As Jammu and Kashmir is gearing up for its first municipal elections since 2011 and the panchayat polls, which has been delayed for two years due to unrest in the Valley, minorities and activists are sensing and scared of another spell of boycott and violence.
This year 422 municipal wards will go for polls in four phases starting from October 8, 10, 13 and 16.
Similarly, there will be a nine-phase poll for Panchayat elections which will be held on non-party basis. Polling will be held on November 17, 20, 24, 27 and 29 and December 1, 4, 8 and 11.
Panchayat elections for 4,130 sarpanch and 29,719 panch constituencies in the state were last held in 2011 after a gap of nearly four decades when a record 80% people voted despite the 2010 unrest, in which more than 130 protesters were killed. The elected Panchayats completed their term in June 2016.
Probably, this is the first time in Indian democracy that the Election Commission is maintaining secrecy when it comes to the names of the candidates contesting for a local body election. People have no choice but vote for the party symbol. If at all they are willing to cast their votes that is. The last by-polls in Kashmir witnessed a turnout of little over 7 per cent of the voters.
In the wake of debates surrounding the scrapping of Article 35-A (this gives special status to people of Jammu and Kashmir and protects them from outsiders), two of the biggest regional parties, National Conference (NC) and People’s Democratic Party (PDP) have called for a boycott, along with the CPI(M), which only has one Assembly seat in the state.
However, the call for boycott didn’t stop the Central government from holding the elections, with Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh claiming that, “any delay in the election will cost the government a loss of Rs 4,500 crore” and this “election will help establish grassroots democracy” in the state. Regional parties being out of the picture means the Congress and the BJP are going to lock horns with each other.
Since the announcement of the elections on September 15, Southern Kashmir, which houses 50 per cent of the municipal wards, has turned into a volatile battleground with rampant killings and abductions. On September 21, three police officers and civilians were killed by separatists in Sopore town and seven Panchayat offices were set ablaze. Three days prior to the polls, two National Conference workers were shot dead in Srinagar.
As the D-day is fast approaching, minorities and activists are scared of separatists wreaking havoc. The separatist groups have called for a shutdown in the Valley on the election day. A statement signed by separatist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Syed Ali Geelani urged the civilians to “observe shut down in their own respective areas as per polls scheduled on all the dates."
Human Rights defender Khurram Parvez is among those who question the validity of the polls and says, “Every time after elections the government announces that separatists have been rendered irrelevant and that’s why the government spends so much for elections to show that the Kashmir issue has been resolved.”
“In an atmosphere of absolute militarisation, democracy doesn’t hold any value and it’s all a facade,” he adds.
While the BJP has been confident of a clean sweep in the Valley, 13 BJP nominees have quit the race in Anantnag’s Dooru area over security concerns. A Greater Kashmir report mentioned that 28 per cent wards in Kashmir don’t have candidates.
At least 215 candidates have been elected uncontested from Kashmir out of which BJP claimed the party has won at least 70 seats, PTI reported.
The Sikhs, a two per cent religious minority in the state, have also decided to boycott the elections speculating a violent outcome.
“How can the government conduct elections in such a volatile scenario? This will further provoke the people in the Valley and people are already scared. The entire Sikh community is boycotting this election,” says All Party Sikh coordination Committee chief Jagmohan Singh Raina.
Approximately 17 lakh citizens are eligible to vote in the urban body polls with Srinagar Municipal Corporations having the most number of electors.