How Omar failed the panchayat system

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The NC’s refusal to delegate power to the elected community leaders is undermining grassroots democracy, report Baba Umar and Riyaz Wani

Job hazard Hawoora-Mishipora sarpanch Gulzar Ahmad Dar, who was shot dead
Photos: Abid Bhat

CHIEF MINISTER Omar Abdullah hailed last year’s panchayat polls in Jammu & Kashmir — held after a hiatus of 33 years — as a victory of democracy. Even the militant leaders grudgingly admitted the polls were good as they would result in solving “people’s problems at the grassroots level”. However, a year later, the ruling National Conference’s refusal to delegate powers to the elected community leaders and the failure in protecting them from “unidentified gunmen” has left the system in deep crisis.

Panchayat members staging a protest in Srinagar

J&K Panchayat Conference Convener Shafiq Mir says sarpanches operate in an environment where they are seen as enemies both by politicians and militants. “Politicians and the bureaucracy see us as a threat to their power and the militants feel we negate their ideology,” laments Mir, who led a delegation of panchayat members to meet Rahul Gandhi in New Delhi.

“Militant attacks, which may continue, are not the issue, but our willingness to fight back and stay the course is. But why would we do so when there is nothing in our job that makes it worth defending,” he says. “We get neither the money nor the power. So why should we die? It is better to quit and live as ordinary civilians.”

Sarpanch Irshad Ahmad Pandith, who resigned two weeks after a sarpanch was shot dead in Baramulla district on 10 September, says, “The bureaucrats don’t acknowledge us. Even petty clerks take us for granted. We are unsalaried. Some call us turncoats, while unidentified gunmen prey on us. Panchayat polls have become like a black bear for us. You want to escape from it, but it wants to hunt you down.”

Pandith, a 30-year-old science graduate, says he and many others contested the polls only after United Jihad Council (UJC) supremo Syed Salahuddin delinked the polls from the Kashmir dispute. “UJC’s statement was a morale-booster. That’s why we fought the polls,” says Pandith. “The militant leadership had said the polls were of an administrative nature and did not have a bearing on the freedom struggle. Yet, sarpanches were targeted.”

Weeks before quitting, Pandith and 150 other panches and sarpanches met in Baramulla’s Community Hall where they offered to resign en masse “if pro-freedom groups deemed their activities to be against the movement”. “We had appealed to the Hurriyat factions, Lashkar-e-Toiba and the UJC to advise us if they felt that our activities were harming the freedom movement, so that we may resign en masse. We made it clear that the panches and sarpanches aren’t against their struggle.”

For Ghulam Hassan, 58, a sarpanch who announced his resignation via a newspaper advertisement a fortnight ago, the militant threat was just an excuse. The real trouble, he says, came from those quarters whose control diminished immediately after community leaders were elected.

Hassan says sarpanches were told to open bank accounts so that the government could deposit money meant for village sanitation under the National Rural Health Mission scheme. “Seven months later, I’m yet to see a single paisa,” he says.

Even Hassan argues that not all sarpanch killings are the handiwork of militants. “There are other factors at play, such as political rivalries,” he says. In fact, an investigation into the death of deputy sarpanch Mohammad Shafi Teli, who was shot dead in Nawpora on 23 September, points to a local dispute as the real reason.

For Hassan, things will become normal again only when community leaders are empowered through the adoption of the 73rd and 74th Constitutional amendments, which will offer sarpanches superior financial and operational control.

Omar’s reason for not adopting the amendments stems from the argument that it will undermine the state’s own Constitution

Omar’s reason for not adopting the amendments stems from the argument that doing so will undermine the state’s own Constitution, and moreover the J&K Panchayati Raj Act already incorporates provisions of both the amendments.

The stalemate saw its repercussions reaching New Delhi when panchayat leaders not only demanded adoption of these amendments, but also pleaded for security cover and gun licences.

But Hassan doesn’t agree. “We are farmers. We can’t work with a gun slung on our shoulders. It will invite more trouble,” he says. “Imagine, if two cops are attached with each of the 34,000 panches/sarpanches, the police will have to allocate 70 percent of its workforce for our security.”

Omar’s reason for not adopting the amendments stems from the argument that it will undermine the state’s own Constitution

Meanwhile, other sarpanches who haven’t resigned yet are contemplating to do so. For Abdul Samad, 38, the sarpanch of Tilgam in Baramulla, “clipped powers” and the “threat to life” were what forced his family to press for his resignation.

The state recently empowered sarpanches with the right to take attendance of teachers in government schools, but in Baramulla’s Frasthaar village, a headmaster at a primary school was holidaying for four days and someone was marking him present in the attendance register.

“Some parents had complained to the local sarpanch. When the sarpanch went to check the situation, he was accused by the teachers of harassment and vandalising office furniture. He was detained for six days and was physically harmed. A local court is hearing the case,” says Samad.

Panchayati Raj minister Ali Muhammad Sagar says the state government will do everything in its power to protect panchayat members and also take steps to empower them. “We have transferred the powers of 14 departments to panchayats so that they have a free hand in ensuring sustained development in their respective areas. We will also release 57 crore to panchayats to help them establish assets in coordination with the executing agencies,” he says.

But NC’s alliance partner Congress is not satisfied. State party chief Saifuddin Soz wants nothing short of the “adoption or incorporation” of the 73rd amendment. “In the absence of such powers, the panchayat system won’t survive,” he says.

MEANWHILE, THE Opposition PDP moved a Bill on 18 September that seeks to include the two amendments into the J&K Panchayat Raj Act. “But we are afraid that the NC will sabotage its passage,” says PDP spokesman Naeem Akhter. The Congress is expected to back the sarpanches’ demands because it wants to win the votes of the 34,000 panchayat members and their families in the 2014 Assembly polls.

After a meeting on 1 October, Omar instructed the security agencies to take measures to provide security to the panchayat members, especially those living in vulnerable areas. “The meeting was informed that cases relating to violence against panches and sarpanches have been probed and in some cases it has been found that subversive elements were being used by anti-socials to meet their political and personal ends,” said the official press release.

Separatists, on the other hand, are maintaining a safe distance from the issue. “We condemn the killings but we also welcome the resignations. We want the panches and sarpanches to join the freedom movement,” says Ayaz Akbar, spokesman of the Hurriyat’s Geelani faction. “We have rendered thousands of sacrifices for freedom and it is obligatory on all the people of the state to safeguard these sacrifices.”

Baba Umar is a Senior Correspondent with Tehelka.
[email protected]

Riyaz Wani is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.
[email protected]

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