Srinagar: The forthcoming District Development Council (DDC) elections in Jammu and Kashmir have been beset by accusations of foul play, mischief and misuse of official machinery to manipulate the electoral outcomes in favour of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). A number of candidates have alleged that they have been subjected to security confinement soon after they filed nomination papers and that their ability to connect with their constituencies was restricted on security grounds. Infuriated by the restrictions, some candidates have even signed undertakings refusing security details so that they can campaign freely – at the risk of their lives.
The DDC poll is going to be the first electoral exercise in the J&K union territory since the revocation of Article 370 in August 2019. The elections are being publicised with so much fanfare that some observers say the BJP is trying to turn it into a referendum over its J&K policies, which have been subjected to immense criticism both domestically and internationally. Already, reports suggest that J&K in 2020 has seen second-highest militant recruitment in the last ten years in spite of the absence of large-scale militant funerals and the ban on high speed internet. The government has blamed both these factors for fuelling militancy.
The polls will be held in eight phases from November 28 and the results will be announced in December 22.
Last month, Centre amended the Jammu and Kashmir Panchayati Raj Act, 1989, to clear the decks for the creation of DDCs and form new units of governance in the J&K UT as it reels under the chaotic aftermath of Article 370’s dilution.
The UT administration also amended the J&K Panchayati Raj Rules, 1996, to provide for the establishment of elected DDCs in J&K, marking the implementation of the entire 73rd Constitutional Amendment. The measure was slammed by regional mainstream parties, who saw it at as an attempt by the Narendra Modi government to counteract their show of unity under the banner of the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) that seeks restoration of J&K’s special status.
Mainstream parties believe that the step was enacted with the predetermined objective of undermining their role by creating overlapping administrative structures “to sow confusion, reduce the role of MLA’s and constitutes a tokenism in the name of democracy since people’s ability to frame their own laws has been literally torpedoed.” Other political parties, while not being opposed to greater involvement of local representatives, had questioned the need to set up such a structure in the absence of representatives to the state assembly.
Apart from 280 DDC seats that are going to polls, elections are also being held for around 13,000 vacant panch, sarpanch and urban local body (ULB) seats. In the first phase of the DDC elections, 167 candidates are in the fray from 10 districts in the Valley. A total of 227 candidates have filed their nomination papers for the second phase, while the nomination process for the third phase is still underway. The Congress, which had previously agreed for a seat-sharing arrangement with the PAGD, later backed out in response to attacks by the BJP which invoked the “anti-national” gestures of Farooq Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti.
“All our candidates are under confinement,” said Nasir Aslam Wani, National Conference’s (NC’s) provincial president. However, parties like the Sajad Lone-led People’s Conference (PC) said their candidates did not face such restrictions. “[This is] possibly because we are a party rooted more strongly in north Kashmir. It’s the southern part of Kashmir where such restrictive measure have been put in place,” said Adnan Ashraf Mir, spokesperson, J&K PC.
The Wire spoke to a number of candidates, chiefly from two big regional parties People’s Democratic Party and NC, who pleaded helplessness in the face of restrictive security measures that have hamstrung their outreach programmes.
“For three days starting November 16 when I filed nomination papers, I was not allowed to move out from my hotel,” said Mohammad Ashraf, an NC candidate from Beerwah constituency located in the central part of Kashmir. “It’s only after we made a lot of noise on social media that restrictions were lifted from November 19. The police is offering a single vehicle to multiple candidates, all of whom are supposed to head to different destinations. Our vehicle arrives at 11 am and then we are supposed to report at concerned police stations. By the time we reach our respective constituencies, we are left with very little time to campaign. Accompanied by only two cops, we are supposed to venture into high-risk zones. At 3:30 pm, my PSOs tell me they feel afraid and then we pack up and leave. By contrast, Mr Nazir Ahmad Khan, my rival from the BJP, is campaigning freely with enough security. Is this justice?”
