Srinagar: The government in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir is once again facing the dilemma of how to deal with the perceived security threats to local representatives, including panchs and sarpanchs who were touted to enforce various welfare schemes of the Narendra Modi government.
The UT administration and the police force have come under increased pressure after the killing of a local BJP leader in north Kashmir’s Bandipora district, just a month after a Congress sarpanch was shot dead.
In Kashmir, where the security situation remains precarious, government officials told ThePrint that it might be difficult to provide security to all the current panchs and sarpanchs, let alone the ones who are supposed to be elected in a planned re-election process on the vacant seats in the near future.
There are a total of 19,582 panch and sarpanch seats in Kashmir. Only 7,528 of these positions were contested in the 2018 urban local body and panchayat polls, according to official data. But in Jammu’s 148 blocks, of the 18,182 positions, only 93 are vacant.
“Besides these elected representatives, the administration has to also provide security to former ministers, politicians, activists and even journalists who face an alleged threatening situation thus making it the task of the UT government more challenging. The 35,000-plus special police officers (SPOs) and other constabulary of the strong 90,000-plus J&K Police force is simply not enough to provide security to everyone who wants it based on threat perception,” said a senior government official, who did not want to be named.
“The central paramilitary forces are also providing security to a number of people but our best hope to secure lives of these men and women associated with mainstream politics or government is more effective counter-insurgency operations,” said the official.
“The political leader killed in Bandipora had 10 SPOs on duty but that didn’t stop militants from attacking them. So a multi-pronged approach to deal with the situation has to be taken instead of just attaching policemen to every citizen of Kashmir,” the official added.
Subsequent threats issued by militant outfits last week forced the BJP to put its members, which included panchs and sarpanchs, under police protection at various safe locations in Kashmir.
Fear in local leaders
These events have raised fears in local body leaders, who were presented as the Valley’s new grassroots leaders in the past two years, especially after the scrapping of Article 370.
The local representatives – who were elected in the 2018 elections that were boycotted by main regional powers, the NC and the PDP – were promised power, and more importantly, security.
Now, most of the panches and sarpanches ThePrint spoke to expressed dissatisfaction with how the J&K administration has handled them since their election. Leaders across the ideological line showed this insecurity, with panches and sarpanches affiliated to both BJP and Congress blaming the Jammu and Kashmir administration as well as the Narendra Modi government.
The representatives complain of broken promises, lack of acknowledgment by senior bureaucracy, and amplification of threats posed to their lives by militant groups with these incidents.
‘Militants are attacking symbols of govt’
Last week’s killing of BJP leader Wasim Bari, along with his father and brother, was a unique case as the incident not only happened a few metres away from the Bandipora police station and a CRPF facility, but also in the presence of 10 special police officers (SPOs) who were guarding him.
This happened only weeks after Ajay Pandita, a Congress party sapanch from Lukbawan village in south Kashmir’s Larkipora, was gunned down by militants.
These cases have highlighted to the local panches and sarpanches that the J&K administration didn’t keep the promise of security made before the 2018 polls.
Sheikh Javaid, an independent sarpanch from Budgam district, said, “The militants are not attacking any particular (person). They are attacking symbols of the government, wherever it exists and we are the face of the government, the grassroots leaders.”
He said the killing of the political leader in Bandipora, even though he didn’t hold any official position, has created fear among leaders across party lines. “We are sitting ducks,” said Javaid.
Sajid Raina, a sarpanch from the troubled Pulwama region as well as BJP’s district president, is among hundreds of elected panchs and sarpanchs who left their homes in 2018 to stay in secure Srinagar hotels even before the elections took place.
The hotel accommodation was provided to the poll winners and losers. They are still unable to return to their homes due to the impending militant threats.
“I am a sarpanch from Pulwama and I can’t stay in my own village and in my own district. We are not saying provide us with dozens of PSOs so we can go back home and discharge our duties… But the government should at least ensure that we have some security so some confidence is instilled among us,” Raina said.
