Political sparring over sarpanch killings in J&K
With Rahul Gandhi criticising the NC over the recent killing of two sarpanches, politics is clouding the larger issue, says
BY KASHMIR’s standards, two killings in a fortnight would reflect a remarkable improvement in the situation. But not when the targeted are elected panchayat representatives who have become the harbingers of peace in the Valley by enabling the percolation of mainstream politics to the grassroots.
While they painstakingly forge this desirable impression for the world, thousands of panches and sarpanches operate haplessly in a bitterly contested space. Militants see their existence as the negation of their two-decade-old struggle while the government sees them as symbols of the ultimate triumph over separatist resistance.
Though this tug-of-war has been silently going on since the panchayat polls happened last year, the recent killing of two sarpanches has brought this unremitting conflict out in the open. There has been a slow build-up to these killings, starting with poster threats early this year in south Kashmir villages. “The government is using you as pawns to weaken the freedom struggle and fritter away our efforts,” one such poster by the Lashkar-e-Toi- ba read. “We warn all people with fascist mindsets, which includes panches and sarpanches and other political workers, to offer their resignations to the government. We hope that you will not force us to resort to jihadi activity against you.”
Now, with militants deciding to carry out their threats, the fallout has been a spate of resignations that have left the panchayati raj system tottering on its foundations. More than 200 panches and sarpanches have tendered their resignations through paid advertisements in local newspapers; many who couldn’t, rushed to their village mosques to announce the decision. The situation is eerily reminiscent of the early ’90s when classified pages in local newspapers were filled with resignation letters of political workers.
The state government’s frantic efforts to stem the tide have met with little success. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, in a hastily called press conference, assured security to the panchayat members. Minister for Panchayati Raj Ali Muhammad Sagar said the state government would alert the security grid to ensure protection of the panchayat representatives. He also offered personal security on the basis of the threat perception to the “vulnerable” members. THE KILLINGS and their fallout also brought into play an incipient rift in the coalition government. The National Conference and the Congress publicly sparred over the delay in delegating powers to the panchayats, with Rahul Gandhi also joining in the argument. The Congress scion raised the issue of the refusal of the state government to incorporate the 73rd Amendment of the Constitution, which, in his opinion, had rendered panchayats ineffective. At Rahul’s insistence Minister of State for Home Affairs, Jitendra Singh has met Omar twice on the issue of empowerment of panches and sarpanches. On 27 September, a delegation of sarpanches met Rahul at his 10, Janpath residence in Delhi and requested him to visit the state and intervene on their behalf.
Earlier, J&K Congress President Saifuddin Soz shared with the media a letter he had sent to Omar impressing on him the need to “adopt or incorporate” the 73rd Amendment in the state Constitution to empower panchayats. Omar shot back that the two Congress ministers had, in a meeting, opposed the delegation of more powers to the panchayats. The CM also rejected the Congress demand for adoption of the 73rd Amendment.
“We will empower panchayats and provide them everything under the Constitution of J&K. At a suitable time, we will make amendments in our Constitution to give greater power to panchayats,” said Omar.
While the two parties settle political scores, the panches continue queuing up with their resignations. And even if the government is able to generate some confidence in the panchayat system, it is unlikely that the attacks will not recur, particularly after the media attention the killings have garnered. This may have already fulfilled the primary aim of the attacks. With inputs from