ISSN 2330-717X

India: Jammu & Kashmir Democracy And Its Subversion – Analysis

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By Ajit Kumar Singh

Over 79 percent of the electorate exercised their right to vote, between April 13 to June 27, 2011, in the village Panchayat (local self-government institution) elections in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K). The elections which were due in 2006 then could not be held because of the security reasons. Moreover, as Chief Minister Omar Abdullah noted, on April 13, 2011, “This is the first real Panchayat election in the State in 33 years, the last one in 2001 was only on paper… half the seats remained empty.”

The Panchayat elections of 2001 were partial in nature, as they could not be conducted across Kupwara, Baramulla and Bandipora Districts, due to terrorist threats and violence. The last elections for all Panchayat constituencies in the State were held in 1977-78.

The sheer scale of the electoral exercise, implemented in a situation of significant residual terrorist threat, is remarkable. The process stretched over 17 phases, with 5.07 million voters electing a total of 4,130 sarpanchs (village heads) and 29,719 panchs (village representatives):

Region
No. of Sarpanch Constituencies
No. of Panch Constituencies
No. of Blocks
No. of Electors
2001
2011
2001
2011
2001
2011
2001
2011
Kashmir
1472
2164
10469
15959
64
77
1859311
2519024
Jammu
1230
1966
10090
13760
57
66
1942991
2549951
Total
2702
4130
20559
29719
121
143
3802302
5068975
Source: Chief Electoral Officer, J&K

The elections were, by and large, peaceful, marred by just a few incidents of violence. In one such incident, Hasina Begum (40), a panch candidate from Karpora in the Pakherpora area of Charar-e-Sharief in Budgam District was killed by unidentified militants on April 15, 2011, six days before elections were to be held in her constituency. Hasina was affiliated with Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). Significantly, not a single vote was cast at Karpora village when the elections were held on May 21.

On May 24, a newly elected sarpanch was killed by unidentified terrorists at village Chak Salarian near Ramgarh in Samba District. His son was also injured in the attack.

On May 10, a terrorist shot at and injured a sarpanch candidate, identified as Ghulam Mohi-ud-din Chopan, at Machipora-Zainageer in the Sopore area of Baramulla District.

Crucially, the Panchayat elections once again demonstrated that more than two decades of terrorism in the State had failed to change the basic nature of Kashmiri society. In Wusan village, Aasha Jee, became the first Kashmiri Pandit woman to win the Panchayat polls in a predominantly Muslim village in the Kunzer block of one of the Districts worst afflicted by the Pakistan-backed Islamist terrorist movement – Baramulla. Another Kashmiri Pandit, Makhan Lal Zutshi, won an uncontested panch seat in the Muslim dominated Tahab village in Pulwama District. Moreover, 25 Sikhs also won elections from Muslim dominated constituencies.

The successful accomplishment of these elections will lead to constitution of Panchayats, long envisaged as the way to empower people at the grass root level, raising the expectations and aspirations of 12.5 million people in the State. The Panchayats execute range of developmental works, including agricultural support, minor irrigation, street paving, building of culverts and repairing schools. The State Government is expected to receive Central Assistance of about INR 20 billion under various schemes for rural development during the 13th Finance Commission period. Chief Minister Abdullah noted, “Now, we are expecting INR 4-5 Billion annual grant from the Central Government under the 13th Finance Commission Award, which shall be spent by the Panchayats throughout the State.” Abdullah recognized, further that the State had suffered a loss of at least INR 12 Billion as Central Assistance during the 12th Finance Commission due its failure to establish elected Panchayats. The money that will be given directly by New Delhi to Kashmiri villages has revolutionary developmental potential in a State where corruption and patronage have long ruled.

The Centre has made it clear to the Abdullah Government that it must immediately act on transferring power to the newly elected Panchayats and fulfill its promise of devolution of power. The Centre is particularly concerned that if the newly elected village representatives are not given the benefit of devolution, a strong anti-Government backlash may emerge.

Unfortunately, there are already indications that the empowerment of the Panchayats would be resisted within the entrenched political establishment in the State. A concerned Chief Minister Abdullah thus commented, “The easy job of elections is behind us, now the tough bit…” He, however, disclosed that “a Committee of high ranking officers headed by the Chief Secretary is working out a transfer of functions, funds and functionaries to Panchayats”, and that the report of the Committee was in the last stage of formulation.

J&K is also looking to refurbish its Panchayat Raj Act, 1989. The State Government is also contemplating elections for municipal corporations and committees in urban areas. In the 3-tier Panchayat system, the Vice Chairmen of District Development Boards will be elected representatives of Panchayats. “This will enable the Panchayats to be an important part in decision making at the District level,” said Abdullah. Notably, the 73rd and 74th amendments of the Indian Constitution, which guarantee a set of far-reaching powers to Panchayats across the country, are not applicable in the State due to its special constitutional status. Thus, the local Member of Legislative Assembly in J&K remains a very powerful arbiter of finances at the District and village level, which is not the case elsewhere in the country. These are elements that new legislation in the State would seek to address.

