After months of gloom and talk of scared panchs and sarpanchs quitting posts in Kashmir under militant threat, after chatter about a crucial step towards democracy being allowed to fail in the Valley, they silenced the doomsayers by stepping out and doing what they hadn’t done in 40 years: vote for Legislative Council polls.
Ignoring fresh threats from militants groups as well as an appeal by Hurriyat hawk Syed Ali Shah Geelani, as many as 97 per cent voted in the polls for the two Council seats in the Kashmir division under the panchayati quota (voting also took place for two falling in Jammu province). In Shopian in south Kashmir, where threats to panchayat representatives first surfaced, the turnout was as high as 92.68 per cent.
As per figures so far, only 567 of the 17,912 eligible panchayat members failed to vote. That immediately puts into doubt estimates of “more than 1,000” panchs, sarpanchs having quit in the wake of threats, a figure collatted by the Jammu and Kashmir Panchayat Conference.
It is believed now that the “resignations”, or more accurately the announcements declaring the same in vernacular dailies, may have remained on paper even as frustrated at the government not giving them more powers, the panchs felt pushed into a corner by militants.
The killing of a panch and three sarpanchs finally spurred the government into action, with Chief Minister Omar Abdullah promising them more powers and announcing holding of Block Development Council polls. Crucially, police investigations indicated that some of the killings may have been the fallout of personal rivalry.
By turning out in the numbers they did in Monday’s polls, panchs and sarpanchs have sent a message to the government that they continue to have faith in the Panchayati Raj institution. It is time for the government to respond in kind and give them powers, especially financial, so that they can fulfill the promises on the basis of which they won.
Mir is a principal correspondent based in Srinagar