Grassroots democracy in Kashmir faces threat

Local-body representatives put in papers amid militant attacks

GN Bureau | January 16, 2013



People of Jammu and Kashmir used to have 93 representatives (six MPs and 87 MLAs) till about a couple of years ago. Then panchayat elections were held in 2011, in which people of the restive border state took part with high hopes and there came up more than 33,000 elected representatives, giving people the real test of democracy. Unlike those 93, these people, 4,125 sarpanchs and about 29,000 panchs are available right in the village whom people can approach for any governance matters.

This deepening of democracy is the most effective and long-term solution to militancy, empowering people and letting them decide for themselves the matters of ground-level governance. Militancy was bound to hit back. So, terrorists targeted several elected representatives last year, triggering a wave of resignations from others. That episode is being replayed in January.

On January 11, a sarpanch named Habibullah Mir was shot dead in Bomai village in north Kashmir's Sopore town. The next day, a 45-year-old woman panch named Zoona Begum at Hardshiva, near Sopore, was killed. This took the toll of slain panchayat members to six in two years.

On the third day, Sunday, 20 panchayat members from various parts of the valley resigned, and by Monday over 100 elected representatives decided to call it a day, preferring to save their lives. Apart from sending their resignation formally to the rural development department of the state government, those quitting also put out advertisements in local Urdu newspapers to announce their decision. Over the past one year or so, about 900 representatives have resigned.

A typical advertisement would say: "I [name] am resigning from the post of panch [or sarpanch] on personal grounds. From today, I will have no connection with any political party or panchayati system. This is for the information of all."

An apex body of the elected panchayat members, the All Jammu and Kashmir Panchayat Conference (AJKPC), has been demanding security for them and has blamed the state government for the spate of killings. It has also demanded chief minister Omar Abdullah’s resignation if he failed to provide them security.

Abdullah on Sunday reviewed the situation in a meeting with security officers and assured panchayat members of safety. On Monday, he tried to keep up a brave face and said that the rural development department had received only 50 resignations, "but they were not accepted". However, officials said the same day that they had received 40 more resignations from Baramulla district.

Abdullah maintained, “Despite the threats, panchayat members are firm on ground to serve people and fulfil their objective of mitigating their difficulties.” Addressing district-level government functionaries from Jammu division representing 14 departments under which functions and powers have been transferred to panchayat institutions, the chief minister admitted that panchayat members in some areas had security concerns. “The government is with you at all levels and our commitment for an empowered panchayati raj system is firm and final.”

However, in the aftermath of the latest killings, if the state – and also the centre – wants to the panchayati raj system to be effective on the ground and work as counterfoil to militancy, the authorities will have to devise a detailed plan to provide foolproof security to panches and sarpanches who can then devote themselves to addressing people’s issues. Unlike the members of the assembly or parliament, these local leaders get no perks and privileges, no quarters and no security. It is time to secure and nurture the village-level governance delivery systems (and people who run them) which has the best remedy against militancy in the long run.

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