Despite the tremendous achievements of the Panchayat Election 2011, and the many declarations of intent thereafter, there is a multiplicity of reasons for no more than qualified optimism. These were the first largely peaceful and elections with high voter participation. In fact, the State Assembly and Parliamentary polls of 2008 and 2009 were largely peaceful as well as, and saw relatively high turnouts of 61.49 and 39 per cent, respectively (volumes comparable to participation in a number of other States unaffected by insurgent or terrorist violence). Unfortunately, this was no guarantee of improvements in the ground situation, of an end to divisive and disruptive politics, or of a consolidation of democratic forces in the State. High voter participation also resulted in higher voter expectations, and these were quickly belied as both the Centre and the State Government failed to initiate effective economic and political programmes to meet these aspirations. The resulting political vacuum created renewed spaces for the separatists, whose demands to boycott the polls had so recently been resoundingly ignored, to exploit create a volatile situation in the State, with stone pelting campaigns becoming the order of the day in the summers of 2008, 2009 and 2010.

Worse, the democratic leadership of the State, across party lines, has repeatedly undermined its own democratic legitimacy, and the authority of the electoral process. Thus, on June 22, 2011, Chief Minister Abdullah observed:

Panchayat polls and participation in the elections is not a substitute to overall settlement of political issue of Kashmir. Despite Panchayat polls, Kashmir continues to remain a dispute. I admit that the Kashmir dispute should be addressed politically.

In another bizarre statement, hailing the proclamation of Syed Sallahuddin, the head of the Pakistan-based United Jihad Council (UJC) and Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HM) leader, the Chief Minister stated, “I welcome the statement of Syed Salahudin that there was no call from UJC for Panchayat election boycott but unfortunately that statement came only when 11 phases were over. Had he issued that statement prior to the beginning of the elections, I hope the participation would have been nearly 100 percent.” Sallahuddin, had on May 30, proclaimed that “the Panchayat polls are about people’s problems at the grassroots and so they are good” and that the amalgam had not given any call for boycott of Panchayat elections.

Indeed, the entire democratic leadership in J&K toes the separatist line on the election: that these are an ‘administrative expedient’ with no ‘political’ significance. As Chief Minister, the Peoples Democratic Party’s (PDP’s) Mufti Mohammad Saeed had also publicly advocated that the elected Government was just a ‘day to day arrangement to handle day to day problems of the people’ and had no locus standi to decide about ‘larger political issues’. In the highest irony, Dileep Padgaonkar, the New Delhi-appointed Chief Interlocutor on J&K, at a ‘Peace Conference’ organized by the J&K Peace Foundation in Srinagar on May 16, 2011, declared, “Polls and Kashmir issue are far away from each other. People are participating in elections to address their basic issues.” Radha Kumar, another Interlocutor, in an earlier interview on Doordarshan, described the elected Government in J&K as ‘almost non-representative’ because, according to her, ‘a very large public constituency’ fell outside the boundaries of the ‘democratic sphere’.

These positions are distinguishable only in form from the separatist All Party Hurriyat Conference-Geelani Chairman Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s position, when he called for a poll boycott on April 6, 2011, arguing that “long experience made us conclude that India’s democratic claims are a mere sham… This long saga of sacrifice not only made the electoral process meaningless, but also left no moral justification for any conscientious person to become a participant. Now useless exercise like elections can’t be substitute for right to self determination.” Despite the near complete boycott of his boycott call, the State’s elected representatives continue to subvert the democratic process through their statements and postures. Indeed, the argument that elections have no part in a political resolution of outstanding issues can only be astonishing within a democratic framework.

Violence in J&K has diminished to a tiny fraction of the peak of 2001; large numbers of terrorists are believed to have left the Valley, even as others are eager to return from their safe havens in Pakistan, to a normal life at home; “the stamina for mass agitation is running low, terrorism is down, and infiltration is low”. This would be an opportune moment for the democratic leadership in J&K to seize the initiative, using their electoral legitimacy to address political grievances. Instead, administrative incompetence and a culture of deep corruption have forced these leaders to play on divisive identity politics, and to hold out the implicit threat of separatism in order to secure the Centre’s largesse, even as they continue to seek to evade accountability.

Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management

SATP

SATP

SATP, or the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) publishes the South Asia Intelligence Review, and is a product of The Institute for Conflict Management, a non-Profit Society set up in 1997 in New Delhi, and which is committed to the continuous evaluation and resolution of problems of internal security in South Asia. The Institute was set up on the initiative of, and is presently headed by, its President, Mr. K.P.S. Gill, IPS (Retd).

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