Grassroots Level Democracy in Kashmir

By Haifa Peerzada

As the elections are underway for a much awaited change of political leadership in the State of Jammu and Kashmir, some of the basic essentials of good governance have not been given much attention or they have been ignored. With the killing of a Sarpanch associated with PDP, the issue of fragile self-governance at local levels in Jammu and Kashmir has again come to fore. This issue cuts right at the core of a larger issue which seeks to devolve more powers to the local authorities which may in turn lead to better development and good governance, free of corruption. But even this seems to be co-opted by the power politics in which various political parties religiously indulge.

On April 19, 2014 a Sarpanch was shot dead in District Pulwama, South Kashmir. Immediately after that PDP (People’s Democratic Party) blamed NC (National Conference) for the killing in pursuit of creating terror in the Valley ahead of elections so that people boycott polls, giving NC an advantage in the elections. Nevertheless, a few days later another Sarpanch (affiliated with the Congress Party) and his son were allegedly killed by militants ahead of the Lok Sabha polls in the South Kashmir district of Pulwama. In the meanwhile hardliner Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani has called for a total shutdown and boycott of polls on the voting day.  While killing in the name of political opportunism in the popular perception may be true, it remains to be seen how much powers PDP will be willing to devolve on these local self-governance bodies at the grassroots level, even though their commitment to empowering them is unwavering. The main problem, however, remains shrouded in the complexities of power politics in the region.

Jammu and Kashmir Assembly, in the meantime, passed the J&K Panchayati Raj (Amendment) Bill on 4th March, 2014 which seeks to empower the Block Development Councils and District Planning and Development boards. This amendment is based on the 73rd Amendment to the Constitution of India, which puts emphasis on States empowering their local self-governance mechanisms by devolving more powers to the local levels. However, because of Article 370 of the constitution, the provisions enshrined therein could not be endorsed and created a lot of controversy last year especially among the mainstream political parties which still propagate autonomy despite internal splits. By and large internal self-determination has become and is an integral part of the election manifesto of the regional parties which claim legitimacy in the Kashmir Valley – PDP and NC.

However, if BJP comes to power which in the popular perception in India would most likely be the case, then the whole question of autonomy may be contested. Even though this issue is still contested among the various stakeholders in J&K, the debate over the abrogation of Article 370 may gain more momentum as the BJP’s manifesto very clearly emphasizes on it. So the question remains whether in such a scenario empowering such self – governance bodies at local levels would remain a sustainable solution as one of the means to reach a political settlement in Kashmir?

Sumantara Bose in his book observes that Article 370 is a hypocritical clause. However, he has also shown reluctance in proposing a pre- 1953 scenario as a possible solution to the Kashmir dispute because of the complexity in the center-state relations as entrenched in the Constitution of India. He has however, proposed empowering self – governance bodies at local levels as a possible solution and means for people to realize their right of self – determination. With BJP most likely to assume power at the Centre, the votes already seem to be polarized along ethnic, religious and political fault lines. In such a scenario trifurcation of the state seems almost palpable where people stand ethno-linguistically and politically segregated. This directly hits at the very center of the issue of autonomy.

Even when on papers, Article 370 is still operational even though its erosion has continued unabated; the State Government has not been willing to devolve greater powers on the self-governance bodies at the local levels. Therefore the power sharing arrangement involving greater devolution of powers seems unsustainable. Nevertheless, after a hiatus of 32 years it was some 3 years back that Panchayati Raj Elections happened in Jammu and Kashmir, which was hailed as a big achievement by the National Conference government that time. However, since then apart from the killings of various Panchayati Raj members, the death toll of Sarpanches has reached 9 now. This gives a bleak picture of the future of such institutions and also their sustainability.

When the institutional design which allows decentralization is not strong enough, then the chances of wide spread corruption is also an obvious consequence, linked to poor governance mechanisms at all levels. This is the greatest irony that such institutions defeat the very purpose of decentralization and greater devolution of powers in J&K. This at the moment elicits greater attention and research. Nevertheless, the members of the Panchayati Raj institutions are vulnerable to the non-state armed groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba as well which has led many of them to resign due to security concerns of theirs and their families even now. The resignation of 11 Panchayati Raj members after the killing of the Sarpanch bears testimony to this proposition. Also there are already threats emanating from Lashkar-e-taiba in South Kashmir after the killings. Whether it is political opportunism or purely terror related activities, the very purpose of the local self-governing bodies unfortunately stands defeated and does not seem to be a viable means of reaching a resolution of the Kashmir dispute, for people to realize their right of self-determination. The prevailing scenario enumerated above does not even seem to bode well with people’s right of self – determination, be it internal or external.

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