The Poll Migrants

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Elected to the basic tyre of village development in an abysmally low participated election, most of the new lords and ladies of village politics are housed in secured hotels with questionable facilities in the prevailing harsh winter. But for Muhammad Younis, they all had their stories to share

PM Modi meets newly elected Sarpanches of J&K on December 19, 2018.

Away from his home, Ghulam Ahmad Lone is living in a secured hotel in Srinagar’s Rajbagh along with his family. His migration is the outcome of his participation in the recently held Panchayat elections that made him a Sarpanch and his wife, Khatuni Begam, a panch. This elevation has inherent risks.

With the announcement of Panchayat elections, rebels issued threats thus adding to their security threats. Hurriyat reiterated the boycott call. Frightened, some candidates who had submitted their nominations, withdrew. National Conference and People’s Democratic Party, two main regional parties, also stayed away, apparently seeking protection to Article 35A.

But Panchayat elections were still held and the candidates were elected despite abysmal participation. South Kashmir recorded eight per cent participation unlike Central Kashmir and North Kashmir that recorded 46.3 per cent and 51.1 per cent, respectively.

The detailed data that has started coming out suggest only 30 per cent panchayat halqas in Kashmir saw polling. Of the 2,135 halqas in Kashmir, no candidate stood for competition in 708 and remained vacant. In 699 halqas each had a single candidate who won unopposed. So 1,407 halqas saw no contest. Of the total 17,059 panch wards in the Valley, only 1,656 saw a contest. Nearly 64 per cent wards had no candidate. The number of wards where the candidates were elected unopposed was 4,537.

Lone was one of these independent candidates, who was elected unopposed as a Sarpanch of Dardpora Zalora B Block, and his wife, Khatuni Begam, a panch from a reserved lady ward number 2 Panchayat halqa Pahlipora. This falls in hyper-sensitive Sopore. This is Lone’s second stint as Sarpanch. Earlier, he served on this position between 2011 and 2016.

It is not Lone’s current status but his background that makes him interesting. Until the militancy broke out in Kashmir, he was a Congressman. By late 1989, when he saw youth crossing the Line of Control (LoC), he also joined a group of around 60 people. After infiltrating back, post-training, he lived as a militant for more than two years up to 1992 as Tehreek Jihad Islami (TJI) member.

One day, he was caught in an encounter and lost his right arm as his left jaw was totally damaged. For the series of surgeries and medication, he had to sell a dozen kanals of his land, which brought the finances of the family to the lowest. Somehow, the family fought odds and survived.

One incident, Lone said, “broke my back” when in 1994, long after he had given up the gun, his only son, then studying in the tenth standard, went missing. Later, from various sources, he got to learn that his son had wanted to go across the border, but couldn’t make it and was killed.

From 1994 onwards, Lone lived like a gipsy, occasionally landing in police lock-ups despite being handicapped. He was accused of possessing ammunition and harbouring militants. In different jails of the state, he said he was tortured and even given electric shocks. With an intention to eschew any further inconvenience to him and his family, consisting of his wife and two daughters, he decided to contest Panchayat elections in 2011.

“I had lost everything, now I wanted to contribute my bit to the society, and to be a sort of help to those who had suffered like me,” said Lone.

After the 2011 Panchayat bodies completed their term, Lone said he didn’t want to contest another election. Reason: they were bereft of any power and meanwhile their life was at stake. But it was the government’s promise for empowering the local bodies that he changed his decision. Lone said that they got information that the State was all set to have three-tier Panchayati Raj System after the conduct of elections with plans afoot to hold polls to Block Development Councils followed by District Planning and Development Boards (DPDBs) to strengthen democracy at the grass root level.

“By empowering us, we would be able to provide relief to the common masses in a real sense,” Lone said. “It would also help us to end the political and bureaucratic interferences pertaining to the developmental works.”

The regret Lone has about the system is that the honorarium for the elected panchs and sarpanches is too low. “It is Rs 2500. Is not it ridiculous?” asks Lone. “How could we manage our works with such an amount? This is not even sufficient for our phone recharge.” He says the government owes him and other sarpanches Rs 42000 each of 21 months of their last tenure.