This year, J&K also witnessed a number of attacks on political workers. In the last five months of 2020, around ten workers of different mainstream parties have been killed by suspected militants, eight of whom belonged to the BJP. Last week’s attack planned by Jaish-e-Mohammad at the outskirts of Nagrota has been projected by the police as an effort to disrupt the poll process in J&K. Police has cited a threat to their lives as reason for the tough security restrictions but candidates have alleged foul play.
“This is only happening with PAGD candidates,” alleged Rayees ul Hasan, another NC candidate from Khag constituency. “I have refused to go in a police vehicle because they often put an “independent” candidate into our vehicle which seems suspicious. I simply refused in protest and now I take my own car. My constituency is 70-75 km away from Srinagar where I am currently lodged. What further limits my campaigning hours is the requirement of presenting myself before the concerned police station, which is an additional 15 km away from where my meetings are supposed to take place. Now do the arithmetic. Almost four hours are wasted in the travel alone. How is it possible to campaign and reach out to voters in such a limited amount of time? If they don’t have adequate security for every candidate, why did they hold the elections in the first place?”
The J&K administration is going out of its way to help the BJP & it’s recently created king’s party by locking up candidates opposed to the BJP, using security as an excuse. If the security situation isn’t conducive to campaigning what was the need to announce elections? https://t.co/LSnAbBnYVz
— Omar Abdullah (@OmarAbdullah) November 18, 2020
Taking the risk
Fearing loss of votes, many candidates have refused the security and accommodation, choosing instead to travel at their own peril – all because they want their campaigns to conclude unobstructed.
“I signed a bond that I don’t need security,” Raja Abdul Waheed, a PDP candidate for Shopian II constituency, told The Wire. “This security confinement is anti-democratic because it discriminates against us and places many impediments in our way. A number of PDP candidates from south Kashmir have been dispatched to Shirmal Forest Complex. We get only 1.5 hours to campaign. Meanwhile, the BJP candidates have all the liberty in the world.”
“For instance BJP’s Javaid Qadri of constituency called Keller II and Mohammad Younis Shah of Shopian II are campaigning freely,” Waheed continued. “As for us, we get one car for four candidates who are supposed to go in four different directions. This is just a waste of time and open facilitation in favour of the BJP. Just to avoid this situation, I and one more colleague of mine Mr Ali Mohammad Shah have refused security. We know we are putting our lives at risk but we have no choice.”
Aijaz Mir, a former legislator affiliated with the PDP who is fighting the DDC elections from Wachi constituency of Shopian but hasn’t yet filed nomination papers said that the police has reduced his access to his constituency. “Whenever I attempt to visit, either I will be stopped at Shopian or at Pulwama,” he said.
On November 21, Farooq Abdullah, who also heads the PAGD, shot off a letter to State Election Commissioner (SEC) K.K. Sharma, complaining that the Alliance’s candidates were being denied a level playing field in the polls. “I am taking the liberty of writing to you about the upcoming DDC elections,” Abdullah wrote. “A strange and a unique feature has come to the fore. Candidates put up by the PAGD are immediately whisked away to ‘secure locations’ in the name of security and confined to those ‘secure locations’. They are not allowed to canvass, they are completely out of touch with those from whom they are supposed to seek votes.”
On Monday, Sharma acknowledged he has received a letter from Abdullah and said an adequate number of additional forces have come from outside and a “very comfortable security environment” will remain in place to ensure free, fair and smooth elections. He said that candidates lodged in cluster accommodation are not barred from campaigning. “Those who claim that they are not being allowed to go for campaigning should write to me and at the same time to concerned SSPs and Deputy Commissioners of the concerned districts,” he said. “Every candidate will get security cover to his/her campaigning.”
Last week, Centre flew additional 25,000 security personnel to J&K ahead of the poll process.
Why these polls matter
Political observers believe that the DDC polls are crucial given that they will result in a shift of power in J&K and that any stain on the credibility of these elections will be disastrous.
