J&K Local Body Polls: Biggest Challenge Yet for Satya Pal Malik

The demonstrations provoked by BJP’s support to petitions against Article 35-A have united Kashmiris after ages.

8 min read
Satya Pal Malik took oath as J&K Governor on 23 August 2018. 

On 31 August when the new Jammu and Kashmir Governor Satya Pal Malik presided over the first meeting of the State Administrative Council (SAC), his first decision was to hold the over-due elections for the Panchayati Raj institutions as well as the Urban Local Bodies (ULBs).

The highest decision-making body, comprising Governor Malik and his three advisors —K Vijay Kumar, Khursheed Ahmad Ganai and Bharat Bhushan Vyas —had consensus over conducting elections for 78 ULBs in four phases from 1 October to 5 October. Unlike the Panchayat elections, the ULB polls in J&K are supposed to be held on party basis.

The SAC decided to conduct panchayat elections for electing 35,096 panches and 4,490 sarpanches by way of universal franchise on non-party basis in 8 phases, from 8 November to 4 December, 2018.

Issues Surrounding Article 35-A

While the Governor’s administration was strategising initiatives to neutralise unprecedented guerrilla threats to contestants and electors, coupled with a call of boycott from the separatists’ Joint Resistance Leadership (JRL), National Conference (NC) patriarch, former Chief Minister and the highest profile mainstream politician, Dr Farooq Abdullah, announced at an impromptu news conference on 4 September that his party would not participate in the forthcoming elections.

Underplaying the morbid security concerns, which are palpable in almost all the political parties, including NC but excluding BJP, Farooq asserted that his party would participate in the proposed elections only after the BJP-led Centre cleared is stand vis-à-vis Article 35-A of the Constitution of India.

The law that guarantees a special status for Jammu and Kashmir and restriction of the fundamental right of immovable property, government employment, scholarship and vote in all elections, excluding the Parliamentary elections, to only the State’s Permanent Residents, has been challenged in the Supreme Court of India through a number of petitions.

Competing with almost all the parties from Mehbooba Mufti’s Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to the separatist Hurriyat Conference, Farooq has perceived intriguing diversion in the arguments offered by the Government of India’s attorneys, in defence of 35-A.

The NC leadership has pointed out that the Advocate on Record on behalf of the Governor’s regime, has sought deferment of the hearing simply for the fact that the State was heading for Panchayati Raj and ULB elections.

Why PDP is Following National Conference in Defending Article 35-A

“The (NC’s) core group felt that this decision was taken in a hurried manner without taking into consideration the prevailing situation created by the powers that be, by unnecessarily fiddling with Art. 35-A. The core group unanimously decided that the J&K National Conference will not participate in these elections unless and until Government of India and the State government clears its position in this regard and take effective steps for the protection of Art 35-A in and outside the Courts,” the NC’s statement read out by Farooq elaborated.

Until the 2014 Lok Sabha and Assembly elections, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s National Conference was the state’s largest political party.

Even in those elections that led to the stitching of a coalition between PDP and BJP, NC’s vote was equivalent to that of the PDP, though it won only 15 seats as compared to PDP’s 28 and BJP’s 25 in the House of 87. It wrested back the all-important Central Kashmir Lok Sabha seat in the by-elections of April 2017, marred by violence and low voter turnout. It has a wide cadre base in all the three regions of the state. Even in the last fortnight’s Hill Council elections in Kargil, Ladakh, NC emerged as the single largest party.

NC’s boycott to Panchayat and ULB elections is also significant in the sense that it has done so only once—in the Lok Sabha elections of 1996. It indicates how big a blow its boycott would be to the turnout and credibility of the impending democratic exercise. In a political scenario when even the BJP and its ally, Peoples Conference, which has two seats in current Assembly, have chosen to be mute spectators to the mainstream political vacuum and the proportionately swelling influence of separatists and militants, nobody is expected to identify with the Centre.

That explains why PDP is now following NC in the populist defence of Article 35-A in the Valley.

Even the President of J&K Pradesh Congress Committee, Ghulam Ahmad Mir, has been stating repeatedly that the PDP-BJP had left Kashmir in a quagmire and both, contestants as well as the voters, were feeling completely insecure.

Farooq Abdullah’s Drama

“The central government’s plea in the Supreme Court to link the decision on 35-A with the panchayat and urban bodies elections, was a disastrous idea, which has further alienated the people and complicated the situation on ground,” PDP’s President and former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti tweeted within hours of the NC’s boycott decision on Wednesday.

Apart from some BJP leaders, among all the stakeholders, nobody other than ‘All J&K Panchayat Conference’ is critical of NC’s announcement of boycott.

The organisation’s Chairman Shafiq Mir told The Quint that the Panchayat and ULB elections were restricted to ensuring peoples’ participation at the grass-roots level. “It’s completely preposterous to attack party politics to such elections even as the ULB polls would be contested on party symbols,” he asserted.

Shafiq Mir dismissed Farooq’s announcement as “drama”. “We are all unmistakeably for the protection of 35-A. Let it be clear that 35-A is a law. Laws are made by Assembly and Parliament, not by Panchayats or municipal bodies. If Farooq Abdullah is serious and sincere to that political cause, why doesn’t he resign from his seat in Lok Sabha? Why don’t his MLAs and MLCs resign in protest in the State legislature? Why are they holding hostage the panchayat elections?” Shafiq Mir argued.

