In Depth

A new ‘punch’ in Panchayat: Tobacco packets, disgruntled loyalists and re-polling in Kashmir

As New Delhi mulls Panchayat re-election in 50 percent vacant constituencies in the state due to lack of quorum, many previously elected Panchayat members of Kashmir—putting up in government accommodation as ‘captives’—are asking: ‘Re-polling is fine, but what about us?’

In an unkempt hotel room, Hamza Mir looked indulged in burning the tobacco off his hookah pot, chasing hard to get that right sum of effort needed for the ideal smoke – as meanwhile, his friend Manzoor Ahmad made an absolute mockery of the old man’s efforts.

“This fellow has to have tobacco to stay alive, else he would have been long gone and forgotten,” Ahmad joked to this reporter.

Well,” Mir, in return, quipped, “as if I am much acknowledged, anyway?”

Not to be fooled by Mir’s sarcastic comeback, the statement certainly carries a larger weight. One of the first few Kashmiri members of right-wing Bhartiya Janta Party, the 60-year-old’s political career barely evolved to note any interesting tale.

With his ‘juniors on the front seat’, Mir has been far cornered by the party, only to be acknowledged today as just another panch in the valley. Although BJP has been banking high on these locally elected representatives to strengthen its birthroots in Kashmir, however, these small-time workers are hardly being treated well.

Mir stays with a number of panchs, sarpanchs and councillors elected in the last year’s local elections, with plenty of them being accommodated by the state in Srinagar hotels owing to the constant threat to their lives.

“Just three days before the election day,” Mir recalls, “as many as five militants had barged into my house, and it was a clear message: Your time is up! But thanks to Almighty, the militants warned me to withdraw my nomination form and went away, saying they would again come back to check.”

However, Mir ran away to Srinagar the same night, and since then, he remains ‘locked’ in a shared accommodation in one of the prime localities of the city. But for the small-time leaders, like the case of Mir, the struggle of being an ‘Indian representative’ in Kashmir doesn’t just end there.

While a councillor earns Rs 4,000 a month, a sarpanch gets Rs 2,000, while as panch, like Mir, earns only a thousand rupees. In fact, according to a union body of panchayat members, J&K Awami Raj Movement, the state has managed to ‘partially’ see off only three months of honorarium.

“When I ran out of money, I begged for favours from my neighbours. We are in hundreds… so Allah sends someone or the other with a packet of tobacco,” Mir added. “You see? I am here to stay!”

If only, staying could have been a synonym to living.

Before the elections, Governor Satya Pal Malik had made huge promises to the panchayat and ULB participants pitching in the general narrative of ‘security, empowerment and fair recognition’.

“And when these commitments were being made, we were on a run to save our lives. It was like a loaded AK-47 all set to take an aim just as we would halt. Despite so, we continued to put our lives at stake only and only for the people of Kashmir. But in return, look what are we facing today?” Maqbool Ganaie, a panch from Anantnag district, said in frustration.

Ganaie, on knowing about the reporter’s presence in the hotel room, wasted no time and rushed with another friend to share their side of the sad, unheard story.

“We were packed in a load-carrier and were brought to Srinagar overnight, then accommodated in hotels here like it were jails – locked and out. The level of rules imposed on us was such that it had even become difficult to pee in peace. We were not even able to use our phones to talk to our family. Even till date, I feel as if I am being mentally tortured, every single day,” Ganaie continued.

In this nine-month period, Ganaie twice met Governor Malik and raised his demands pertaining to accommodation, low honorarium and also the ‘mistreatment by government officers’.

“Governor sahab promised to meet our demands, but when? When we will be dead? We need justice. People bother us with their work, but we are helpless. We got no power. We have one crore responsibilities on our shoulders… When Home Minister Amit Shah had come to Kashmir, I was the part of the delegation and I had again raised the issue, and jenab-i-wala assured us of fair action within 24 hours; but what mockery, more than 100 hours, in fact, 300 hours have passed by and as usual, nothing happened,” he rued.

Another BJP representative in picture, Ganaie is the party’s general secretary from Anantnag district. After becoming the panchayat member, he says, the threat to his life has now only ‘doubled’.

