On 24 August, the twentieth day of the Indian state’s siege in Kashmir, Rohit Kansal, the official spokesperson for the Jammu and Kashmir government, held a press briefing in the Valley’s garrisoned capital, Srinagar. “There has been an important decision taken regarding the elections to the block development councils as the next step towards operationalising and institutionalising the panchayat raj mechanism in the state,” Kansal said. With the Indian government showing no real indications of ending the crackdown in Kashmir, the proposal to hold BDC elections raises questions about its underlying motivations.
The election announcement comes in the backdrop of a catastrophic political rupture in Kashmir. On 5 August, the Indian government unilaterally de-operationalised Article 370 of the Constitution of India, which accorded a special status to the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. This decision was accompanied by a complete clamp down, which included the suspension of all means of telecommunication, a stringent curfew, and the deployment over 40,000 troops in Kashmir, in addition to the approximately 700,000 already present.
In the following weeks, news reports emerged that at least three people had been killed but Indian authorities were not issuing death certificates, and that over a hundred and fifty were injured by pellet shotguns and tear gas canisters. News reports also noted a drastic shortage of life-saving drugs across hospitals, though the government denied such claims. Rough estimates put the number of people who have been arrested at around 4,000, although this number could easily be far higher, considering that there is no proper record of arrests or detentions, especially where underage youth are being picked up. The arrested include the Kashmiri resistance leadership, pro-freedom activists and even the pro-India politicians in Kashmir.
In such an atmosphere, it took many by surprise when Rohit Kansal announced the BDC elections and their ongoing preparations. The BDCs are the second tier of local government under the Panchayati Raj system. The Jammu and Kashmir Panchayati Raj Act of 1989 prescribes panchayat elections every five years at three tiers—to the halqas, to the BDCs, and to the district development and planning boards. A halqa may comprise one village or a cluster of villages, and is governed by sarpanches and panches who are directly elected to the body. Members of the other two tiers, on the other hand, are indirectly elected by the members of the halqas.
On 3 September, a large delegation of sarpanches and panches, among others, met the home minister Amit Shah in Delhi to discuss the situation in Kashmir. These panchayat officials were among the members elected to power during the halqa panchayat elections conducted in November and December last year. The panchayat election had held little meaning because they were conducted despite a boycott, which resulted in minimal participation by voters and contestants alike. Yet, it also resulted in the election of public officials who are loyal to the Indian government—at their meeting with Shah, sarpanch after sarpanch reportedly described how they had been empowered after the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status. Last year’s elections also took place during the imposition of governor’s rule, and enabled the Indian state to promote the very conduct of an electoral exercise in Kashmir as democratic progress, with no regard to the circumstances in which they were conducted.