Srinagar: “I do not go to my village when it is dark,” said Mushtaq Ahmad Khan, a village head from Central Kashmir’s Beerwah area.
The sarpanch barely remembers the last time he spent a night in his Budgam district village. That is because Khan currently resides in a government-facilitated accommodation in Srinagar, where he feels relatively safer than he does in his village.
Like Khan, scores of panchs (members of a panchayat or village council) and sarpanchs have been holed up in ‘safe’ accommodations for years due to apprehensions of being soft targets for militants. Khan himself, for example, has not spent a single night in his village since 1999. Others were placed in government accommodation at various times over the past two decades – just before the District Development Council (DDC) polls last year, after the DDC polls, in 2018 at the time Governor’s Rule was declared in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and so on. Their fears have worsened since August 9 this year, when suspected militants killed a sarpanch named Ghulam Rasool Dar, along with his wife Jawahira, in the Anantnag district of South Kashmir. The recent spate of ‘target killings’ by militants in the Union Territory of J&K has added to their anguish.
Apart from creating an atmosphere of fear at the grassroots level, the security issue has also placed the work of panchayats in a state of limbo. Groundwork has been reduced to a bare minimum, said Khan, whose credibility among his fellow villagers is at stake.
“How do we face the people from whom we have sought votes?” he asked.
Sarpanchs, who are paid very little, have felt disempowered since the DDC polls of 2020, said Khan, who is also the Panchayat Conference’s provincial president for Kashmir.
The DDC elections were the first major electoral flex in the erstwhile state of J&K after the region lost its semi-autonomy and statehood in August 2019 when Article 370 of the constitution, which conferred J&K with a special status, was read down, as was Article 35A, which allowed the state legislature to define the ‘permanent residents’ of the state so as to grant them special rights and privileges.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) then needed to show the world that the Narendra Modi-led Union government had kicked off the electoral process and opened up democratic space in the restive region. It was also important for the saffron party to win the DDC polls by huge margins to prove that the sweeping changes it had enacted in J&K since August 2019 were approved by locals.
But it came as a shock to the BJP when the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) decided to contest the election. This new political formation comprised the National Conference (NC), People’s Democratic Party (PDP), People’s Conference (PC; it later pulled out from the alliance), Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)), Awami National Conference and Jammu Kashmir People’s Movement came together to demand the restoration of Articles 370 and 35A.
The results of the polls were exactly the opposite of the BJP’s expectations. The saffron party bagged 75 out of 235 seats while the PAGD won 110. And only three of these 75 were in the Kashmir Valley. In fact, as previously reported by The Wire, the BJP’s vote share showed a marked decline even in the Jammu region, which is considered a strong electoral platform for the ruling party.
“The DDC polls backfired for the BJP-led Centre, as PAGD’s sweeping victory sent out a clear message to the world that people are unhappy with the status quo,” the NC spokesperson, Ifra Jan, told The Wire.
She added: “Holding the DDC polls in the region was not just a political gimmick to seek validation for the abrogation of the special status of the state, but it was also a manoeuvre to test the waters. The DDC elects do not have a speck of power in their hands.”
Although the BJP overplayed its three-seat victory in the DDC polls to claim that the democratic process had been successful, political analysts like professor Sheikh Showkat Hussain, an expert in human rights and international law, argue that “democracy cannot be restored from the bottom or the grassroots. It always trickles down from the top”.
“They [the BJP-led government] dismantled every democratic structure that existed at the top and tried to replace it with a panchayat raj. It was bound to fail. And fail it did,” said Hussain.
According to his assessment, every move that the BJP has made since the nullification of Article 370 has brought them “back to square one.”
Turning back the clock
Since June 2018, Jammu and Kashmir has been ruled directly by New Delhi. On June 19, 2018, the BJP withdrew its support to the coalition government headed by the Mehbooba Mufti-led PDP. The then J&K governor N.N. Vohra put the state legislative assembly under ‘suspended animation’, leading to the imposition of governor’s rule in the region. On November 21, 2018, the newly-appointed governor, Satya Pal Malik, dissolved the state assembly minutes after Mehbooba Mufti shared a letter on Twitter which said she sought to form a government with her political archrivals, the NC and the Congress.
