Srinagar: During the 2014 Assembly elections in Kashmir, Nisar Ahmad Bhat campaigned actively for his party, People’s Democratic Party’s (PDP) candidate, Haseeb A Drabu. Nisar says, he distributed rice amongst the villagers to ensure Drabu’s victory in Pulwama constituency. But, last month, when Nisar met Union Home Minister Amit Shah in New Delhi, he says he thanked Shah for detaining Kashmiri politicians, including those from the PDP.
Nisar became a panch in the panchayat polls in 2018 and is a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). He says, he switched over to BJP soon after Drabu’s win. “We celebrated his victory but then after a few months, he declined meetings and any help,” Nisar alleges.
Drabu, was among the key architects of the PDP-BJP alliance in 2015, and later became finance minister in the coalition government. The coalition did not last the entire term. Nisar blames Drabu’s ‘snub’ for pushing him into BJP’s fold, and igniting his own political ambitions.
Today, Nisar is preparing for the upcoming Block Development Council (BDC) polls to be held on October 24 across Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). “There is nothing that parties like PDP and National Conference have done for my village. I seek basic necessities for my village, such as water, electricity and roads,” he says.
Nisar, however, has not been able to visit his home in Wasimarg, a remote village in Pulwama, for nearly a year now. He lives in a hotel in Srinagar along with his family, including his wife Rubeena Bano, who is also a panch.
Like Nisar, many panches and sarpanches (village heads) of the Valley have been living in various Srinagar hotels, which are provided security cover by police.
“There is threat from militants. We have not been able to work in many areas due to hostility by people, especially after Article 370 was revoked,” he says.
On August 5, when the government-led by BJP in New Delhi unilaterally abrogated Article 370 and downsized the state of J&K into two Union territories, a massive clampdown was enforced across the state by imposing severe restrictions and arresting thousands, including hundreds of politicians from across the political spectrum. The politicians and activists including the top leadership of regional political parties, such as PDP and NC, who continue to remain incarcerated.
But, Nisar’s contempt against the jailed politicians has only increased and in it, he sees, the political arena being “leveled up.” The BJP-led government at the Centre believes there is a need for a different political dispensation in Kashmir, devoid of traditional “dynasties like Abdullah and Mufti family.”
A new political ground is being prepared through the upcoming BDC polls being held for the first time in Kashmir, many panches and sarpanches like Nisar believe. The Centre went ahead with holding BDC elections even as more than 6,000 posts lie vacant due to the “boycott” by regional parties in the panchayat polls in 2018. The election for these posts is expected to be held later.
According to Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) Shailendra Kumar, following the panchayat elections in the state last year, as many as 23,639 panches and and 3,652 sarpanches were elected, who will now vote for the respective chairperson of BDCs.
“The BDC polls will be held on party lines in 316 blocks across the state and a polling station has been set up in each block,” Kumar said. The number of male electors is 18,316 and there are 8,313 female electors, according to the figures provided by the CEO. “The counting of votes will be done on the day of polling,” he said.
Despite the ongoing crisis in Kashmir, many people have filed their nominations and a political process has already begun within the quarters of Srinagar hotels amidst the clampdown and communication blockade. Even as there are hostilities from locals, panches and sarpanches are calling for meetings inside their designated hotel rooms.
Most of the faces are new, some of them are farmers, such as Abdul Rashid Mir from Sopore, some worked as labourers and many of them have been political activists for years. But, almost all of them say they have found a new ally in BJP. A councilor from Tral, Manzoor Ahmad, also joined BJP after his “disillusionment” from PDP. He says his opinion of Article 370 doesn’t matter though.
“Discussion on Article 370 is for the senior leadership of mainstream political parties,” he says, defending BJP’s decisions and actions in Kashmir, including abrogation of Article 370. But, Manzoor doesn’t shy away from saying that he even participated in funeral prayers for slain militants as well. He, however, also feels threatened due to the political realities of Kashmir, marred with insurgency and violence.
“The threat is real and we, too, are afraid.” Mir says.
The scare among the panches and sarpanches is considerable but, while many have not been able to visit their hometowns or villages, many others, frequent their own, meeting friends, families and relatives. A panch from Konibal area of Pampore in South Kashmir says he doesn’t sense any danger and visits him often.
On Sunday, a 15-member delegation from the NC met their party leaders, Farooq Abdullah and Omar Abdullah, in Srinagar. The party’s Jammu provincial head, Davinder Singh Rana, who led the delegation, said there was a need to create an atmosphere for political activities, such as the BDC polls that can happen only when detained political leaders are released. “It will be meaningless until the party president (Farooq), who is detained under the Public Safety Act, is released. To contest the BDC polls, the party president has to sign mandate,” Rana said.
In the absence of leadership and, thus, any direction, panches and sarpacnhes from all parties meet and discuss with BJP members. Looking at the situation, where NC and PDP leaders are under detention, many of these panches have decided to ally with BJP ahead of the polls.
As the leadership from parties like NC, PDP are currently detained, many panches and sarpanches told Newsclick that they were left with no option but to join or support BJP in the BDC polls. “I have dedicated years of my life to NC and then to Congress, but given the situation, BJP’s writ is inevitable. So, I joined them,” a sarpanch told NewsClick.
What has complicated their state, according to them, was the boycott of panchayat polls last year. “Many participated, but mostly from BJP, who won unopposed in many places giving the party an edge,” says a sarpanch from South Kashmir.
In Kashmir, given the increased hostility towards BJP, especially after they formed the government in the state in coalition with PDP and revoked special status unilaterally, while most of panches may not be open about their party affiliation, few like Panzinara are open about it. A BJP member since the past 15 years, she says she is “hopeful” as many panches and sarpanches are joining her party ahead of the BDC polls even if for the sake of mandate.
The panches and sarpanches say they have received lakhs of rupees in their accounts directly to do developmental work in their respective wards and halqas. A lot of this work has been hampered due to the clampdown following August 5.
Being held in Kashmir for the first time, many of the panches say the process of changing political dynamics at grassroots, spearheaded by BJP, has occurred with the revocation of Article 370. AK Pandita, a sarpanch from MK Gund in Shopian, is a member of BJP since 1992 but for the first time, he says, he feels “powerful”.
“We can transfer Block Development Officer (BDO) within an hour if he hampers development work or doesn’t listen to us,” BJPs Nand Lal Koul says.
The final nomination filing date for the BDC polls is October 9, 2019. Formerly with Congress, a sarpanch, who is filing nomination as BJPs candidate, however, said he will wait till the last five minutes before filing his nomination. “I am indecisive due to the situation, I may file my nomination as an independent,” he says.