Then & Now

When the ULB and panchayat elections were held after a long pause of over 30 years respectively in 2005 and 2011, the situation in Kashmir was in a sharp contrast to the rage and turbulence witnessed after April 2015. Notwithstanding the separatists’ boycott calls and threats from different militant groups, both the elections had witnessed huge enthusiasm and a high voter turnout. Fear of the gun existed to an extent, and threats from militants were not unreal. NC’s elected councillor and would-be Mayor in Srinagar Municipal Corporation, Maqbool Khaksaar, was shot dead between his residence and mosque at Ikhrajpora Rajbagh in a few days after results of the 20 January, 2005, ULB polling were declared.

In Pulwama, the hub of current militancy and separatist demonstrations, even the resident Kashmiri Pandits contested.

One of their female candidates enjoyed substantial support from the Muslim electorate. She was among several candidates of the minority community who were returned in Pulwama, Uri, Kunzar Tangmarg and other places.

Against all odds, the first post-1990 panchayat elections in 2011 broke all past records of enthusiasm and voter turnout, beating even the peaceful Jammu province. Hundred per cent turnout was recorded at several stations in 17 phases of polling in the Valley from 13 April to 27 June. Now, one of the most turbulent districts in so-called ‘liberated’ South Kashmir, Kulgam, recorded a meteoric turnout of 81 percent. Budgam recorded 77 percent. Baramulla (87 percent), Kupwara (85 percent) and Ganderbal (85 percent) went ever higher.

It was interesting to note that the high turnout at the Assembly elections in 2008 and more successful panchayat elections in 2011 were held in the Valley at the end of its history’s most turbulent separatist demonstrations.

Both in the 2008 and 2010 clashes, scores of demonstrators were killed and maimed in unceasing clashes with police and security forces. Yet the historic elections marginalised both the separatists as well as the militants.

Secessionist Politics

A trail of militant strikes failed to dampen the spirits, even as Afzal Guru’s execution, killing of six civilians in a clash by BSF in Gool area of Ramban and unprecedented communal clashes in Kishtwar threw serious challenges in Omar Abdullah’s rule in 2013. Scores of over 33,000 elected panches and sarpanches resigned out of fear. Yet many of them like Zoona of Sopore stood their ground. She lost an eye in a militant attack. Official statistics put it at 12 but Shafiq Mir insists that 16 panches and sarpanches were shot dead by militants from 2011 to 2017.

The five-year term of the 2005 ULB and 2011 panchayat elections expired in 2010 and 2016 respectively.

In spite of holding the best ever panchayat elections in 2011 and handling the situation impressively from 2011 to the end of his government in 2014, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah demonstrated little interest to conduct the ULB elections. Even as the four seats, reserved for panchayat representatives, were filled up by election after decades in the Legislative Council, two seats reserved for ULB representatives remained continuously vacant.

“It’s a totally different situation now. Militants have repeatedly threatened to blind anybody participating in these elections with sulphuric acid. They are attacking security forces and police and eliminating their targets at will. None of the MLAs, MLCs or ex-Ministers dares to stay at home or visit constituency. They wouldn’t get candidates, let alone voters,” said a senior leader of the Congress party on condition of anonymity. He asserted that politics had failed completely as all the mainstream politicians were in competitive secessionism, and not one of them had contested the separatists politically.

“Government says it would deploy thousands of police and paramilitary personnel for conducting the panchayat and municipal elections. Will that bring the voters out? Who will protect them after participating in these elections?” asked the senior politician.

The Turning Point

After the 14th Finance Commission Award linked allocation of grants to elected panchayati raj institutions and ULBs, former Governor NN Vohra made sustained efforts to conduct the elections. He looked seriously concerned over the prospect of J&K losing the award allocation of Rs 5,480 crore in absence of elected panchayat and municipal bodies. He got the relevant laws and rules amended for conducting both the elections.

During Governor’s Rule after Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s death, Vohra conducted a high-level meeting with Chief Electoral Officer Shantmanu on 8 March 2016, and directed him to complete all preparations by the end of that, so as to ensure that the panchayat elections in May, and ULB elections in June and July, were conducted.

When Mehbooba Mufti took over as Chief Minister in April 2016, her first priority was to get elected as MLA from Anantnag. In low turnout but violence-free polling, she was returned in June. In days of her election, iconic militant commander Burhan Wani was killed along with two of his associates in an encounter in Kokernag on 8 July. It triggered massive demonstrations and lent a fresh lease of life to insurgency which continues to be unceasing. For the first time in over a decade, the number of listed militants has crossed 325.

Even Mehbooba from December 2017 to her exit in June 2018 announced several times to conduct the panchayat and ULB elections but every time she failed. With people attacking security forces during encounters with militants, joining slain militants’ funeral processions in large numbers and the militants returning for gun salutes to their colleagues across South Kashmir and some other areas, there are few takers to the Government’s resolve to hold the panchayat and ULB elections in Kashmir.

The demonstrations provoked by BJP’s support to petitions against Article 35-A have united the Kashmiris from mainstream to separatist activists after a long time.

(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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