The following year, ominous events unfolded one after another. Subsequent to the deadly Pulwama attack on February 14, 2019, the BJP-led Union government proscribed Jamat-e-Islami, a leading sociopolitical organisation, and the Yasin Malik-led pro-independence Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF). A crackdown on J&K’s resistance leadership through the Enforcement Directorate (ED) and the National Investigation Agency (NIA) followed.
In the last week of July 2019, the Indian government deployed more troops to Kashmir. The administration led by Satya Pal Malik issued several orders directing tourists, non-local migrant workers, pilgrims and students to leave the valley with immediate effect. All these events created panic and uncertainty among the people of J&K. This was followed by a complete communications blackout imposed during the intervening night of August 4 and 5.
On the dawn of August 5, 2019, Amit Shah, the Union minister for home affairs, announced the annulment of the provisions of Articles 370 and 35A on the floor of parliament. The Jammu and Kashmir Re-Organisation Bill was also introduced and became an Act after receiving presidential assent on August 9.
While this happened, the BJP government incarcerated almost all the mainstream Kashmiri leadership, including three former chief ministers. Most of the politicians were booked under frivolous cases while others were jailed under draconian laws such as the Public Safety Act (PSA).
Mainstream politicians expressed explicit dismay at the Union government’s move, calling it unilateral and unconstitutional. Challenging the decisions of the BJP-led government, some of Kashmir’s prominent leaders filed writ petitions in the Supreme Court.
Jammu and Kashmir’s leading Communist leader, Mohammed Yousuf Tarigami, disparaged the BJP’s actions with respect to Kashmir and described the August 5 move as an unprecedented “breach of trust”.
“A unique treatment was meted out to the people of Jammu & Kashmir. It was a breach of trust and an unprecedented assault on the Constitution of India,” Tarigami told The Wire. “There were no debates with the stakeholders, civil society etc.”
Tarigami, who is also the chief spokesperson and convener of the PAGD, added: “Many writ petitions are lingering on the tables of the Supreme Court and we haven’t been given a single hearing till date.”
Tarigami filed another affidavit in the Supreme Court in August this year, hoping for an early hearing to his petitions that challenge the Centre’s decision to revoke provisions of Articles 370 and 35A while adversely introducing the J&K Reorganisation Act 2019.
While unionists anticipate that New Delhi will hold assembly elections in J&K and also restore the region’s statehood, the road ahead is bumpy and fraught with uncertainties. One of these anxieties resides in the delimitation of assembly constituencies.
Tarigami’s petition mentions the “illegal” constitution of the Delimitation Commission executed by the Union government to alter the number of seats in the legislative assembly from 87 to 94 before any elections are held in J&K.
Although the process of carrying out the delimitation by redrawing the borders of the Lok Sabha and the assembly segments in a state based on the preceding census is seen as routine in the Indian political fabric, it is very sensitive in Jammu and Kashmir due to apprehensions that the BJP might use the process to its advantage. One of the concerns is that the political centrality of Kashmir Valley will be diluted as the number of seats increases in the Jammu region.
“The process of delimitation comes from the womb of the J&K Reorganisation Act, which several petitioners and I have challenged in the Supreme Court,” Tarigami asserted.
When the Delimitation Commission arrived in Kashmir on July 6, the PDP boycotted the meeting, citing concerns that it was aimed to alter the outcomes of the future assembly elections. In all likelihood, the move carries the potential of augmenting the BJP’s tally of seats, which in 2014 was 25, all from the Jammu division.
For PDP’s spokesperson Najmu Saqib, the post-delimitation scenario is uncertain and hampers their work on the ground.
