Looking Down The Barrel
Who will protect the symbols of democracy, especially the Panches, in Jammu and Kashmir?
The recent killings of the Panchayat members in the Kashmir valley are a matter of serious concern. The killings have struck fear among the grassroot level representatives of Jammu and Kashmir. On September 23, 2012, a deputy Sarpanch named Mohammad Shafi Teli of Nowpora village in Kreeri area of Baramulla district was killed by terrorists. In the same district, militants had gunned down Ghulam Mohammad Yatoo, Sarpanch of Palhalan village, on September 10, 2012. The terror outfits like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Hizbul Mujaheedin (HM), Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) have been issuing threats to the Panches for the past several months asking them to resign. [Source: http://bit.ly/RGNzW5 ]
J&K state has 4,128 Panchayats, with 29,719 Panches and 4,130 Sarpanches. [Source: http://bit.ly/QPZQ7F]. And after 33 years, the Panchayat elections were held in all the constituencies of Jammu and Kashmir from April 13 to June 27, 2011. Around 80% of people turned out to vote. Due to terrorist threats, the Panchayat elections held in 2001 were not conducted in Baramulla, Bandipora and Kupwara districts of Jammu & Kashmir.
The 2011 elections were held at a time when the state was recovering from the summer unrest of 2010 in which more than 100 Kashmiris died. [Source: http://bit.ly/gNu4Kc http://bit.ly/jFp3bz ] Despite the threats by terrorists and boycott call by separatists, people participated in large numbers in the democratic process. In fact, the voter turnout of the Panchayat elections exceeded that of the 2008 state assembly polls which was around 60%. The high voter turnout implies that the people believe in democratic and Constitutional process and are willing to participate in the process. The people’s participation in the Constitutional process needs to be appreciated.
The government projected the massive participation in the Panchayat elections as a triumph of democracy over the gun, but delayed the empowerment of the Panchayats. The J&K state government has not implemented the 73rd amendment of the Indian Constitution which grants power to the Panchayats. For the last year and a half, the Panchayats have been demanding more power for local governance. The implementation of the governance at grassroot level will undermine the support for the separatist forces.
“Panches have resigned not only because of the threats but also due to lag in the empowerment of Panchayati Raj institutions politically as well as economically. About 700 Panches have resigned through advertisements in local newspapers but the government claims around 50 resignations only. We voluntarily chose to become part of democracy but the government never honoured our commitment. Why should we play with our lives?”, says Shafiq Mir – convenor of Jammu and Kashmir Panchayat Conference. “The 73rd amendment of the Indian Constitution should be implemented which legally empowers the Panchayats. Rahul Gandhi has supported our demand and ensured that appropriate measures concerning the security will be taken”. Mir headed the delegation of 10 Sarpanches who recently met Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi in New Delhi and informed him about the threat to their lives.
J&K Chief Minister Omar Abdullah has assured that the Panches will be provided security. But despite the assurances by Chief Minister, the Panchayat members continue to resign through advertisements in local newspapers. It shows how deep the threat perception runs among the people. Omar Abdullah and his government intend to reduce the footprints of security forces in the Kashmir valley. Omar Abdullah is also insisting on revoking the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) from some districts of the J&K State. At the same time, the state government has failed to protect the lives of these innocent Panches. The killings are a failure on the part of the state government which harps on “normalcy” in Jammu & Kashmir.
Panches represent democracy at the grassroot level. They have been elected by the people to solve local issues and grievances. Their killings are an attempt to thwart Indian democracy at the grassroots. Those who are trying to destabilise the grassroot level democracy in the valley must be given a strong befitting reply. These terror forces are trying to instil fear in the minds of the people who want to be part of the democratic process and have faith in the institutions of the state. A clear-cut message of zero-tolerance towards terrorism should go both from the state as well as the Central government.
At the village level, defence committees should be formed to keep an eye on unusual activities. At least the government should provide security to the Panchayat members in sensitive areas, if not to all. The government should also consider giving arms to the Panches for self-defence.
Panchayati Raj institutions symbolise the Indian democracy in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The state needs to take all possible measures to protect the symbols of democracy. We cannot afford to provide terrorists with another opportunity to debilitate the democracy at the ground level anymore.
Image By- Swarnabha Banerjee