Doubts loom over local body elections in Kashmir

Srinagar: At a time when local body elections in Jammu and Kashmir are expected to be held in the next few months, militant outfit, Hizbul-Mujahideen has warned those planning to contest these elections with dire consequences. Conducting polls under such circumstances is not going to be a cakewalk for the security grid and the contesting candidates, political parties and other stakeholders. Urban Local Bodies (ULB) and Panchayat elections are expected to be held in September-October and October-December, respectively.

Even if over 20,000 security personnel will be reportedly deployed in the Valley for “pre-election duties” ahead of panchayat polls in the state, the task ahead is not only critical but challenging too. Around 202 companies (Central Reserve Police Force 132 companies followed by Border Security Force 32, Indo-Tibetan Border Police 25 and Sashastra Seema Bal 13), which were giventhe task of securing the two-month long Amarnath yatra that concluded on August 26, will now be deployed for pre-election duties.

Seeking adequate security cover to its members, who are facing threats, state president ofAll Jammu and Kashmir Panchayat Conference (AJKPC) Anil Sharma said in a press statement on August 29 that despite hostile and challenging atmosphere, they have always encouraged people for larger participation in panchayat elections so that democratic institutions are fully restored at the grassroots level. He said that they had risked their lives a number of times but did not bow down to any threat. “We had requested the security wing of J&K police for security cover for hassle-free movement in vulnerable parts of the state but our requests and concerns were not taken seriously.”

According to Sharma, at least 12 panchayat members lost their lives from 2011 to 2016 while performing their duties in vulnerable areas of the state. Terming it a “security failure that led to the killing of panchayat members” Sharma appealed to state administration headed by the new Governor Satya Pal Malik to look into all sensitivities and dispel fear from the minds of would-be contestants by providing them security at the earliest. Malik replaced N N Vohra as the governor of the state in the last week of August. The state has been under Governor’s rule since June 19 after BJP pulled out of the coalition government led by Mehbooba Mufti. The former governor had announced in his Independence Day speech that urban body polls will be held in September-October and panchayat polls in November-December.

On the other hand, Hizbulul-Mujahideen commander Riyaz Naikoo on August 28 issued a stern warning to those planning to contest upcoming panchayat elections asking them to bring shrouds along with election forms and to be ready for acid attacks. In an 11-minute audio released on social media, Naikoo asked media persons to do justice with their profession. Separatist leaders have already called for a boycott of the panchayat polls. While mainstream political parties like Congress urge government to create a conducive atmosphere for the process, locals here opine that it was not the appropriate time to conduct local body elections. Some, however, feel that elections can be carried out in a phased manner and as a low-key affair.

The panchayat polls were scheduled to be held in the state in 2016 but were postponed due to the security scenario particularly after large-scale disruption in the Valley following the killing of the militant commander Burhan Muzaffar Wani along with his two associates in south Kashmir in July 2016.

The panchayat elections were last held in 2011 after three decades and more than 80 percent of people exercised their franchise during the 2011 election wherein more than 33,000 panchayat representatives were elected. Urban Local Body elections have not been held here since. There are 47 municipal councils/committees in Kashmir division and 37 in Jammu division. The Municipal Corporation of Srinagar has 73 wards, while the Municipal Corporation of Jammu consists of 71 wards. There are three municipal councils each in Kashmir and Jammu divisions.

It needs to be seen how the Valley will respond to the local body election call. The political pundits have their fingers crossed. Some believe that if polls are conducted with a decent turnout it will have a positive impact on the electoral participation during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls; others say that if the Valley witnesses attacks and protests during campaigning or polls,it will set the alarm bells ringing. Moreover, widespread violence that left eight civilians dead and scores injured during the Srinagar Lok Sabha by-election in April 2017 apart from low voter turnout (only seven percent) and the by-poll in south Kashmir’s Anantnag Lok Sabha constituency that could not be held so casts doubts on the possibility of the local body elections.