The government is hoping for a repeat of 2011’s high voter turnout, but people on the ground remain wary of possible clashes.
Srinagar: The last electoral exercise in Jammu and Kashmir turned out to be a bloody affair. At least eight civilians were killed in clashes during the by-polls to the Srinagar-Budgam Lok Sabha seat in April 2017. This eventually forced the Mehbooba Mufti-led government to cancel the elections to the Anantnag constituency. That was when Kashmir was gradually emerging from a months-long uprising, during which close to 100 civilians were killed and several hundred others lost partial or complete eyesight.
The People’s Democratic Party (PDP)-Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) alliance has now announced panchayat elections in the state from February 15 onwards – the first major activity on the part of the government in Kashmir after more than a year. It comes at a time when mainstream politics, which was marginalised after the six-month-long street protests in 2016 triggered by the killing of rebel militant commander Burhan Wani, is trying to make a comeback.
“Violence is not a solution to any issue. Besides, these (panchayat) polls are a means to empower people at the grassroots levels and ensure redress to their day-to-day problems through active participation in the government,” a senior PDP minister told The Wire.
Overdue election and BJP’s ‘push’
While the government has been repeatedly saying that panchayat institutions are a means to decentralise power and decision-making, the elections to it have never been a regular feature in J&K. In 1978, rural body elections were held in the state when Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah was the chief minister. The next such exercise was conducted after 23 years, in 2001, and the last panchayat election was held a decade after that in 2011. The polls have now been pending for the past one-and-a-half years, since the previous panchayats completed their term in July 2016.
While the government has on occasion tried to hold polls, in September 2017, Union home minister Rajnath Singh while on a three-day visit to the state asked the government to begin preparations for the reconstitution of panchayat institutions. Soon after that, governor N.N. Vohra promulgated an ordinance setting the ball rolling for the same.
According to a senior official, there has been a “constant push” from the BJP for conducting polls. In one of its meetings in Jammu on December 22, the RSS-BJP coordination committee had instructed ministers of the right-wing party to mount pressure on the PDP for holding panchayat elections.
A ‘tricky’ decision
The April 2011 panchayat elections witnessed a record 80% turnout. The electoral exercise was conducted barley a few months after the summer uprising of 2010 in which over 120 civilians were killed. The announcement of polls had surprised many since at the time anger was running deep. But on D-day, long queues outside polling booths dealt a setback to separatists who had called for a complete boycott.
While the government is hoping for a repeat of 2011 as it prepares for fresh elections, many remain wary. “With the kind of situation we are passing through, it (the announcement of elections) was unexpected and many people will not appreciate it. I don’t think time the is conducive,” said political analyst Noor M. Baba.
According to him, the decision is fraught with danger and could lead to “further deterioration in situation if things go wrong”. “If the exercise goes smoothly, it will be a win-win situation for the government, and more importantly it will push mainstream political discourse to the front. But god forbid if there is a backlash, the situation could turn ugly and then the responsibility with lie with the government,” Baba told The Wire, though he insisted that decentralisation of power through panchayat polls should always be welcomed and that the institutions should be left alone.
While the government is banking on protest and stone-pelting incidents in the Valley petering out, there is still anger on the ground, particularly in south Kashmir – which is spread over four districts and was the epicentre of the 2016 uprising. Till the first half of last year, south Kashmir was a no-go area for mainstream politicians.
However, recently chief minister Mufti held public outreach programmes in Pulwama, Shopian and Anantnag amid heavy security to listen to people’s grievances and offer redressal. Similarly, mainstream politicians – from both ruling and opposition parties – haven’t been able to hold party functions without security. While the situation is similar in north Kashmir, the opposition National Conference held a couple of party functions there following the announcement of elections.
The chief minister has expressed optimism that the polls will be smooth. “I hope people will choose ballots over bullets,” she tweeted.
However, barely two days after the government announced the poll dates, the “joint resistance leadership” comprising Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Muhammad Yasin Malik called for its complete boycott saying “such an exercise is only meant to harm national interests of Kashmir”.
“We cannot vote to strengthen hands of tyrants …elections and institutions formed by these elections are detrimental to interests of Kashmiris and as a living nation we all should keep away from this farce exercise and boycott these elections in totality,” a statement issued by the trio said.
The boycott call by separatists isn’t the only challenge the government faces. The militant organisation Hizbul Mujahideen has purportedly threatened to “pour acid” into the eyes of those who participate in the elections.
“In 2016 you saw that how many youth lost their eye sights (to pellets). We have planned whosoever fights elections, he will be dragged out of his home and concentrated acid will be poured into his eyes so that he loses his eyesight,” Hizb’s operational commander Riyaz Naikoo is heard telling another militant during a conversation, a clip of which has been circulated on social media.
While J&K police has said it is verifying the authenticity of the audio clip, in the past similar audios and videos have surfaced on social media wherein militant groups have confirmed their stand on different issues.
The open threat by the militant outfit has sent both security agencies and the government into a tizzy. “We shouldn’t approve of violence in any form…but one thing is clear that the outcome of the election will decide how coming months will shape up in Kashmir. Much will depend on peoples’ reaction when the exercise starts,” Baba remarked.
Mudasir Ahmad is a Srinagar-based reporter.