Srinagar: The Bharatiya Janata Party-led Central government’s move to establish directly elected district development councils (DDCs) in Jammu and Kashmir, which has been under Central rule for more than two years now, has taken everyone in the Union Territory by surprise.
The exercise, which will be a sort of mini-assembly election and involve the entire rural population, is being described by the Centre as well as the UT’s administration as a move to empower democracy at the grassroots and as a constitutional requirement. However, the political class say the “new experiment” will further disempower and fragment the voice of the people of J&K.
Establishment of DDCs
The Union home ministry on Friday unveiled the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation (Adaptation of State Laws) Fourth Order, 2020, to notify amendments in the Jammu and Kashmir Panchayati Raj Act, 1989, for holding direct elections for DDCs, which will constitute the third-tier of the panchayati raj system.
Before the legislative changes, district planning and development boards (DPDBs) comprised of the chairpersons of block development councils (BDCs), members of parliament, members of state legislature and chairpersons of urban local bodies.
Under the new mechanism, each district will be divided into 14 territorial constituencies by the respective deputy commissioners for electing their representatives, who will then among themselves elect the chairman and vice-chairman of these councils.
According to the amendments, the DDC will have jurisdiction over the entire district, excluding portions of the district which are included in a municipality or municipal corporation, constituted under any law which is currently in force.
This means the rural electorate, which constitutes more than 70% of voters in J&K, will have voting rights during the DDC election.
According to figures released by the J&K’s chief electoral officer in October 2018, the erstwhile state had 5.81 million voters for panchayats and 1.69 million for urban local bodies (ULBs).
The move to establish DDCs comes at a time when there is a “complete freeze” on political activities since the dilution of Article 370. More than 40 mainstream leaders including Farooq Abdullah, Mehbooba Mufti, Omar Abdullah, Sajad Gani Lone, with Mufti being released from detention just a few days ago.
The BDC elections, held immediately after the reading down of the Article 370, failed to revive any political activity in the UT. Before the BDC elections, panchayat elections were conducted by the then governor Satya Pal Malik in November-December 2018, which also met with little success as more than 60% panch and sarpanch berths remained vacant in Kashmir due to the lukewarm response of the people.
According to figures revealed by then-chief electoral officer Shailendra Kumar, in September 2019, 12,054 (61.5%) panch and sarpanch berths – almost double the number of elected representatives – were still vacant in Kashmir.
What the political parties say
While most of the political parties claimed that the creation of the DDCs is aimed to further “disempower” the J&K assembly, the Central government has termed it as a “path-breaking initiative”.
National Conference MP from South Kashmir, Justice (retd.) Hasnain Masoodi told The Wire that the exercise is aimed at “strengthening and justifying the bureaucratic rule in J&K under the camouflage of strengthening grassroots democracy”.
“They are trying to dilute the democratically elected institutions, which will ultimately further disempower the people of Jammu and Kashmir,” he said.
Former minister and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) leader Naeem Akhtar said the design behind the establishment of the DDCs is to ‘create district-level assemblies so that there is no unified voice of the remnants of J&K’. “The intent of this exercise is to institutionalise the bureaucratic security rule in J&K,” he said, adding that new leadership cannot be created by such experiments.
“The leadership cannot be invented or manufactured; it has thrown up the people. Those elected in panchayats are living in hotels [in the name of security]. I hope this experiment will not create another category of such protectees,” he said.
He said the establishment of the DDCs is a part of the ‘systematic pattern of disempowerment of the people of J&K which started on August 5, 2019’. “They are trying to address political issues through non-political measures. This won’t work here,” he said.
However, minister of state for the Prime Minister’s Office, Jitendra Singh, termed the initiative as path-breaking.
“Under PM @narendramodi, a path-breaking step, to set up, for the first time, district development councils (DDCs) in #Jammu & Kashmir. J&K Panchayati Raj rules amended to provide DDC, delimitation of their constituencies & elections; DDCs to be divide into 14 constituencies/ district,” Singh tweeted.
When contacted, the administrative secretary (rural development and panchayati raj) Sheetal Nanda said the move was a constitutional requirement under the 73rd amendment.
Route adopted for amendments
The Central government has amended the law through an executive order by invoking powers vested with it under section 96 of the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act.
Under the provision, the Central government has the powers to make adaptations and modifications to the laws, whether by way of repeal or amendment, as may be necessary or expedient for the purpose of facilitating the application of any law made for a period of one year from October 31, 2019.
So far, 198 state and Central laws have been modified by the Centre through this route.
Creation of new leadership?
Many observers here see the “experiment” before the first assembly polls of the UT as “Centre’s move to create new leadership” in Kashmir Valley against the established regional parties wielding influence in the Valley, and parts of Jammu and Ladakh.
In an article published in the Indian Express in August last year, BJP’s then national general secretary Ram Madhav wrote that “Kashmir needs a new leadership, built not on the separatist narrative of the 20th century but on the development narrative of the 21st century”.
“It is here that the investment and focus of the central government should go. Failing in that will mean a return of not just the old leadership but the dreaded old narrative of separatism and conflict,” Madhav wrote.
The move coincidentally comes at a time when all major political forces in J&K including National Conference, Peoples Democratic Party, Peoples Conference, Congress have joined hands to form an alliance for restoration of J&K’s special status and statehood.
Umer Maqbool is freelance journalist based in Kashmir. He can be mailed at email@example.com.