Killings derail effort at grassroots governance

Killings derail effort at grassroots governance

As investigators continue to look into the murders, different theories and accusations abound

On the day he was killed, Mohammad Shafiq Teli was working on a new sewage drain, precisely the sort of unglamorous, if essential, project that village governance is supposed to provide. Except that, for more than three decades, there had been no local governments here in the villages of Kashmir, India’s tinderbox.

Last year, despite a threat of violence, rural Kashmiris turned out in huge numbers to elect gram panchayats, in what became a victory for grassroots democracy in a blood-soaked land. New officeholders like Teli set to work on long-neglected development projects.

But on Sept 23, as he was walking to his mosque for evening prayers, Teli was shot and killed. His death followed by days the slaying of a panchayat leader in a nearby village. Posters mysteriously appeared in different villages, warning panchayat members to resign. Panicked, hundreds have since announced their resignations, and many of the new village councils have ceased to operate.

The intent of the killings seemed clear: Here in a district of Kashmir with a long history of bloodshed, someone wanted to derail the panchayats. But who? And why?

“There are forces that don’t want to see the panchayats succeed,” said Mohammad Altaf Malik, a village leader. “The panchayat elections created tremendous hope among the people. Now that hope is slowly diminishing.”

Kashmir is the stubborn, unsolved riddle of South Asia, a mostly Muslim region of blue skies and snow-capped Himalayan peaks that once witnessed a bloody insurgency and is still claimed by both India and Pakistan, even as some Kashmiris aspire to outright independence. Hundreds of thousands of members of the Indian military and other security forces remain posted in Kashmir; the region went through angry summertime clashes between stone-throwing youths and soldiers as recently as 2010.

Last year, with tranquility restored, the state government conducted the panchayat elections. Militant groups called for a boycott, but the turnout was overwhelming, estimated at 80 per cent. Soon elected leaders like Teli began directing village projects. And then last month, he was murdered.

“There had been no threat against him,” Parvena Begum, 35, a sister-in-law, said as she sat on the floor of the family home with Teli’s widow and two teenage daughters. “He had no idea he would be killed.”

Initially, state leaders blamed militant groups for the two killings. But in a recent interview, the state’s chief minister, Omar Abdullah, offered a new twist: Investigators had identified a militant as a suspect in Teli’s killing but were investigating whether the motive might have been rooted in local rivalries, rather than a broader-based terrorism movement.

Lack of a system

Panchayats have long existed elsewhere in India, but the absence of the system in Kashmir has meant that political power and patronage remained with state legislators and block-level administrators. The panchayats shook that political structure, especially when their elected leaders – known as sarpanches – began complaining that the established order was not devolving power and money, as required by law.

“Let’s understand that you have not had a functioning panchayat system here for more than three decades,” Abdullah said. “So an entire generation of political and administrative leadership has grown up without having to work with this group of elective representatives.

Clearly, they would much rather not have to deal with them.”
As investigators continue to look into the murders, different theories and accusations abound. Kashmiri separatist leaders have condemned the killings but say that the possibility of official involvement should not be discounted.

“Everybody will say the militants have killed them,” said Mirwaiz Umer Farooq, a moderate separatist leader. “But I think there is much more than meets the eye. We can’t rule out that there are many agencies working at cross-purposes.”

Here in Nowpora Jagir, which sits at the edge of the Himalayas, the work of the panchayat ended abruptly after Teli’s murder. Before then, elected officials – all ordinary villagers, some illiterate – were tackling a host of neglected projects, especially the piping of more drinking water into the village.

“It is the poor in the village who benefit from the panchayats,” said Mohammad Abdulla Lone, 40, who had been sarpanch before he posted his resignation in a local newspaper. “We have initiated lots of development work. But now everything has stopped. We don’t know who killed them.”

The first killing was on Sept. 10 in nearby Palhallan, a village where militants are still thought to be active. The victim was the sarpanch, Ghulam Mohammad Yatoo, 59. That incited fears among other sarpanches, who resigned en masse. Less than two weeks later, Teli was killed. That prompted other panchayat members in the region to resign for fear of being the next target.

“Please tell people we have nothing to do with the panchayat,” said Dilshada Begum, 37, the wife of Lone, the sarpanch who resigned. “Please tell them. I have eight children, and he is the only wage earner. If something happens to him, what will I do?”

The killings and resignations have been largely centered on a region of Kashmir that has long endured militancy, violence and an oppressive military presence. In all, more than 900 panchayat members have tendered their resignations, either by posting notices in newspapers or making an announcement in their mosques.

Abdullah, the chief minister, points out that the majority of the panchayats across the state of Jammu and Kashmir continue to operate. He holds out hope that many of the people who resigned will change their minds, once the murders are solved. He said the government had not accepted any of the resignations.

“These areas, especially where the attacks have taken place, are a little shaken up,” Abdullah said. “But I believe these panchayats will start functioning again.”

For the moment, though, fear remains. “I stay in my house at night,” said Lone, the resigned sarpanch of Nowpora Jagir. “Only Allah knows who comes, and who kills, and who goes.”

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