Boycotts and violence threaten Kashmir local elections

Boycotts and violence threaten Kashmir local elections
7 min read
05 October, 2018
In-depth: The polls for ULB and Panchayat is due to commence from October 8, but with a fragile security situation, locals think it will be impossible.
Indian authorities imposed a curfew in Kashmir ahead of local elections [Getty]
A day after the Election Commission of India announced the poll dates for Urban Local Bodies (ULB) and Panchayats on September 15 in Indian Kashmir, two Panchayat houses in the districts of Pulwama and Shopian, south Kashmir, were set ablaze by unknown arsonists over night.  

Panchayat or municipal governance refers to the system of local self-government in India, which was introduced by a constitutional amendment in 1992.

Panchayat houses are the offices of the village head (Sarpanch) elected by the locals via Panchayat polls. The polls for ULB and Panchayat will commence from October 8 for the term of next five years.

For past two weeks at least eight attempts of arson have been made on the Panchayat houses in central and south Kashmir. The southern part of Kashmir has remained volatile for more than two years after the death of infamous militant commander, Burhan Wani on July 7, 2016.

Since then there have been regular encounters between security forces and militants. The latter have killed local policemen to avenge their colleagues' deaths. 

Read also: Kashmir: Where guns empty mothers' laps

The last Panchayat elections were held in the year 2011 for 4,130 Sarpanch and 29,719 Panch constituencies in Jammu and Kashmir.

These polls were held after nearly four decades in which 80 percent of the people voted despite unrest a year earlier in 2010.

However, the situation changed rapidly since then when many Panchayat members begun to be targeted by unknown gunmen.

Since then, as per media reports, at least 16 Panchayat members had lost their lives until 2016. When the term of these Panchayat members ended in 2016, the government could not hold fresh polls due to anti-India protests and violence in South Kashmir.

"People elected me for developmental work, but since then their mood has changed in south Kashmir. The former Panchayat members like me are looked down by our fellow villagers," Farooq Ahmad, a former Panhayat member told The New Arab.

"Also, there was persistent violence in this part of Kashmir and I would not like to contest the upcoming polls in this chaotic environment," he added.

There was persistent violence in this part of Kashmir and I would not like to contest the upcoming polls in this chaotic environment

In 2017, when authorities held elections for a Parliamentary seat in Srinagar, the low voter turnout of around eight percent was recorded and eight people were killed in the clashes between locals and security forces on the poll day.
That set scepticism for both the administration and locals for any election activity. As a result, election for another parliamentary seat in Anantnag constituency was deferred and the seat remains vacant.

While the government faces security challenges in upcoming polls, it faces another challenge from regional political parties, National Conference (NC) and People's Democratic Party (PDP), which have announced a boycott of the polls.

They have accused the Indian government of not doing enough to protect Article 35A of the Indian Constitution, a provision that gives special rights and privileges to the citizens of Jammu and Kashmir. It also bars people from outside the state from acquiring any immovable property, government jobs and scholarships in the state.

The Article is part of a historical pact between Kashmir and India allowing the state a special status in India. During the time of accession, it was agreed that the state would be endowed with such status.

Read also: Blinded in Kashmir: Scores of women injured by India's counter-insurgency crackdown

Several petitions in the Indian Supreme Court have challenged this provision and a case in this regard is pending before the court. However, the hearing has been deferred till conclusion of the polls and is scheduled for January next year.

Two mainstream parties of Kashmir

PDP is one of the main political parties of Jammu and Kashmir. It was known as a soft separatist party in the media due to its support for moderate separatism advocating self-rule and autonomy in the disputed region.

The former Union Home Minister in Indian government, Mufti Mohammad Syed, founded the party in the year 1988. His daughter, Mehbooba Mufti took charge as party president after his death in 2016.

In Mufti's tenure as Chief Minister of the state, Kashmir was rocked with anti-India protests for five months in 2016. Nearly 100 people were killed in confrontations with Indian and local security forces.

NC is another political party in Kashmir, which was founded by Sheikh Abdullah as the 'All Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference' in 1932 but later in 1939 it became 'National Conference' to represent not only Muslims of the state but also people from diverse religions.

The NC ruled Jammu and Kashmir from 1947 till 2002, and then again from 2009 to 2015. However, the party also faced the wrath of the people in 2010 over the fake encounter case involving the Indian security forces in North Kashmir.

A series of protests resulted in more deaths and triggered violent protests.

Opposition to the polls

The polls are getting opposition from all sides, including separatist leaders, militants and mainstream political parties.

NC was the first party to oppose the polls. NC president, Farooq Abdullah said: "How can we go to our workers and ask them to come out to vote? First do justice to us and clear your (Centre) stand (on Article 35A). If your plan is that (weakening Jammu and Kashmir's special position), then our ways are separate. Then we cannot have elections. Not only these (urban local bodies and panchayat) polls, but we will also boycott the assembly and parliamentary elections then."

Later PDP also joined the boycott of the upcoming polls. While talking to reporters in Srinagar, Mehbooba Mufti, party president and former Chief Minister said: "The situation created by linking local body elections to the case pending in the Supreme Court regarding Article 35A has led to serious apprehensions in the minds of people… Looking at this situation we have decided to stay away from this process."

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) too has joined the NC and PDP in staying away from polls. Slamming the Centre for going ahead with the elections despite opposition from mainstream parties in the state, the CPI (M) said it showed the "arrogance" of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Union government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

While talking to The New Arab a senior party leader and former Member of the Legislative Assembly, Mohammad Yusuf Tarigami said: "We too want good governance at the grassroots level, but the Panchayti Raj system was never empowered in our state.

"Secondly there are flaws in the announcement of the polls currently when people are not in a mood to vote, as participation is very essential in local governance. Also, there is case of Article 35A pending before the Supreme Court and central government has so far done nothing to defend this constitutional provision but linked the local elections with it." 

Poll boycott

Separatist leaders and militant organisations too have urged people to boycott the upcoming polls.

Hizbul Mujaheedin chief commander Riyaz Naikoo has warned people against taking part in the upcoming Panchayat elections in the state.

In a video Reyaz said: "Bring shrouds along with election forms." However, The New Arab cannot verify the 12-minute video clip, currently going viral on social media.

"We have brought hydrochloric and sulphuric acid for people who are planning to contest in the elections," Riyaz claimed in the video. 

We have brought hydrochloric and sulphuric acid for people who are planning to contest in the elections

The Director General of Police, Dilbag Singh, ordered top police officers of Kashmir to chalk out fool proof security arrangements on September 12 for conduct of the Panchayat and local body elections in Jammu and Kashmir.

Amid this fragile security situation when threats are coming from the insurgents and the boycott of the mainstream political parties, locals think that it will be impossible to hold these polls.

But there are a few who are optimistic for a revolution by the local governance and believe that people should participate in the polls.

"This boycott is aimed at gaining sympathy from people on ground to create a good environment for them for the assembly elections," Bashir Ahmad, General Secretary, Jammu and Kashmir Awami Raj Movement, an autonomous body of former Panchs and Sarpanchs told The New Arab. 

"There was a remarkable development in many villages in the last term of Panchayat, but it is unfortunate that political leaders are looking for their benefit only. Panchayat system is the only thing that can bring relief to the common masses," Ahmad concluded.  

Aijaz Nazir is a freelance journalist from India. He has been published in Tehelka, Firstpost, Huffington Post and the Asia Times Online.