‘No one listens to us’
Rashid Bhat, another sarpanch in Khaag who is associated with the RSS-affiliate Muslim Rashtriya Manch, highlighted another major concern too — the “lack of acknowledgment”.
“The administration for some reason does not recognise us as elected representatives, thereby making our position more vulnerable. If the security threat that we face on a daily basis is not enough, we also have to deal with red-tape within the bureaucracy,” said Bhat.
“For instance, in my own area, we have a major issue of water as well as electricity. I brought the issues to the notice of government departments concerned. While the water department did not bother to keep me in the loop when it finally acted on my requests after several months, the electricity department didn’t even acknowledge me,” he said. “We have been demanding power transformers for over a year. Nothing happens here.”
However, a government official said on the condition of anonymity that since the Pulwama attack in February 2019, there has been “continuous upheaval”. “The abrogation of Article 370 and the (Covid-19) pandemic, all of this slowed down us a bit but we are on the right track,” said the official.
What happened before the elections
In 1993, the 73rd Amendment to the Constitution established a three-tier panchayat system across India. But it did not apply to Jammu and Kashmir.
In 2018, the State Administrative Council (SAC) headed by then J&K governor Satyapal Malik amended the J&K Panchayati Raj Act, 1989 thereby allowing local representatives to directly implement various centrally sponsored development schemes and supervise functioning of certain government offices and schools in their respective areas.
The state’s two main political parties, the PDP and the NC, announced a boycott in protest against the Modi government’s plans to scrap the special status of J&K.
The vacuum was immediately filled with individuals who rushed to join the BJP or the Congress, hoping to get a say in the Valley’s political landscape. But that hasn’t happened.
Administration doesn’t think much of us, say leaders
According to a senior government official, the representatives are given funds to carry out developmental work through various central government welfare schemes, including NREGA, Swachh Bharat Mission, and Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana.
“I will not say there are hostilities between sarpanches and government officials but we sometimes get caught in a fix because most of these elected representatives are first timers with no history of holding an official position. Their intentions might be good but they are clueless about the intricacies of implementing,” said the official.
However, village heads say the process of getting the funds, which come in tranches or phases, isn’t smooth. “I was told that funds will come in nine phases. Till the fourth phase I received funds and even carried out work, but the last time the funds came was last year,” said Javaid.
Raina said it’s not that the Centre is reluctant to send funds. “It’s just that the bureaucracy here does not trust us or think we are intelligent enough,” said Raina, who also accused the bureaucracy of moving at snail’s pace on concerns, proposals and requests sent.
“I feel like I am not being heard at all. I might not be able to go back home but I would like to work for my people from wherever I am based,” Raina said.
ThePrint reached Raghav Langar, the deputy commissioner of Raina’s area, for a comment but there was no response till the time of publishing this report.
‘Administration is selective’
Mushtaq Khan, a sarpanch from Beerwah and the provincial president (Kashmir division) of All J&K Panchayat Conference, accused the UT administration of being selective in providing security.
“I have been associated with the Congress since 1994 and was given one PSO due to threats posed to my life but what about hundreds of other elected representatives. After the killing of Ajay Pandita, the L-G of J&K did not give us time to meet him,” said Khan.
“The elected panchs and sarpanchs deserve to be given security as promised by the former governor of Jammu and Kashmir Satyapal Malik. I have been getting 50 calls a day from panchs and sarpanchs asking for security since the Bandipora incident but what can I do? I feel helpless,” he added.
Last September, Union Home Minister Amit Shah had assured security and Rs 2-lakh life insurance cover to each panch and sarpanch in the UT.
For Mohammad Abdullah, a Congress panch in Magam, said the insurance has very little use. “I have left everything to God. I have no enemies and I only pray for my safety from God. Why should I rely on the government here?”
ThePrint reached Sheetal Nanda, Secretary, Rural Development and Panchayati Raj, for a comment but there was no response till the time of publishing this report.
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