The ‘fear factor’ has led to over four hundred Panchayat members resign in Kashmir, a year after elections were held for this grassroot democratic set-up in the state. Ask any political group about why these workers have become targets, and different reasons will be trotted out. But there's one area of unanimous agreement: that the state government led by Chief Minister Omar Abdullah has failed to protect them. A year after election was held for Panchayats, the members have become systematic targets.
The recent killing of a deputy sarpanch in north Kashmir’s Baramulla has raised further questions about the government response in providing security to panchayat members. In a kneejerk response, the police chief of the Kashmir division travelled to Baramulla, about 60 km from the summer capital to oversee the investigation into the killing. “Assault on the elected representatives of the people will be considered an assault on people’s will. Police will take all measures to provide them with security,” IGP S M Sahai said.
Under criticism for not being able to provide adequate security and bring the culprits of earlier killings to book, Sahai said that the police has solved the killing of a sarpanch in south Kashmir. “All the accused in the case have been chargesheeted. The police have arrested one person associated with a separatist organisation involved in instigating the killing of Sarpanch Ghulam Muhammad Yattoo at Palhallan Pattan. Investigation in the case is moving in right direction to get to the other perpetrators,” the IGP said.
Under criticism for failing to provide a secure environment for the panchayat members, the government has hastily ordered night patrols in sensitive areas. A hurriedly called press conference saw Minister of Rural Development Ali Mohammad Sagar announcing that the security agencies will ensure safety. Analysts tracking the development believe that the measure may be too little, too late.
“More than 400 panchayat members have resigned in the last three weeks after posters threatening them to resign appeared. Where is the sense of security?” an analyst asked. He said there isn’t a day when you don’t see panchayat members making their resignation public.
For Omar Abdullah, the situation is simply embarrassing. When the elections were held, the 42-year-old had termed them as first ‘free and fair’ elections for grassroots democracy in 33 years. A year later, he is under sharp criticism for the failure. The recently killing prompted him to take up the matter with the Unified Headquarters. Sources said the result was army being pressed into service. In most villages of north Kashmir, army has started patrolling at 8 pm every day. The areas under vigil are mostly in Baramulla, Sopore in north Kashmir, and Pulwama and Tral in south Kashmir.
The exercise has also raised questions over the inadequacy of the police to deal with the situation alone.
Omar is also faced with many other problems concerning security for grassroot members. For the first time he has come under the attack from Congress scion Rahul Gandhi, who during his meet with panchayat members promised to look into their demand. The chief minister may have dubbed the rift as a media creation, but analysts say assurance by Gandhi will definitely dent Omar’s image as state’s head.
Omar’s problems don’t end. The main opposition People's Democratic Party has squarely rejected a militant hand in these killings. The main Opposition party has hinted that ruling National Conference was behind the killings "to create fear psychosis among people and rig the upcoming Assembly elections".
“I don’t know who is behind these killings but the needle of suspicion moves towards the National Conference,” senior PDP leader Muzaffar Hussain Baig said.
At least five Sarpanches and Panches have been killed, two in the past fortnight. Over a dozen of them have been injured in such attacks. For Omar the usual suspects have outsmarted him too. Hurriyat Conference (G) chief Syed Ali Shah Geelani was among the first political leaders to condemn the killings. While the government is putting the blame on militants, the United Jihad Council— an umbrella group of militant organisations operating in Kashmir—has also condemned the killings making it more difficult for the chief minister to point a finger. The UJC had not called for a boycott for the panchayat elections last year. Its chief, Syed Salahuddin, had then said that the people of Kashmir people need ‘good governance’ as well in their ‘freedom struggle’.