“In this day and age, the Modi government cannot afford to have tainted elections in J&K,” said Khalid Shah, an associate fellow at Observer Research Foundation. “Last time when the elections were bungled in 1987, it wreaked havoc. There should have been a very coherent well thought out security plan. In every election, reports are first sought from all security agencies regarding the threat perception and security concerns. Polls happen when there is consensus among security forces.”
“It’s not that we have never had fair elections. 2002 polls were quite free and fair and recorded high turn-out despite violence. Over 600 killings took place that year. So security concerns were never a deterrent. The way police is obstructing the political campaign of candidates is objectionable.” Shah also said that there were apprehensions that the J&K bureaucracy was obstructing the decentralisation of power. “There will be significant shift of power after these elections. It will put a check on working of bureaucracy,” he said. “Questions are being raised whether J&K’s bureaucracy is in glove with the ruling party.”
On Monday, a sense of the partisan role played by government agencies was reinforced when the National Investigation Agency issued summons to Waheed Ur Rehman Para, spokesperson of the PDP in connection with the probe into the arrest of J&K Police DSP Davinder Singh. Para was campaigning for the DDC elections. On Saturday, police also foiled the visit of former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti to a site at Rambiara Nalla in Shopian where she claimed that sand extraction, through illegal tenders outsourced to outsiders at the cost of local extractors, was being carried out. Mufti accused the Centre of “sabotaging” the participation of political parties other than the BJP in the DDC polls by not allowing them to campaign freely.
This is their warped idea of Naya Kashmir. Sand mafia is operating in broad daylight yet we are expected to remain quiet. As a leader, its my responsibility to articulate these grievances. But BJP is brazenly violating my rights & curbing my movements under guise of ‘security’ pic.twitter.com/BSi7rPwkEb
— Mehbooba Mufti (@MehboobaMufti) November 21, 2020
“The administration is using whatever tool available so that opposition doesn’t get to articulate its politics,” said Hasnain Masoodi, a Lok Sabha member affiliated with the NC and former J&K high court judge. “The very scheme of things was such that parties got little time to think through it. Election commission is supposed to take all parties on board before it enters into some kinds of consultation. It did not happen.”
There are also suspicious that government may have resorted to such moves because the BJP had probably expected an electoral walkover in the event of a poll boycott by Alliance members. “But we took them by surprise,” said Mohit Bhan, spokesperson for the PDP. “It’s the voters who pressured us into fighting the elections.”
An aggressive BJP campaign
The allegations of “pre-emptive” security confinements for PAGD candidates have come on the heels of aggressive “star campaigning” by BJP stalwarts in Kashmir such as Shahnawaz Hussain and Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi. As per sources in the BJP, Smriti Irani is also likely to visit the Valley ahead of polls while Krishan Pal Gujjar, Union minister of state for social justice and empowerment, has already arrived and will hit the campaign trail in the next few days.
The BJP has also deployed almost 1,000 Twitter accounts to maximise its election messaging in Kashmir. “We have one social media team in each district of the Valley with 10 persons manning each. Mr Amit Malviya, national in-charge of BJP’s IT Unit is himself monitoring the elections here. Besides, we have multiple WhatsApp groups – right from the booth level to district level. This is why the videos of our star campaigners across Kashmir are really viral these days,” said Manzoor Bhat, Kashmir BJP’s media in-charge.
Bhat also refuted the allegations that BJP candidates were freer than those from other parties. “This is completely false. We have lost almost nine party members to various attacks this year. In one attack, three members from the same family were killed. After that BJP workers were also put under cluster accommodation provided by J&K police. For three months, our workers have not been able to move freely. It’s a security protocol and all BJP workers are adhering to it. Take for instance Anwar Khan, our candidate from of Nowgam constituency. He is a high-profile businessman. He too is facing confinement because there is a threat to his life,” he said.
The Wire called Vijay Kumar, IG Police Kashmir division, who said that he was busy in a meeting and “will talk tomorrow” and hung up. This story will be updated as and when he responds.
Shakir Mir is a Srinagar-based journalist.