Importance of thoughtful decisions in a conflict zone

Kashmiris have a rough ride with grass root democracy

Conflict zones, the world over, have an inherent characteristic of being difficult to govern in view of uncertainties looming large over people with regard to their security, safety and future prosperity.

Insurgency and militancy have this habit of leaving people sceptical about the intentions of the state, when it comes to novelties in governance in the face of the fact that everything is seen as an attempt at fighting insurgency rather than a step forward with good intentions. Trust is one word that leaves a territory as soon as conflict sets in.

The scepticism loomed large over the 2011 panchayat elections held in Jammu & Kashmir after a gap of more than three decades to elect nearly 35,000 village representatives. But the voters were enthusiastic as more than 80 per cent turned up to cast their votes.

The elections, though fought on non-political basis, were largely governed by ideologies ranging from political to religious to sectarian, broadly seen as a power tussle between different parties involved in the religio-political conflict of Kashmir.

After braving militant threats and a sceptical society, these village heads were faced with a legal and administrative structure that hardly vested any power in them. The theory floated by many that the panchayat elections in the state were merely held to wash away the impact of 2008 and 2010 unrests, started playing on the minds of the village representatives, many of whom later rued having taken part in the exercise.

The empowerment issue was further aggravated with coalition partners the National Conference and the Congress getting into a virtual brawl over the implementation of the 73rd amendment of Indian Constitution to the state Act. The state government seemed reluctant to giving powers to the grassroots institutions and completing the three tier system, a reality which exists even today with no block or district-level bodies for the Panchayati Raj elected.

With the opposition parties launching a scathing attack on the government and an apparently increasing inclination of the panchayat members towards the opposition parties, the government came out with a list of 14 departments where the village panchayats were given powers to exercise their decisions, albeit with simultaneous caveats that leave them nothing more than to rubber stamp what the officials of these departments had prescribed.

As an example, the central government’s flagship programme MGNREGA is being operated in the state with the panchayats having been given a say in the planning matters. However, when it comes to implementation and financial powers, they have been vested with class-IV village level workers of the rural development department.
This clearly signifies the state’s lack of will to divest powers to the grassroots institutions apart from lack of confidence in the representatives elected by the people of the state.

Soft targets

Having braved brickbats from some schools of thought who prophesied the theory that the representatives were being used by the state for political gains, these ill-fated panchs and sarpanchs became soft targets for militants. At least five panchayat members were killed in the valley since 2011 with many of them having received bullet injuries, including a woman,  in attacks by unknown gunmen. However, the state has been playing down the threat calling the attacks a result of domestic feuds and score-settling by various political and militant elements in society.

Incidentally, many of the panchs and sarpanchs themselves have in the past been associated with militant organisations having later surrendered. Many of them had also later become members of the notorious anti-insurgency groups backed by forces called the Ikhwanis.

Erratic behaviour and violent outbursts of the panchs and sarpanchs also saw them becoming a hurdle in many ways, which ultimately resulted in their becoming irritants for many including militants and separatist organisations. In central Kashmir’s Budgam district, one sarpanch had got IAY (Indira Awas Yojna), a central government housing scheme allotted to 25 of his close relatives.

Beating up of officials, scuffles with various government agencies, involvement in thefts, kidnaps, domestic feuds and dealing in narcotics brought the grassroots representatives’ reputation to its rock bottom which always remained in news.

Faced with lack of power resulting in dwindling respect in society and direct threat to their lives, hundreds of the panchs and sarpanchs resigned from their positions through public announcements and newspaper declarations. The state government continued to downplay the threat and rejected most of the resignations on the basis of being tendered under duress.

There have also been panchs and sarpanchs who had even braved threats from militant outfits like Lashker-e-Toiba and Hizbul Mujahideen, who through posters and newspaper statements threatened them with dire consequences in case they did not resign from their positions.

Meanwhile, a bigger issue for the state government eventually turned out to be the security of the panchayat members in the wake of direct threats by certain militant organisation backed with recent attacks on them in north and south Kashmir areas.

However, the state government maintains that it is not possible for it to provide security to the representatives on individual basis. Of late, the coalition partners in the state government have shown some seriousness towards the empowerment of the panchayats by agreeing to look into the provisions of the central act for incorporation into the state Act.

The chief minister told a rally of panchs and sarpanchs last week that his government intended to make provisions for stipends and insurance cover for them in the budget. He said that he has already asked the Centre for funds, adding that the state would go ahead even if New Delhi did not help.

Problems of empowerment, security and self discipline apart, exercises of this sort in a conflict zone need to be thought over a hundred times before implementation as there is every possibility of them boomeranging on the state. From the scenario that emerges in Kashmir, it would have been better if more preparations had gone in setting up these institutions in a trouble-torn state.

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