J&K Sarpanch Killings: How the Militant Attacks Derail Grassroots Politics

The renewed attacks ahead of the delimitation and the talk of elections has worried Panchayat members.

7 min read
Hindi Female

Sameer Ahmad Bhat (43) dashed through the door to meet two visitors who were waiting for him outside the porch on a cobbled courtyard at his house in Khonmoh village near the outskirts of the Srinagar city.

Just when Sameer ducked to put on his flip-flops, one of the men pulled a weapon and fired many rounds. His brother, Firdous Bhat, who was on the other side of the house, came scampering, and upon seeing Sameer writhing on the ground, grabbed a stick and charged himself on the attackers. They fired a shot at him as well. But they missed.

Bhat, who was a village head, or sarpanch, of the area, succumbed to injuries on his way to the hospital.

The renewed attacks ahead of the delimitation and the talk of elections has worried Panchayat members.

The house of Sameer Ahmad Bhat (43), an independent sarpanch in Khonmoh area of Srinagar who was shot dead by militants in Kashmir on 9 March.

(Photo: Shakir Mir)


Rising Attacks

Two days later, on 11 March, assailants struck again at Awdoora village in the south Kashmir district of Kulgam, killing Shabir Ahmad Mir, another sarpanch.

His case highlights the new ways in which militants have access to pinpointed intelligence about their targets. “My father has been living in Srinagar most of his life,” said Zahid Shabir, the slain sarpanch’s 17-year-old son. “But that day, he had gone to his home to obtain his sarpanch card. He got late and decided to stay at his house that night, and just when he went out to use the toilet, he was shot thrice in the abdomen.”

A police statement said that Mir was lodged in a secured accommodation nearly 70 km away in Srinagar and that he had forsaken the security at his own peril without informing the police, who were unaware of his whereabouts at the time when the attack took place.

On the next day, a pistol-borne militant fired at a sarpanch at the Arihal village in the south Kashmir district of Pulwama. Ghulam Nabi Kumar managed to escape the bullet and survived the assassination bid.

But not everyone is lucky. On 3 March, another panchayat member, Muhammad Yaqoob Dar, died after militants fired at him at the Kulipora village area of the Kulgam district.

As summers draw nearer in Kashmir, a swift and sudden flurry of militant activity is taking security agencies by surprise. Earlier this month, there was a deadly grenade attack in Srinagar’s crowded Hari Singh High Street area, which resulted in the death of two civilians.

On 10 March, a guard outside a bank in Pulwama town was injured during an unsuccessful attempt by militants to snatch his rifle. Before that, in Budgam district in central Kashmir, police recovered the body of Sameer Ahmad Malla, a local army serviceman, who is said to have been abducted by militants affiliated with the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) group.

An official in Budgam told this reporter that while there were no gunshot injuries, Malla was likely to have been beaten to death. “Budgam district doesn’t see much militant activity, yet it’s surprising that the attackers had precise information about Malla, who had just returned home on leave.”


Why Militants Strike Around Elections 

The series of attacks are coming at a time when there has been talk about the announcement of assembly elections in Jammu & Kashmir, which last saw an elected government in July 2018.

Since then, the former state has witnessed a radical overhaul of its polity, administration and its relationship with the Union of India. New political parties, such as the Jammu & Kashmir Apni Party, have come into being and new governance patterns have been established.

In November 2020, the Union government amended the Jammu and Kashmir Panchayati Raj Act, 1989, to clear the decks for the creation of District Development Councils that formed new units of governance in the Union Territory.

The regional administration also amended the J&K Panchayati Raj Rules, 1996, to provide for the establishment of elected DDCs in Jammu & Kashmir, marking the implementation of the entire 73rd Constitutional Amendment.

The emphasis on the strengthening of Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRI) has also been an effective political instrument in the hands of the Union government. With its help, the government has attempted to nurture a discourse of “new” grassroots democratic politics as it seeks to increasingly sideline established political parties such as the National Conference (NC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), which have come together to form an “adversarial” political bloc committed to the reinstatement of Article 370.

Shafiq Mir, chairperson of Jammu and Kashmir Panchayat Conference, said that members of PRI form the first line of institutional representation as far as governance is concerned. "We are the first political workers and if anyone wants to derail the democratic process, they can do so easily by targeting us.”

How Elections Were Boycotted

Kashmir has more than 20,000 elected members of village panchayats, 307 block council members, and nearly 240 district council members.

In 2018, the nine-phase Panchayat elections that were being held after a gap of six years largely faced a boycott from most mainstream parties amid concerns over the repeal of Article 35 (A), which once prohibited the purchase of land in Jammu & Kashmir by anyone who was not a permanent resident of the erstwhile state.

The boycott was so effective that a large number of candidates won unopposed. In Konmoh, where Sameer Ahmad Bhat contested from, 37 of the 45 panch constituencies had no candidates. And out of the five sarpanch halqas, four were elected unopposed.

