In September 2018, the chief electoral officer of Jammu and Kashmir declared that municipal and panchayat elections will be conducted in the state this year. The municipal elections were conducted from 8 October to 16 October and the panchayat elections are scheduled to be conducted from 17 November to 11 December. Shortly after the announcement, I met Khalida Begum, who served as the last sarpanch of Wagub in the state’s Baramula district from 2011 till 2016. She was not contesting in the upcoming elections. “I think hardly anyone will come to vote for me [now] because I was not allowed to match their expectations.” Begum said she was discouraged to perform her duties by government officials—every time she visited their offices, they ignored her applications and queries. “I never got the support I needed.”
According to the Jammu and Kashmir Panchayati Raj Act, 1989, panchayat elections are to be conducted in the state every five years for three tiers—at the halqa level, the block development council and the district development and planning boards. A halqa is an area comprising a village or such contiguous number of villages as determined by the government. The sarpanches and panches of a halqa are directly elected and the members of the other two tiers are indirectly elected by those elected to the halqa.
Irfan Hafeez, a 38-year-old social activist and lawyer, said, “I don’t call it panchayat system because only one tier of it actually exists.” After the last statewide panchayat elections, in 2011, only the halqa panchayats were operational. The elections for the block development council and the district development and planning boards were postponed indefinitely.
In addition to the three-tier system, the act also stipulates a panchayat adalat—a local court headed by five members indirectly elected by the halqa electorate—for each halqa. Lone said, “Panchayati Adalats are an essential part of panchayati raj system and even on this count, the government failed miserably.”
In September, I met four former sarpanches of halqa panchayats, each of whom served in the state from 2011 to 2016. Each of them complained of the inefficiency of the panchayat system. During their tenure, they told me, they had to navigate threats of violence by militant organisations and deal with the government’s unwillingness to empower the panchayat institutions. Nisar Ahmad, who served as a sarpanch of Sangrama village, said, “Government officials never treated us as representatives of people. Rather, we were treated as dogs.” Simultaneously, they also had to face the wrath of a citizenry that resents the Indian government for its excesses in counter-insurgency operations.“Our own people branded us as ‘gaddaars.’”