In a State where tens of thousands have been killed in terrorist violence, the death of one more often passes unnoticed. Yet, the assassination on Sunday of Muhammad Shafi Naik, a member of the panchayat of the north Kashmir town of Kreeri, threatens to have seismic consequences. Forty panchs, including 3 sarpanchs, have submitted their resignations to district authorities since the attack; dozens more have put out newspaper advertisements announcing their intent to do so. In the grand scheme of things, these numbers are not large: there are some 35,000 panchs and sarpanchs in the State. Three panchayat leaders have been killed in Jammu and Kashmir this year — against over 40 in Bihar. Moreover, in two of those three murders, police investigations suggest, local feuds may have driven the choice of victims, rather than the fact that they held elected office. Fear is a powerful argument, though — so the trickle of resignations could turn into a deluge.
Should it do so, the consequences would be enormous. The key impact of local democracy in Jammu and Kashmir has been the rebirth of a grassroots political class — swept aside at gunpoint when the jihad in the State began in 1988. From April to June last year, a staggering 79 per cent of Jammu and Kashmir’s 5.07 million registered voters participated in what Chief Minister Omar Abdullah described as the State’s “first real panchayat elections in 33 years”. The 17-phase election saw the election of 4,130 sarpanchs and 29,719 panchs. Elections due in 2006 had been deferred because of security considerations; in 2001, no polling was held in the districts of Kupwara, Baramulla and Bandipora due to terrorist threats. In a speech delivered last December, the separatist Islamist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani showed he understood the threat this new class of politician poses to the cause he represents, saying its birth was part of a “planned conspiracy to mutilate the Muslim identity of Kashmir”. Ironically enough, though, the government has also worked to deny the new leadership real authority. The ruling National Conference has rejected the extension of 73rd amendment of the Indian Constitution, which gives panchayats significant rights and powers, to Jammu and Kashmir, arguing that this would erode the State’s autonomy. It has, however, also chosen not to deliver on promised State legislation to the same effect — thus ensuring that local government in Jammu and Kashmir has far less power than elsewhere in the country. Mr. Abdullah’s officials argue that they can’t post police officers to guard every panch. They are right. They can, however, give them — and the communities they represent — a cause worth fighting for.
This article has been corrected for a factual error.