Fair Game

Photo: Shailendra Pandey

The killing of two sarpanches in a fortnight has mortally threatened the existence of the valley’s fledgling Panchayat Raj institutions. More than a 100 panches and sarpanches have tendered their resignations through paid advertisements in the local newspapers. Many, who couldn’t do it through the media, have rushed to their village mosques to announce the decision.

The situation is reminiscent of the early nineties when classified pages in local newspapers were filled with resignation letters of political workers. The ads ran under the heading, “Non-affiliation to any Political Party,” and carried a short message which expressed remorse and sought forgiveness for the person’s past political activities while announcing the decision to quit.

In an uncanny throwback to the period, the local newspapers are once again running the similar ads. This time, it is panches and sarpanches resigning from their jobs after suspected militants killed their two colleagues in quick succession.

Does this underline a certain resurgence of militancy in the state? It does appear so from a distance. But actually, militancy today is far past its prime, limited to an odd shoot-out or a grenade throw in urban areas or an encounter in the hinterland. But this decreased physical footprint of the violence has hardly detracted from its larger psychological presence. It lurks in the shadows, ready to spring upon us when we least suspect it. And it does so often, in bewilderingly diverse and resourceful ways: There were thirteen targeted killings of the political workers, attacks on CRPF and ambushes on the army in Srinagar over the past two years and it turned out that the brain behind them was actually a cop, a personal security officer of a Senior Superintendent of Police, who was committed to the separatist ideology.

But sarpanch killings are not only about the existence or absence of militancy. Kashmir, despite the prevailing semblance of normalcy remains, for all practical purposes, an abode of conflict where its troubled history continuously melds with the present. The violence may have declined but it is not over. The sentiment and the environment that produced it haven’t gone anywhere.

It is in this treacherous environment that panchayat members operate. Their election and existence not only signifies an idyllic peace but also the starkest message so far that the Kashmiris at the grassroot level have abandoned the Azadi discourse. But this is not exactly the case, at least to the extent conveyed by the existence of this third tier of democracy. This is what makes them the biggest challenge for the militants: a dense village to village network of the elected grassroots representatives, if left undisturbed, means absolute negation of everything they stand for.

The government, on the other hand, is happy that panchayats are in place. They primarily represent a normal Kashmir. Their democratic worth and the need to protect them come last. They are, therefore, valued for the very purpose that militants hate them. Then, there is the impossibility of securing them from militant attacks. The state’s Panchayat Raj minister, Ali Muhammad Sagar, now says that the government will provide security to whichever panchayat members has a threat perception. But the fact remains that all of them face it.

Panches and Sarpanches are thus haplessly in the middle, a fair game for everyone. There are militants on one side who see their continuance as the mortal threat to separatist movement and government, on the other, which has left them to fend for themselves.

“Army tells us don’t resign and militants pressure us to do so. We don’t know what to do. Meanwhile, one by one, our colleagues are getting killed,” said a sarpanch from Baramulla, refusing to be named.

Author:   is special correspondent with Tehelka magazine.



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