Why the panchayat elections in Kashmir hold little meaning

The panchayat elections in Kashmir are scheduled to be conducted from 17 November to 11 December. Multiple former sarpanches said they would not contest elections again because during their tenure, they had to navigate threats of violence by militant organisations as well as deal with the government’s unwillingness to empower the panchayat institutions. Mukhtar Khan/AP
21 October, 2018

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.’”

The British government introduced the panchayat system in Jammu and Kashmir in 1935, over 50 years before the 73rd amendment to the Indian constitution introduced it formally in the rest of the country. At the time of its inception, the system was made not to promote an inclusive democracy but to use panchayats as an extended arm of the British government for judicial and civil administration.

Panchayat elections were last held, in accordance with the law, for all constituencies in the state in 1977. After that, due to the breakout of massive insurgency in the state, it was only in 2001 when the panchayat elections were conducted again, but the election was conducted through a secret ballot, as opposed to the hand-raising procedure followed during earlier polls. Many seats remained empty as militant attacks engulfed the region.

After a decade-long moratorium, halqa elections were held in 2011, from April to June. Despite threats of violence issued by militant organisations, the elections witnessed a massive voter turnout of 79 percent. The state government announced the schedule to conduct elections for the block development council, as well. However, these attempts to restore normalcy in the functioning of the panchayat institutions have failed.

After the 2011 elections, the sarpanches were regularly threatened by militant organisations. Many of them resigned and at least two of them were killed. Most panchayat offices were burnt down during the construction stage itself. The few offices that were constructed became canvases for people to exhibit their dissatisfaction with the government—among other things, they painted the walls with the name of Zakir Musa, the leader of a new militant group Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind and the flag of Pakistan. As various factions demanded reservation for women candidates and people from the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in the panchayat elections, the state government indefinitely postponed the elections for the block development council.

However, the locals I spoke to believe that there were ulterior motives behind the postponement. “It was only the interest of authorities that hindered further expansion of panchayat system and non-implementation of 73rd amendment,” Mohammad Aslam, a former sarpanch of the Wanigam Bala village in Baramula district, said. Aslam believes that the government does not want to let go of the control of the grassroots level in the insurgency-struck state. “If they had made it a three-tier system, then the power MLAs”—members of the legislative assembly—“exercised on the villagers, would rightfully get transferred to the local government.”

Ahmad, the sarpanch of Sangrama in Baramula district, echoed the same opinion. He said he was insulted by block development officers appointed by the state government and witnessed corruption while working for them. “Officers would order us to bring them cigarette packs for a signature we needed. I wondered whether this was the reward for my honesty and social service.”

While these elections are meant to empower local governments, the word “panchayat” invokes fear and despair for the former sarpanches. After the 2011 elections, the sarpanches were regularly threatened by militant organisations. Many resigned in the middle of their tenures and some were wounded or even killed. Abdul Rashid, a former sarpanch of Arshipora, a village in the Shopian district, was among those who resigned. When I asked him if he would contest in the forthcoming elections, he said he does not want to put his life at risk again. “I am working as a blacksmith and will continue with my profession. I think of my family, my five daughters and my son.”

In 2014, Ghulam Nabi Bedaar, the sarpanch of Hygam in Baramula district, was killed outside his home. His wife, Wazira Nabi, recalled, “Four masked men barged into our house that night and asked if we had any guests.They faked a search and frisking and took my husband with them.” A few minutes later, she and her daughters heard the sound of a gunshot. Soon after, Nabi’s body was found on the road outside his house. “Only Allah knows what we have gone through. We have been depressed since then.” His five daughters had to quit their studies after his death. “They fired one bullet but killed many,” one of them said. “We are living in hell after that incident.”

The panchayat elections were to be held in 2016 but after Burhan Wani—the former commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen—was killed in an encounter in July 2016, there were massive outbreaks and protests across the state. As a result, the elections were cancelled.

While the election schedule has been released, there are obstacles on multiple levels for the people of Jammu and Kashmir to have a functional local government. Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, the chairman of the Awami Action Committee, one of the two key factions of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, a coalition of social and religious groups that stands for Kashmiris’ right to self-determination, recently said in a Friday sermon,“We Kashmiri are not interested in any type of election may it be of municipal, panchayats or legislative.” Soon after the announcement on 16 September, an audio message by Reyaz Naikoo, the commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen started doing rounds on social media. He threatened those who contest elections will be attacked with acids and said, “Bring shrouds with you while filing nomination forms.”

“If a sarpanch is killed he is no one’s dear, he is just a civilian.” Ahmad said. He also criticised the government’s double standard in conducting panchayat elections amid threats of violence. Since 2015, the Lok Sabha seat for the Anantnag constituency has been vacant, after Mehbooba Mufti vacated the seat when she became the chief minister that year. The chief electoral officer has not clarified why they are holding panchayat elections this year and not the bypoll. Ahmad said, “A parliamentary seat is vacant from three years because [according to the government] the situation is not suitable for elections. Then how is the situation suitable for panchayat elections?”

According to Sheikh Showkat Hussain, the dean of the school of legal studies at the Central University of Kashmir, Srinagar, the government’s presumption is that they can engage with more number of voters through local elections. “They feel that they will create a group of people through these local bodies’ elections and through them they may be able to mobilize people for participation in a bigger election—it’s a prelude to the 2019 elections.”

In October, municipal elections were also held in the state after a gap of 13 years. The centre is also planning to give an insurance cover of Rs 10 lakh to each candidate participating in the local body elections in Jammu and Kashmir. In Kashmir, according to a report by the NDTV, of the 598 wards for municipal elections, 231 candidates were elected unopposed and there were no candidates in 181 wards. Moreover, the statewide voter turnout was also abysmally low—35.1 percent. Hussain said, “It symbolises the degree of alienation and that is more in countryside. They thought that they’ll be able to ensure a bigger turnout, but the reverse has happened.”