Rarely would you see an active BJP leader criticising his beloved party, but Ganaie left no stone unturned to slam the saffron outfit left-and-right: “The government in the centre is to be blamed for the situation we are in today. They take pride that they held a violence-free panchayat election in Kashmir, but the truth is – they only sell and misuse the people of J&K to form the government in New Delhi.”

ALSO READ: Why BJP is not green in Kashmir

The BJP, clearly, has disappointed its ‘fan base’ at large.

It has even hurt its once poster boy during the local elections, a surrendered Hizb-ul-Mujahideen militant who contested for the municipal polls, only to end up one amongst dozens of the neglected.

Khan doesn’t introduce himself on his own, but through his interviews that he had given to ‘big’ media organisations during the time he was the saffron party’s prime face.

In all of his interviews, Khan remained vocal against the Hurriyat leaders and the local parties, but was all praises for the BJP for ‘giving the respect he deserved’.

Now nine months down the line, this certainly not seems to be the case.

“I have spoken against Geelani sahab, and so I can against my party…” Khan says.

“I mean,” he quickly corrects himself, “I am not going against BJP, not at all. In fact, I respect my party. It is India’s largest political outfit and I am proud to be a part of it. I have a darling prime minister in Modiji and I joined politics only because I idolise him.”

“But,” Khan adds, taking time before finally blazing his guns, “there are four troublemakers up in the party who don’t want innocents like me to come forward and work for the people. My life was hell yesterday – when I had a rifle in my hand – and so it is today, even though now I don’t carry any rifle. Don’t I deserve security? Anyway, I don’t fear anyone… I have been a BJP loyalist, and always will remain one.”

Mohammad Farooq Khan.

With emerging reports on New Delhi’s plan on re-installing the panchayat elections in 50% vacant constituencies, the ‘mistreatment’ of previously elected members could possibly backfire. It’s no secret that it was the BJP who benefited the most during the last year’s local elections.

Even Home Minister Amit Shah, post his Kashmir visit, took to the parliament to talk about panchayat elections and the ‘need to strengthen grass-root democracy in J&K’ – which experts believe to be BJP’s larger attempt to introduce itself more on the ground.

“For instance,” Aijaz Wani, a Valley-based expert argues, “the program like Back to Village, where small-time panchayat members were involved, indicates one of the BJP’s ways to reach people on the rural level.”

Moreover, now with ‘sidelined and voiceless’ local parties like NC, PDP making way for an empty political vacuum, is certainly, helping the government in New Delhi, BJP, to chance upon – all under the garb of governor’s administration.

However, senior NC leader, Ali Mohammad Sagar, affirms BJP ‘will get nothing this time around’ if the panchayat elections are re-organized in the state, ‘regardless of what the experts believe’.

“BJP will never succeed in forming a cadre in Kashmir, take my words,” Sagar said to this reporter on phone.

When asked if his party would boycott polling as it did previously, he said, “We will meet, discuss the background and accordingly decide what shall be done.”

PDP’s Naeem Akhtar, too, maintained the similar stand. However, amidst the harsh denial of political space, the senior PDP leader sees the re-contesting of panchayat elections as ‘at least something, better than nothing’.

“Let’s not fall in whataboutery. The re-polling will also make way for the argument that even the state elections could be held,” he said.

But, in Kashmir, one cannot predict what the future holds.

Going by what the fumed panchayat members have to say, ‘one may even witness a mass resignation’ from their end if the demands remain unaddressed.

“If need be, we will even take to the streets and will stand as barriers to the polling exercise. We will visit every house and turn people against this kind of democracy. We are not against re-holding of panchayat elections, but if our demands are not met, we will go to every extent to ensure it flops,” threatened Ghulam Hassan Panzoo, President, JK-Awami Raj Movement.

Panzoo, right since the local election dates were announced, last year, has been knocking the governor’s door with a list of demands, but all continue to remain unheard.

Now with popular parties losing their voice each passing day, it would be interesting to see how the small time leaders, would fare to tame New Delhi – or – the other way around.

 

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