IT IS a tragedy that has become banal due to its recurrence. A village head or two are shot dead, followed by a spate of resignations, forcing the Jammu & Kashmir government to promise security to the people’s representatives. The outcry lasts for a few days and then dies down. The script played out again on 11 January. Unidentified militants shot dead Habibullah Mir, 70, in the compound of his house in Goripora Bomie in Sopore. He was affiliated with the Congress. The very next day, Zoona Begum, the female panch from Hardshiva village, was shot at and critically injured.
Once again, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah promised security. He hurriedly chaired a security review meeting. But this has hardly brought any sense of security to the panchayat members; 35 of whom have since resigned, most of them doing it through notifications published in local newspapers.
In the past two years, Kashmiri newspapers have received several hundred such notifications from the frightened panches and sarpanches. However, these haven’t translated into actual resignations. According to government sources, only around 50 panches have officially tendered their resignations with the respective Block Development Officers and even these have not been accepted.
The issue will be forgotten until the next tragedy; and the script will be played out all over again. The government, however, has few options. It can’t provide individual security to all the 34,000 panches and sarpanches. Time and again, Omar has been explicit about the impracticality of such an exercise. And his words have been echoed by Union Panchayati Raj Minister V Kishore Chandra Deo, who also underlined the impossibility of providing security to all the panchayat representatives in the state.
This has turned panchayat members into sitting ducks for the militants. What makes matters worse is that these killings generate little public outcry in the Valley. Not even the villagers who elected the panchayat members have protested. But this is hardly surprising. The panches and sarpanches operate haplessly in a bitterly contested space.
Militants see the existence of the sarpanches as the negation of their own two-decade-old struggle, whereas the government sees them as the symbol of democracy’s triumph over separatist resistance. So, every killing is an attempt by the militants to derail this fourth tier of democracy, or if nothing, a calculated effort to put the state government on the backfoot.
“We are trying our best to give the panchayat representatives a sense of security and I think we have succeeded to a large extent,” says National Conference spokesman Tanvir Sadiq. “We must also recognise that the very fact that the Panchayati Raj institutions are firmly in place in the state is a huge leap forward from the troubled 1990s.”
But even Sadiq acknowledges the difficult road ahead. And the National Conference’s alliance partner, the Congress, feels the situation is capable of being redressed without the need to offer security to all panchayat members.
The Congress wants empowerment of panchayat members through “incorporation or adoption” of the 73rd amendment to the Constitution of India. State Congress chief Saifuddin Soz has already handed over a draft of the recommendations made by the party’s internal committee for the incorporation of some provisions of the 73rd amendment into the J&K Panchayati Raj Act. The thinking goes that while it is not feasible to offer security to every panchayat member, the panches and sarpanches would be willing to brave risks as part of their job if they are given effective administrative powers.
However, none of the parties have talked about the need to get rid of the politics that has come to surround the panchayat institutions. The temptation to see them as harbingers of normalcy pits them against the history of the past two decades and lends their role an uncomfortable political dimension. There is, therefore, an urgent need to depoliticise panchayats and restore to them their primary role as vehicles for grassroots development.