Jammu & Kashmir panchayat polls in limbo after tensions escalate; Mehbooba Mufti govt likely to postpone exercise
The Mehbooba Mufti-led coalition government in Jammu and Kashmir is maintaining a stoic silence on the fate of the upcoming Panchayat elections, which are less than a week away. But silence sometimes speaks louder than words. The government has perhaps read the writing on the wall; under the prevailing tensions, it will be suicidal to hold any election process that may hurt the state, politically as well as economically.
If the concerns of Jammu and Kashmir’s mainstream political parties about holding the electoral exercise is any indicator, the outcome of the next week’s cabinet meeting, which is deciding the fate of the elections scheduled to be held on 15 February, has been decided already. The National Conference, the principal Opposition party in Kashmir, Congress and even the chief minister’s own Peoples Democratic Party have sought deferment of elections.
Only the Bhartiya Janata Party, the coalition partner of the PDP, and the one man party of Ghulam Hassan Mir, who was expelled from the PDP, urged Mehbooba during last Sunday’s all-party meeting to go ahead with elections on the already announced dates. Mir argues that the security situation is not a deciding factor in determining the turnout in Jammu and Kashmir on any election day.
“There was a massive turnout in the previous Panchayat elections which were held against the backdrop of massive and violent protests of 2010. The government can’t allow itself to be hijacked by concerns which don’t exist in first place. We will be losing another Rs 1500 crore to Rs 2000 crore if the election is delayed,” Mir, who was the agriculture minister in Omar Abdullah’s government, told Firstpost.
But politics has always prevailed over economic discourses. While it is true that the situation had improved significantly towards the end of 2017, a fresh spree of killings in the first two months of 2018 has once again disturbed the fragile calm in Kashmir. More than 57 persons have been already killed in counterinsurgency operations and cross-border violence, and the year has only begun. This includes five civilians shot dead by security forces during encounters with militants.
Also, the joint Hurriyat Conference comprising of Syed Ali Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Yasin Malik have asked people to stay away from the “meaningless exercise” as participating in the election is tantamount to “betraying the sacrifices of our martyrs”. To ensure that the boycott appeal is adhered to, the Hizbul Mujahideen’s operational commander, Riyaz Naikoo, has threatened to pour acid into the eyes of those who participate in the election process.
In such a vitiated atmosphere, it will be a tough choice for the government to make when the cabinet meets next week. But the ground indicators are not promising either. Pro-freedom and anti-India protests are a common occurrence during the cordon and search operations under ‘Operation All-Out’ in south Kashmir, parts of which still remain inaccessible for mainstream political parties due to security reasons.
“The government never consulted the Opposition parties before announcing the election dates last year. The chief minister was forced to make the announcement under pressure from Raj Bhawan and New Delhi. Now that the cat is already out of the bag, the blame will squarely fall on this government if, God forbid, the situation turns bad,” Ali Mohammed Sagar, senior NC leader who attended the all-party meeting convened in Jammu, told Firstpost.
The factors behind the widespread violence during the Srinagar bypoll for a Lok Sabha seat on 9 April last year, which were held against the backdrop of the 2016 unrest, need to be assessed thoroughly before the fate of the 15 February elections is sealed. The government has to make a choice between the devil and the deep sea.
Delaying the process will invite criticism from the Opposition members, who will mock the coalition government as well as the Centre for failing to restore normalcy in the volatile Valley. Holding the election on time may implode the situation. Any decision in haste by this government, which is desperate to showcase ‘normalcy’ returning to the state, may throw Kashmir into another bout of protests and clashes, which is the last thing people want.
“Security forces are on a militant hunting spree and ordinary people are becoming victims of these operations. Not a day passes when you don’t get to read about civilian deaths and injuries. Only yesterday, a boy was shot with pellets by the army in Shopian during a search operation. Borders have been set on fire. With the tourism season coming up, it will be in the interest of everyone to defer the election till the situation improves,” Professor Noor A Baba, dean of social sciences at the Central University of Kashmir, said.