“Every political party is confused right now, for they do not know where their constituencies will lie tomorrow. It’s not just the delimitation, it is also the reorganisation. Today, we know where a particular segment lies, but we do not know where that seat will be tomorrow. Some constituencies will be reserved, some reorganised and some carved out of thin air,” Saqib told The Wire.
Saqib’s concern is valid. In an article published in the Daily Excelsior, it was revealed that Ashwani Kumar Chrungoo, a Kashmiri Pandit and BJP leader, had suggested that the Delimitation Commission reserve five seats in the Kashmir division for minorities – three for Kashmiri Pandits, one for Sikhs, and one for non-Kashmiri-speaking Hindus.
Meanwhile, in Kashmir, there are fears that in the Jammu belt, and particularly in Muslim-dominated areas like Chenab Valley, the BJP will carve out new constituencies that will further fragment the Muslim vote.
On similar lines, major political groups like the NC and the PDP are apprehensive that the opaque process will systematically weaken their foothold in the Kashmir region as well.
“The BJP’s proxies are being taken on board. They have some idea of how and where these constituencies are going to be reorganised,” Saqib said.
The saga of defections
In the eyes of the PDP and the NC, smaller parties like the Altaf Bukhari-led Apni Party and the Sajad Lone-led PC are the BJP’s all-weather friends. After performing well as a single unit in the DDC elections, the PAGD developed fissures within and Sajad Lone pulled out of the alliance, alleging that some constituents of the new grouping had fielded proxy candidates in the DDC polls.
Syed Altaf Bukhari floated his Jammu and Kashmir Apni Party with the majority of its members coming from the PDP from which Bukhari had been expelled in 2018.
Soon, a pattern emerged with several NC and PDP leaders deserting their respective parties and joining the Apni Party or PC instead. In this shuffle of defections, the PDP suffered the most, as many prominent names dumped the party and joined Lone’s party.
Adnan Ashraf Mir, the spokesperson for the PC, denied all allegations that his party is an ally of the BJP.
“It’s mere political rhetoric that they [the NC and PDP] resort to when they are not in power,” Mir told The Wire during an interview in Srinagar. He added that “mudslinging on the PC” would not hide the past blunders of the PDP and the NC.
Although analysts see defections as a commonplace occurrence in politics, the dynamics within Kashmir’s sticky political landscape are different. Professor Noor Ahmad Baba, a senior political scientist, argued that the PC attracted deserters because “politically adventurous people always flock towards greener and safer pastures”.
“The PC is safe for them [the defectors] because they know that ED or NIA raids won’t happen there,” Ifra Jan, the NC spokesperson, said.
The traditional parties of Kashmir accuse the BJP of misusing agencies like the NIA and the ED to weaken, threaten and silence them.
Recently, Mehbooba Mufti’s brother Tassaduq Hussain was summoned by the ED in an alleged money laundering case. The summons arrived a day after Mufti protested the controversial Hyderpora shootout in which four people were killed. Earlier this year, on July 6, the ED issued a summons to Mufti’s mother in an alleged money laundering case. The summons came almost immediately after Mufti’s party decided to boycott the meeting with the Delimitation Commission in Srinagar.
“The moment I raise my voice against any wrongdoing, there is a summons waiting for someone from my family,” the Press Trust of India quoted Mufti as saying.
Meanwhile, about 20 Congress leaders considered close to former J&K chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad submitted their resignations to the party high command last week, citing as a reason the “incapable leadership” of Ghulam Ahmad Mir, the president of the J&K Pradesh Congress Committee.
Given Azad’s fractured relationship with the INC, speculations are rife that a new party, with Azad leading the frontline, will be floated ahead of the assembly polls, mainly to contest in the Chenab Valley and Pir Panjal regions. If that turns out to be the case, the regional Muslim vote will be further fragmented.
Only time will tell whether the mass resignations are a pressure tactic to seek the ouster of Mir or a ploy to help realise the BJP’s dream of installing a Hindu chief minister in J&K.
Peerzada Sheikh Muzamil is a Srinagar-based freelance journalist. He tweets @Peerzadamuzamil.