to a somewhat prosperous family. Since childhood his passion has been body building. Mir is ready the pull the string of development with the same might he pulled a tipper before a huge gathering at Poloview when he was at the pinnacle of his bodybuilding. He used to make several rounds of a soccer size ground with heavy bag tied to his jaw.

Mir completed graduation in arts subjects from Amar Singh College after passing 12th with science. Soon after graduating, Mir got a job in police thus fulfilling his other childhood dream. But it didn’t take him too long to leave the job.

His family is into wholesale and retail medicine business. The 35-year-old gym master won the panchayat polls from sabden area.

People of safden as well as the newly elected Sarpanch have lots of complaints about the negligence of the area by the local politicians. “We have been always neglected by the politicians. They exploited us every time they wished,” he said.

The heavily build tall, Sadiq has made up his mind to strive for the basic amenities.

His election may seem surprising to many but he attributes it to the good reputation of his family. “We are considered to be the noblest and humble family in the whole of village and that brought me the victory at the polls,” he said. A tragedy had fallen upon the family when his father was killed by his neighbor in 2008. He was hit by a brick on his head.

“Everybody ditched us even police and the politicians” his brother said. “We were made to compromise with the accused but the FIR lodged against us was not taken back.”   Though his simple manners brought him the responsibility of a village head but his ambitions are sure to take him a long way, commented a relative.

The Contractor: Shabir Ahmad Bhat, 34
He thinks it’s a sacred duty to fight for the basic rights of a common man. Shabir, born in a middle class family, is educated and optimistic. A contestant in the polls in his village Avaind, near Shopian, Shabir wants to provide government-subsidized schemes to all unemployed youth of his village and create self-help groups. “I wish to see the youth of my village stand on their own feet,” says Shabir Ahmad. He says: “A shabby road leads to our village, the streets always remain muddy, there’s no proper drinking water supply, no school buildings and little electricity.”

Forester: Abdul Kareem Doie
He is fed up with the current ground-level workers, who, according to him, have only exploited the poor and ignorant. So he decided to contest the Panchayat elections to fight for their basic rights.

Retired forester, Abdul Kareem Doie of Tangmarg, has joined the poll fray. He believes that the government works only on papers.
Three of his sons sitting around him say that they do not like politics. “But we do not want a greedy man to represent our village leaving everybody to suffer.”

“People were provided job cards by the NREGA department, but they were not given the jobs,” says one of them.

Since Kareem’s is the only literate family in the village, he considered it his moral duty to take the responsibility.

Kareem’s first demand will be the Sub-Tribal Plan for his village. He has promised to fight for old-age pension and widow fund.

Having the drive: Mudasir Ahmad Wagay
Mudasir was busy cleaning the window panes of his load carrier and at the same negotiating the fare with a customer. He is a contestant in the Panchayat polls from his Chodrigund, a village six kilometers from Shopian. His formal education is up to 8th standard.

“This (contesting elections) was the only choice left to me to serve my village,” he says.

He is expecting an easy win with a support of local Pandit villagers. Pandits in the village never migrated from Kashmir even when most of their community chose to leave Kashmir.

He says he can serve the village better than anyone else. He hopes that he can lessen the miseries of his fellow villagers.

Mudasir, who hails from a farmer family, aspires to see his village streets and footpaths cemented and evenings with glowing electricity bulbs. He does not have other ambitions for his village.

(Reporting by Faisal Rashid, Syed Asma, Mohmin Ahmed, Aliya Bashir, Shafath Hussain, Mir Iqbal, and Nazir Ahmed Rather)

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Syed Asma completed her masters in journalism from the Islamic University, Awantipore, in 2010. After working with Greater Kashmir and Kashmir Times, she joined Kashmir Life in February 2011. She covered politics, society, gender issues and the environment. In 2016, she left journalism to pursue her M Phil from the University of Kashmir. She is presently pursuing PhD.

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