But since 5 August 2019, the Valley has been alternating between government crackdown of varying intensities on one hand and spells of increased militant activity on the other. The targeting of the Panchayat members has already been an emotive issue in Kashmir.


'Imprisonment': Members at Cluster Homes

Many of the members of the Panchayati Raj Institution had been relocated to safe clusters following inputs about threats to their lives. In fact, most candidates during DDC elections in 2020 said they had faced strict restrictions on their movement, which also undermined poll campaigning.

But now, the renewal of attacks ahead of the delimitation of assembly constituencies and the talk of elections has sent Panchayat members running for cover.

Many have been relocated to cluster accommodations again. This has resulted in what the members call “imprisonment”, which is affecting their engagement with their political constituencies while also hurting rural development.

“From 2012 to 2022, around 24 panchs and sarpanches have been killed by militants in Kashmir,” said Shafiq Mir. “And all the killings took place whenever any sort of political or election process was about to begin.”

Mir decried what he called a lack of comprehensive plan to ensure the security of panchs and sarpanches. “They are being crammed into security clusters that constrain their mobility,” he said.

Sarpanches across Kashmir are plagued by thoughts that their absence from their respective constituencies is breeding corruption and mismanagement.


'We Can Hardly Move Out'

“We literally put our lives at risk just to make sure that grassroots democracy across Kashmir remains intact,” said Anees ul Islam, a panch from Sagam village of Kokernag in South Kashmir, who is associated with Apni Party.

Islam also suffered an attack last year while campaigning during the DDC elections. Two militants sprang in front of him and lifted the hem of their feran, a traditional winter garment made of tweed, and shot him in the arm, hand and in the hip area. “I am still recuperating,” he said.

Islam complained that sarpanches across Kashmir received an honorarium of only Rs 3,000 while panchs got Rs 1,000. “This is what we get for the sacrifices that we have been rendering,” he said. “How will we run the day-to-day affairs?”

Islam, like his colleagues, is also lodged in a high-security zone. “I am currently putting up at cluster accommodation at Housing Colony Khanabal in Anantnag,” he said. “We are hardly allowed to move out. Hardly once or twice in a week do we get to visit our constituencies. We are told to leave at 11 am and be back by 2 pm in the afternoon. The Police Control Room calls us a thousand times, directing us to return. How can one commit to the welfare of people in such a situation?” he asks.


A Nexus Between Panchayat Members and Contractors

Similarly, Aftab Beg, who heads a Block Development Council in Kunzer village of the tourist resort area of Tangmarg in north Kashmir, said he has been putting up at a safe cluster 4 km from his constituency. “Nearly 4 months ago, I was at a safe cluster in Srinagar. But the government later told us we should vacate it,” he said. “Now that the attackers have resurfaced, we have been relocated to safe spaces again.”

Beg said that their stay at the cluster accommodations hampers their groundwork, as a result of which their political engagement with the people is adversely affected. This, in turn, spoils their political prospects in the longer run.

Aijaz Ahmad Mir, a DDC member from Zainapora in Shopian district gave a more disturbing account of how their absence from their political constituencies is deepening the estrangement on the ground.

“There’s hardly any sarpanch or DDC member in south Kashmir who freely moves about here and there and has even attended a gram sabha [village meeting],” said Mir, who was also a member of the Legislative Assembly during the PDP-BJP government.

“Nearly 70 per cent of PRI members in Shopian district are without security and accommodation. Many of them are putting up at the residences of their relatives just to escape being targeted,” he said.

Mir is himself staying at a private accommodation in Srinagar nearly 57 km from his constituency in Zainapora. “Police always advise us against visiting our constituencies. But what work will we do while sitting in Srinagar?” he asks. “The government waxes eloquent about empowering Panchayati Raj Institutions, but we see a different situation on the ground.”

Mir alleged that due to the lack of supervision by village heads and DDCs, a nexus has emerged between panchayat secretaries and private contractors.

“Often, the contractors and secretaries change the particulars of a given developmental project. For example, if a certain road has to be made at a certain place, only the patch where the contractor feels the investment could be less will be redeveloped or macadamised. When people feel that work hasn’t been up to the mark, they don’t blame them, they blame us, and we have to suffer on account of that,” he said.

At the house of Sameer, the slain sarpanch in Konmoh, his father, Abdul Rashid Bhat, a retired BSNL employee, breaks down. “No one will understand what we have lost,” he said. “It’s now after his death that we realise how far and wide his popularity was.”

Bhat refers to a recent incident when two members of the nomadic Gujjar community had come to his house to mourn Sameer’s death. “They told me that Sameer had been helping them financially and that after his demise, they will have to struggle to make ends meet.”

(Shakir Mir is a freelance journalist who has reported for the Times Of India and The Wire, among other publications. He tweets at @shakirmir.)

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