Elections for local government bodies – Panchayat and urban local bodies (ULB) – are scheduled to be held next week in Indian Kashmir. The polls will begin with ULB elections from October 8 to October 16, while counting for these polls will end on October 20. These elections are being held after a gap of 13 years.
Panchayat elections will start from November 17 in nine phases. The last Panchayat elections were held in the state in 2011, and saw voter turnout of 80 percent. Yet this time around, with a fragile security situation and local politics in flux, the elections may prove to be a disappointment.
With only a few weeks to go before the first phase of Panchayat voting begins, barely any kind of election-related activity is visible on the ground. Most of the former members of the Panchayat seem disinterested in contesting the polls. Many of them fear for their lives, after witnessing a spate of killings of their colleagues by unknown gunmen between 2013 and 2015.
Moreover, even before the dates for the polls had been set, the mainstream regional political parties National Conference (NC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) announced they would boycott the election over the contentious issue of Article 35A.
Article 35A is a provision of the Indian Constitution that provides special privileges to the permanent residents of Jammu and Kashmir. It bars nonresidents from buying immovable property and taking up government jobs or scholarships in the state. The provision has been contested in the Supreme Court of India by an NGO claiming it illegal and by a female lawyer alleging discrimination against women over property rights. For the past few weeks, the issue has mobilized Kashmiris, who have opposed the provision’s annulment, while many outside Kashmir are pushing for its removal. The Supreme Court has announced its next set of hearings on this issue will take place in January 2019. The Indian government too had requested such a delay before the court so that the case won’t create trouble in conducting the local body elections.
However, both the NC and PDP have alleged that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), India’s ruling party, is working behind the scenes for the removal of Article 35A. The NC was the first party to announce its unwillingness to take part in polls. The party’s president, Farooq Abdullah, had stated on September 5 that the NC “will not participate in the upcoming polls unless [the] Indian and state government clears its position on Article 35A.”
The PDP then followed suit with Mehbooba Mufti, the former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir and PDP president, announcing that her party will not contest these upcoming elections as the prevailing situation was not favorable. “We will go to any extent to protect Article 35A,” she said.
Meanwhile, another senior local leader, MY Tarigami of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), told The Diplomat his party would also be sitting out the elections. “Our party believes in decentralization and empowerment of Panchayat and Municipal governance,” Tarigami said. “These are the basic components of democratic structures and not holding elections is a major setback to development — but the situation is not feasible to hold the elections.” He added, “Central government had taken oath to protect the provisions of the constitution but they have done nothing to safeguard this provision so far. Keeping these things in view, we have decided not to take part in the upcoming polls.”
Yet the central government is pushing for the upcoming polls. India’s Home Minister Rajnath Singh told one Indian news agency that urban local body and Panchayat polls in Jammu and Kashmir will be held as scheduled.
The political skepticism is further boosted by the anti-India separatist leaders, who too have announced a boycott, as they do for any political activity concerning India. In a statement, the Joint Resistance Leadership (JRL), the alliance of separatist leadership in Kashmir comprising of Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, and Yasin Malik, said that, “Peoples’ participation in polls are propagated as a verdict in India’s favor.” They further added that “India uses polls as a means to dilute Jammu and Kashmir’s disputed status and to undo the holding of a referendum as promised at the United Nation.”
Meanwhile, militants have warned people not to participate in the elections — or else face consequences. Riyaz Naikoo, the operational commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen (HM), appeared in a video warning people to “bring shrouds along with election forms.” Earlier in April, Naikoo had threatened to pour acid on those who dared to participate in polls. He reiterated the same threat in the latest video, claiming, “We have brought hydrochloric and sulfuric acid for people who are planning to contest in the elections.”
The authorities announced the poll dates on September 15. A day later, several Panchayat buildings (the offices of village heads) were set on fire by unknown persons in south and central Kashmir.
These threats are coming on the heels of a recent upsurge in militant violence specifically targeting local policemen. On September 21, three policemen were killed by militants after being abducted earlier from their residences in the volatile Shopian district in South Kashmir. These killings triggered a series of resignations by policemen, who made their announcements via social media and mosques. The Indian Home Ministry dismissed such reports as mere “propaganda” by the militants.
For many locals, the combination of these militant threats, the earlier killings of Panchayat members, and the recent militant violence, have acted as a deterrent toward participating in elections.
“In Kashmir we are unable to trace the unknown gunmen for more than three decades now. It will result in more killings in future if the government doesn’t take measures to solve the Kashmir issue,” Ghulam Nabi, a former sarpanch from South Kashmir, told The Diplomat.
Nabi has been in hiding for many years and is living in tight security in one of the main towns of South Kashmir. He has not visited his home for several years now.
He says that Panchayat or municipal elections can indeed bring development to the grassroots level, but they have to be held at the right time. “There is alienation among people of Kashmir against the political system. Also militancy is growing rapidly and people are protesting, which indicates that this is not a right time to hold polls,” he added.
There are others who point out the trust deficit between the political leaders and the locals – an issue amplified after the PDP joined hands with the BJP in 2015, after the former campaigned hard to keep the BJP at bay. Many PDP supporters took the party leadership’s decision as a betrayal of the voters’ mandate. The PDP-BJP coalition rule witnessed a rapidly deteriorating security situation, with surging street protests and intensifying local militancy, especially after the killing of the charismatic HM commander Burhan Wani in 2016.
“The hope which came after the emergence of the PDP in 1999, that hope was dashed by the PDP itself after joining hands with the BJP in 2015 to form an anti-people government,” an academic from North Kashmir who wished not to be named told The Diplomat.
“…During the tenure of this government the state worked like a full-fledged police state and the elected representatives’ arrogant behavior added salt to wounds.”
He added that this trust deficit is the major reason for locals’ anger. “Keeping this in mind, the turnout during the upcoming [polls] will be very low,” he said.
If the PDP is facing a credibility crisis in the Kashmir Valley, its rival, the NC finds itself on a similar footing. It is pertinent to note that when the NC was in power from 2009 to 2015, its rule also saw a spate of civilian killings at the hands of security forces during street protests.
Judging by last year’s voting for the parliamentary seat in the capital of Srinagar, things don’t look bright. That election, held on April 9, recorded a mere 8 percent voter turnout and was characterized by intense violence, resulting in the deaths of eight civilians in central Kashmir. The poor voter turnout and the violence forced the Election Commission to cancel voting for another parliamentary seat in Anantnag, South Kashmir, which was scheduled for three days later – that election still has not taken place.
“When there was such violence at the last polling, how can the government expect the situation to be normal when even mainstream political parties are parting themselves from elections?” a local from South Kashmir, Nisar Rasool, told The Diplomat.
People say that against this background of militant threats and poll boycott calls, it will be impossible to hold the local body elections. Even if they are held, it will only benefit those parties that are participating. “Many candidates will win unopposed, mostly from the BJP who have filed the nominations,” Dr. Javeed, a local from Kashmir, told The Diplomat.
If the elections are held, it will be a harbinger of many things for Indian Kashmir. The scale of voter turnout will demonstrate people’s mood on the ground and the ability of the state to ensure political activity in a volatile situation.
Um Roommana is a freelance journalist based in Kashmir.