How Panches & Sarpanches become ‘sacrificial lambs’ in Jammu and Kashmir’s political theatre - The Probe

How Panches & Sarpanches become ‘sacrificial lambs’ in Jammu and Kashmir’s political theatre

Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a meeting with Pradhans of Jammu-Kashmir Panchayat Conference | Pic Courtesy: @AkashvaniAIR

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Minister of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj Giriraj Singh will visit Jammu and Kashmir to celebrate the National Panchayati Raj Day, 2022, at Palli Panchayat in Jammu’s Samba district on Sunday, 24 April.

The festivity, however, comes in the backdrop of melancholy. Four members of the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) – three Sarpanches and one Panch – have been killed in terrorist violence in the last seven weeks.

Shafiq Mir, Chairman of All Jammu and Kashmir Panchayat Conference speaks to The Probe on the killing of Panches and Sarpanches

The current killing spree of the PRI members, which seems unabated, commenced with the assassination of the National Conference (NC) activist and Panch, Mohammad Yaqoob Dar, at his village Kolpora in Kulgam district on 2 March, 2022. The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) worker and Sarpanch, Sameer Ahmad Bhat, was shot dead at his home in Khonmoh, on the outskirts of Srinagar, on 9 March.

Sarpanch Shabir Ahmad Mir was gunned down at his village Audora in Kulgam district on 11 March. Independent Sarpanch Manzoor Ahmad Bangroo was fired upon and left dead at an apple orchard in Goshbug, Pattan in Baramulla district on 15 April.

The sequence of killing of the PRI members in Kashmir, in fact, began immediately after the Panchayat elections of 2011, which witnessed a record voter turnout of 90-100 percent at most of the polling stations. These elections came in sharp contrast to the street violence of 2010 when around a hundred demonstrators and stone-pelters got killed in the four-month-long clashes with the police and paramilitary forces.

Even as the UT government does not separately maintain a record of the members and heads of the PRIs and Urban Local Bodies (ULBs), the Jammu and Kashmir Panchayat Conference President Shafiq Mir puts the number of the slain Panches and Sarpanches at 26 in the last 11 years. Elections for the current Panches and Sarpanches were held in October-November 2018. The vacant seats were filled in the by-polls in November-December 2020.

“Panches and Sarpanches are the first soft targets for the terrorists. Even when Assembly or Lok Sabha elections are announced or when the terrorists, in utter frustration, want to upend a flourishing season of trade and tourism, they strike on Panches and Sarpanches. They kill them like lame ducks. As many as 26 of our Panches and Sarpanches have been shot dead since 2011”, Shafiq Mir said.

Everytime there is an attack on panchayat members in J&K when there is an initiation of a political process in the UT. Recently, there were four killings of Sarpanches in Kashmir within a month. First, they killed three Sarpanches. Two in Kulgam, one in Srinagar and these attacks took place at a time when the Home Minister of our country was on a visit to Jammu and Kashmir. Now, for the first time in J&K, we are celebrating National Panchayat Raj day on April 24 in which Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be the Chief Guest and he will address our panchayat members and this is happening for the first time in the history of Jammu and Kashmir that a Panchayat Day is being celebrated on April 24 while it was being celebrated in other states from many years.

Shafiq Mir
Chairman, All Jammu and Kashmir Panchayat Conference

“Police, security forces, government officials, and other categories of people who sacrifice their lives for the sake of our country get rewarded. Their families are paid Rs 40 to 50 lakh or even more for their martyrdom. But when a Panch or Sarpanch sacrifices his life to strengthen the Indian democratic system and its sovereignty and integrity, his family gets nothing more than Rs 1 lakh, which even the street beggars killed in terrorist violence are entitled to,” Mir added. “There are no welfare schemes for their families, and they have no pension back-up”.

While the chairpersons of Block Development Councils (BDCs), District Development Councils (DDCs) and heads of Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) get a monthly honorarium of Rs 15,000, Sarpanches are paid Rs 3,000 while the Panches get Rs. 1,000 only.

“We accept that the government cannot provide 40,000 security guards to the 40,000 PRI members. That’s not possible. We demand that the government could provide larger area security to the most vulnerable pockets. But nobody even takes notice of our sacrifices. Why doesn’t the government even create a memorial for the martyred Panches and Sarpanches?” Mir added. “We are at the forefront of rural development and grass-root democracy. Security, recognition and welfare is the government’s responsibility”.

Terror attacks spurred the resignation of 30 PRI members in June 2019. Sarpanch Ajay Pandita Bharti’s assassination at Lukabhawan Anantnag in June 2020 created a wave of terror and led to similar mass resignations. On 26 November 2019, militants launched an audacious attack on the government’s “Back to Village” programme at Hakoora Badasgam in Anantnag district, killing a Sarpanch and an officer of the government’s agriculture department. Seven persons were left injured.

Jammu and Kashmir became a pioneer in India with the first Panchayat elections in 1965. While Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s Plebiscite Front boycotted all elections from 1953 to 1976, the Congress and the Jamaat-e-Islami participated in the Panchayat elections of 1965. The State experienced another Panchayat election in 1980. Post-1990, Panchayat elections were held on 10,458 Panch wards in 2000-01 but the same were later nullified by Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s government in 2003.

Finally, the first free and fair Panchayat elections with the highest voter turnout were held in 29,719 Panch and 4,130 Sarpanch constituencies in April-June 2011. This successful democratic exercise erased all the markings and memories of a massive street turbulence in 2010 and built so much of stability that Afzal Guru’s execution in February 2013 failed to stir the valley. Its term ended in 2016. New Delhi has, inter alia, counted the then Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti’s refusal to hold the next Panchayat elections in 2016-2018 as one of the reasons to bring down her government in June 2018.

The BJP government at the Centre conducted the overdue ULB elections as well as the Panchayat elections within five months of the Governor’s Rule in 2018. The ULB term ended in 2010.

Elections were notified for all 33,592 Panch and 4,291 Sarpanch constituencies in the erstwhile State’s 285 blocks – 137 in Kashmir and 148 in Jammu. Even as 24,673 members – 22,214 Panches and 2,459 Sarpanches – were elected, many unopposed, there was no representation from 13,209 constituencies. The fear of the gun and threats from the militants were the key reasons for the lacklustre polls.

These vacancies were subsequently filled-up through by-polls alongside the first DDC elections in all 280 constituencies and the by-polls in 234 ULB constituencies in November-December 2020. Even the traditional ruling parties like the NC and the PDP, which boycotted the Panchayat and the ULB elections of 2018 and the first BDC elections in 2019, participated in the Panchayat and the ULB by-elections and the DDC elections in 2020. For the first time in the State’s/UT’s history, it accomplished the democratic exercise for the 3-tier PRI system.

For the militants and saboteurs of the democratic processes in Jammu and Kashmir, there are reasons to threaten and attack the PRI and the ULB members.

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Ahmed Ali Fayyaz is an independent journalist based out of Jammu & Kashmir. With 27 years of experience, Fayyaz is a policy analyst and a political commentator. He has extensively reported on conflict – after the 1990 Kashmir conflict – for the national and international media.

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