Lone was part of a 48 member delegation of recently elected Sarpanchs who met with Prime Minister Narender Modi on December 19. There, they requested Modi for enhancing their honorarium – Rs 25,000 for Sarpanches and Rs 10,000 for Panches. Prime Minister did issue a statement, praising their “courage” and assuring them they will be supported for making the Panchayati Raj a success.

Another associate of Lone in the delegation, Yar Mohammed Pushwal was elected as Sarpanch for the second time from Pulwama’s Sonabanjar Block Achogoza Rajpora. The accommodation Pushwal is putting up at is “not spacious enough”. Before the elections, Pushwal said they were promised a safe and spacious accommodation, but now it seems it was deception.

“For me and my family, the government has provided us just one room and a washing room; it is hard to manage with this, particularly during these harsh winters,” Pushwal said. “We had to purchase the basic household items including blankets and utensils which were supposed to be provided by the government.”

A couple of times, Pushwal has visited home but remains apprehensive. “We took great risk in fighting these elections. For that kind of risk is Rs 1000 stipend enough? How are we to save ourselves, our families, and also solve the problems of our villages with that kind of salary?” he asked.

A member of a Gujar Bakarwal Committee, Pushwal, 28, believes that his people put their trust in him for the second time. “We belong to a mountainous area; there is no one who provides ears to our miseries, and for that same reason, I have come forward.”

Bashir Ahmad Bhat, a widower, was elected as a Sarpanch from Pombay (Kulgam). He was first elected to the post in 2001. In 2011 elections, he was defeated. But in 2018, he regained his position. Before shifting to a hotel in Srinagar, he resided in a government housing colony Islamabad to avoid any kind of danger from militants. “There is only one militant active from my place, but more than him, I have apprehensions from my opponents,” Bhat said. “Four boys affiliated with my opponents were detained by police in militancy-related issues and three of them have been released already.”

Bhat said he considers his work nothing but a noble endeavour. “I have no one at my family; I am alone. The only purpose of my life is to work for my people, and that would be my Jihad. We need the government’s support. They must hike our salary and make sure that the places we live at are safe and spacious.”

On one side, where a majority of the elected Panchs and Sarpanchs express concerns about their remuneration and accommodation, Muhammad Abdullah Mir from Kupwara’s Trehgam, on the other, has a different story.

“I’m not saying that Rs 2500 or Rs 1000 is a good amount for us as a salary, rather I would say it is mere mocking, but all of us were well aware of it before our election,” Mir said. “If it wasn’t satisfactory, we shouldn’t have gone for it in the first place.”

Mir, 50, is a science graduate from Degree College Sopore. For about 25 years, he has been teaching and also operated his own school for two decades. It is his second time after 2011 as a Sarpanch. Mir said that joining Panchayat has brought no material benefit to him, rather he had to suffer losses only, but the spirit to serve his people has made him determinant. “To be frank enough, before coming to this field, I had 400 students pursuing their studies in my school, now I have only 70, all because the time I was supposed to give to my school was spent in the Panchayat works of my area,” Mir said.

Mir didn’t feel any need to leave his house and live somewhere else, because he didn’t receive any threat. “When I have promised my people for work, I have no other option but to live with them. And for how much time would you stay outside? One day, you have to come back.” He neither campaigned nor put any extra effort, still, people choose him. He got 243 votes, 39 more than his opponent.

Apart from that, he said, he had his track record transparently well and always shared friendly relations with others that made his election sure again. “I didn’t do any serious campaigning like my opponent, who worked rigorously for one and a half month before the elections,” Mir added that despite the fact that many people, who were supposed to vote for him, didn’t cast their vote, still he got 243 votes, which were 39 more than his opponent.

Mir is of the belief that to go for a Panchayat election has been somewhat of a compulsion for him. He said that the Indian government were to hold the elections anyhow, “whether we threw ourselves in the contest or not. If I hadn’t been there, someone other would have, and maybe he wouldn’t have been sincere enough with my people then.”

Sharing an example after the dismantling of Panchayat in 2016, he said that 29 lakh rupees that were allocated for MNREGA works in his area did benefit only six people of a particular party, and no one was there to question them. “It is these things that make you take an extreme step, a step which puts your life at stake.”

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