Article 370: Despite Modi Govt’s Move, J&K Panchayats Lack Direction
Two years after Article 370 abrogation, Kashmir seems calm, but dissatisfaction with grassroots governance is rife.
Two years after the constitutional changes in Jammu and Kashmir, the Valley is so calm that it doesn’t seem like Kashmir — normally ebullient, irascible and dramatically expressive. To be sure, the locale is as lovely as always. Crystal springs and green paddy fields surround lush Chinars against the backdrop of mountains and rose-tinted sunsets.
Within that idyll, things are so calm that one might even say that the generally plaintive Kashmiri — the perennial loud victim — is happy today. But scratch the surface, and even those who seem to have gained something over the past two years turn out to be somewhat stressed, even a bit glum inside.
Newly elected grassroots representatives are arguably the biggest gainers. But many of them aren’t sanguine about how people actually feel. An elected panch says people used to be “50-50” in being for and against India, but that has changed now.
This panch has joined the relatively Delhi-oriented Apni Party, after having toyed with the idea of joining the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It’s not that he admires either party, but only that many seek advantage from party affiliation, rather than ideological or other affinities.
Bureaucrats Have The Real Control
Many of those who were elected to panchayats in several places are among the least respected members of local society.
Sadly then, many panchayats remain directionless. It’s not just that elected members’ credentials don’t always inspire confidence — they don’t feel sufficiently empowered. The general refrain is that bureaucrats rule the roost in the region.
Another cause for limbo is that many of those elected have now moved into secured spaces with their families. For, in a mini-repetition of the early 1990s, several panchs in different parts of the Valley have been killed by terrorists over the past year, a trend that reflects an aspect of what lurks behind the calm.
Just last week, a terror portal published a picture of five political activists threatening that “these traitors, stooges and collaborators whosoever he/she be has to pay for his/her dirty deeds”.
Some Municipalities Lack Power
It seems that municipalities, too, are not adequately empowered. The knowledgeable chairman of the Aishmuqam municipality, Sofi Arafat, holds that only a minuscule part of the control over local departments envisaged in the 74th (urban local bodies) Amendment has been given. Sofi’s is among the half-dozen municipalities now run by dedicated young men with ideas, but their personal dynamism is the key to getting things done.
Some officials in the urban local bodies department are resentful and obstructive, for elected bodies threaten their established control over how things get done — or not. However, Sofi says the higher echelons, and an officer who recently took charge, bring efficiency and drive to the job.
Some District Development Council members (the third-tier of local self-government) also complain of not being empowered.
That so many of the elected grassroots representatives, poster boys of the “naya Kashmir” (new Kashmir) that the Centre boasts of reshaping, are less than enthusiastic about how things are going indicates what lies behind the general calm.
The government has patted itself on the back for the high turnout for district council elections last winter. But for people, largely, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. What’s the point of voting if many of those councils remain mostly inert?
Momentum is key. Follow up is vital. Projection’s ephemeral.
Already, piercing the public’s silence has become challenging. Sahil Bhat, a young downtown politician who has joined the Lok Janshakti Party (and one of those recently threatened on that terror blog), says it’s tough to get potential voters excited about anything, be it statehood, jobs or development.
Unresponsive Officials, Action Against Employees
Another reason for the stoic calm is that grassroots representatives aren’t the only ones chaffing under a top-heavy bureaucracy.
People complain of not being able to reach district officials, rampant corruption, and police high-handedness. They say the police has become more powerful than even three decades of combating insurgency made it.
These factors are another reason for the silent calm. The example has been absorbed of a man who was arrested after telling Farooq Khan, advisor to the Governor, that he could treat Khan as his own, go to his home or hold his collar to get work done, since Khan was local, but that he could not approach the district collector, who was from another part of the country. He said this during a town-hall type public interaction, meant for notable citizens to address administrators. Charged with promoting enmity between communities, he spent a few days locked up. Imprisonment, it would seem, has become a response of first resort.
Another reason for the silence is that a few government employees, including teachers, have been transferred, or even terminated, since last winter for being troublemakers.
That’s logical. For, those who take salaries from the government, paid by taxpayers across the country, shouldn’t lead or organise agitations in defiance of service rules. However, an institutional process to convince an autonomous quasi-legal authority of specific wrong-doing might have persuaded more people that this is just.
To instil discipline, one needs conviction as in belief, not conviction as in sentencing. Since flouting rules and playing both sides have long been normalised, it will take time to imbibe a rules-based order. It calls for patience, consistency, transparency.
For the moment, even the apparent basis for punishment — association with Jamaat-e-Islami — is simplistic. True, that fundamentalist organisation was at the forefront of militancy in the 1990s, but patterns of involvement have become more complex since then.
Nuanced engagement is required, in matters punitive as well as constructive, on the economic, political, and administrative levels. The first of these two years was wasted until Manoj Sinha became Lieutenant-Governor. It’s time now for imaginative, purposeful strides.
(David Devadas is the author of 'The Story of Kashmir' and 'The Generation of Rage in Kashmir' (OUP, 2018). He can be reached at @david_devadas. 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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