Leaders Mute on Hizbul’s Acid Attack Threat to Disrupt Local Polls

Following Hizbul’s acid threat ahead of panchayat elections, politicians in J&K choose to play it safely.

6 min read
Following Hizbul’s acid threat ahead of panchayat elections, politicians in J&K choose to play it safely.

It is not immediately clear whether the radio intercept between the two dreaded Hizbul Mujahideen commanders, Riyaz Naikoo and Samir Tiger, has been deliberately leaked on social media to terrorise the voters or a government agency.

But a 12-minute audio clip revealing the militants’ purported plans to blind anybody participating in the elections next month seems to have terrified the voters as well as aspiring contestants. Tiger claims to be talking to Hizbul Mujahideen’s chief of operations from Drabgam neighbourhood in J&K Finance Minister Haseeb Drabu’s home constituency in Rajpora, Pulwama.

Panchayat Elections Stuck in a Limbo

Significantly, none of the political parties – including the ruling coalition partners, PDP and BJP – chose to contest or condemn the threat by issuing a statement.

Panchayat elections in Jammu and Kashmir were last held after a long pause of over 30 years in 2011 to elect over 29,000 panchs and 4,145 sarpanchs.

Sixteen of them were killed and around 20 left injured by militants, even as elections were conducted on a non-party basis with no political party in the fray directly. The term of the panchayati institutions expired in 2016, but elections could not be held due to turbulent conditions following Burhan Wani’s death in an encounter.

Mehbooba Mufti’s government is now struggling to conduct the polls for electing over 36,000 panchs and 4,490 sarpanchs, on a non-party and non-political basis.

With the administrative exercise being underway and delimitation of wards almost completed, the first notification for the seven-phase election is expected immediately after the current budget session of the Legislature in the third week of February.

Attempts to Thwart the Democratic Process

Just like all the elections since 1996, separatist politicians and different guerrilla organisations seem to have joined hands to fail the democratic exercise by means of a boycott — as witnessed during last April’s parliamentary elections for Srinagar-Budgam seat with an abysmal 7 percent turnout. Elections for the south Kashmir seat, where Mehbooba’s brother Tassaduq Mufti was the ruling coalition’s candidate, were cancelled after nine people died in the violence.

The chain of events suggests that forthcoming panchayat elections in the valley will be held in the backdrop of extremely hostile conditions. Several mainstream politicians sound skeptical and insist that the panchayat elections will be announced and cancelled on the lines of the Lok Sabha by-elections in 2017 for the Anantnag seat in south Kashmir.

Some of them look optimistic, but fear that the valley, particularly the ruling People’s Democratic Party’s traditional stronghold in south Kashmir, would witness violence similar to the one that marred the Lok Sabha by-elections last year.

Outright Condemnation by Mainstream Leaders Missing

An alliance of senior separatist leaders comprising Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Mohammad Yasin Malik has called for a “boycott” of the panchayat elections, even as several such appeals have been treated with contempt by many voters and contestants across the valley in the last 21 years.

In a sharp contrast to the scenario in 2016, Kashmir’s cleanest ever elections were held with a remarkably positive response from voters in 2014. In fact the panchayat elections of 2011 had broken all records, with 80 percent voter turnout.

However, the situation today is completely different from what it was between 2011 to 2014.

Former chief minister and National Conference leader Omar Abdullah is the only politician who came out with a reaction – cautiously worded – targeting the PDP-BJP coalition rather than the militants. Even those who are otherwise prolific on Twitter and voice their opinions quite frequently chose to keep mum. Retweeting a newspaper’s flash, Omar posted: “If it isn’t pellets it’s acid. One way or the other people are threatened with being blinded”. An outright condemnation is missing in his complaint.

All in PDP and BJP, including Mehbooba and Ram Madhav – who normally give their reactions – ignored the terrorists’ plan of pouring sulfuric acid and hydrochloric acid into the eyes of the contestants as well as the voters.

Despite a marked silence on Twitter, BJP’s state spokesman Khalid Jehangir said:

These radicals (Hizbul militants) should first question their chief Salahuddin and Syed Ali Shah Geelani who have contested many elections. Geelani still takes pension as an MLA.

He asserted that the security agencies would tackle the threat effectively as it was “nothing new for them”.

PDP spokesman Rafi Ahmad Mir avoided criticism as well condemnation of the bizarre diktat.

Since 1996, we have seen that due to boycott and threats, genuine representatives of the people often fail to reach the Assembly and Parliament. Issuing threats is bad. It should be left to the people to participate or not. Such threats are not in the interest of people.
Rafi Ahmad Mir, PDP spokesperson

A spokesperson of the National Conference said that the government should act responsibly.

The threat underlines the grim security atmosphere prevalent in the valley and it is the duty of the government to ensure that security and safety of all the candidates ahead of elections. The government should act with utmost responsibility and seriousness.
Junaid Azeem Mattu, NC spokesperson

Chief Minister Under Fire

President of the Jammu and Kashmir Pradesh Congress Committee, Ghulam Ahmad Mir, alleged:

Chief Minister sahiba has got most of her relatives elected and appointed at key positions. Now she seems to be fulfilling her commitment towards remaining relatives and party leaders by electing them as MLCs against six vacancies reserved for the panchayat and local body representatives. They will be entitled for lifelong pension even if they stay as an MLC for a day.

Six seats in the J&K Legislative Council are reserved, and currently vacant, to be filled by the panchayat and urban local body members. They are entitled to salary, pension and other perks like the members of the upper or lower house of the Legislature.

Congress leader and former minister, Ghulam Ahmad Mir, drew attention towards the fact that until 25 December, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti’s government had repeatedly told the Election Commission of India, in as many as ten communications, that the situation was not conducive for holding by-elections on the south Kashmir Lok Sabha seat.

How did the situation improve dramatically in the last 10-15 days with dates for the panchayat elections to be announced anytime soon? Clearly, they want to take benefit of the zero turnout and rig the polls to accommodate their kith and kin.
Ghulam Ahmad Mir, Congress leader
In the Lok Sabha election, there would have been three or more candidates. In Panchayat elections, the number of candidates will be over 40,000. Who is going to provide security to them? Who will be responsible if, God forbid, any of them is killed or blinded with acid by terrorists?
Ghulam Ahmad Mir, Congress leader

However, President of Jammu and Kashmir Panchayat Conference, Shafiq Mir, is unfazed by the threat.

We are very much ready to contest the panchayat elections, but the government shall have to take care of everybody’s security. Unfortunately, it is the politicians – both separatists and mainstream leaders – who provoke the militants against us.
Shafiq Mir, president, Jammu and Kashmir Panchayat Conference
We have made it repeatedly clear that we have got nothing to do with politics or any party. Panchayats are essentially a community-based institution. But we have seen all these parties claiming publicly that we have won this number or that number of seats in the panchayat elections.
Shafiq Mir, president, Jammu and Kashmir Panchayat Conference

“We will not operate as Congress, PDP, NC or BJP activists. We will not claim victory of democracy or mainstream politics even if we have 90 percent turnout. Let’s keep the politics away”, Shafiq Mir said, asking militants not to terrorise the local body representatives with violence.

None of the separatist leaders, including JKLF chairman Yasin Malik, agreed to speak about the militants’ threat of acid attack on those who choose to participate in the panchayat elections.

(The writer is a Srinagar-based journalist. He can be reached @ahmedalifayyaz. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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