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Ballots over bullets: Why panchayat polls outcome will largely determine how 2018 will pass in Kashmir

Riyaz Wani | Updated on: 27 December 2017, 19:02 IST

In early 2011 when J&K Government decided to hold Panchayat polls, the state was on the rebound from a five-month-long separatist unrest in which 120 youth had lost their lives. The anger and alienation ran deep, so few expected the people to vote.

But to everybody’s shock, thousands of people turned out to not only participate in a bitterly fought campaign but to also cast their ballot. So much so that the final turnout hovered around a record 80%.

This was demoralising for the Valley’s separatist camp and their significant constituency which expected a complete boycott following a massive groundswell in their favour only a few months ago. The success of the polls hurtled the mainstream politics again to the centre stage, ushering in normalcy and among people a certain sense of resignation to the state of affairs. The Valley saw five years of peace after that.

Around seven years on, the state government has again announced the dates for the Panchayat elections in the state. The polls will be held from 15 February. Making the announcement, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti hoped that the “people will choose ballot over bullets again”.

This has created a sense of deja vu in the Valley. The upcoming polls would once again follow a six-month long unrest that left around 100 people dead and the eyesight of several hundred impaired. Anger and alienation again run deep. So logically, the announcement of polls is likely to trigger a public backlash and force a boycott of the exercise. More so, when fear of violence and the boycott has forced the state government not to hold the already deferred election for the South Kashmir parliamentary seat vacated by Mehbooba after she took over as the CM.

But going by the past record, the CM’s hope is not misplaced. Kashmir could yet again see a massive mobilisation in favour of the polls. And if this happens, it would once again put the mainstream politics at the front and centre of the public discourse in the state. The potential peace dividends of the exercise are thus huge.

The move, however, can turn out to be fraught in its fallout. It could witness a dramatic surge in violence.

In April, when by-polls were held in the Srinagar parliamentary constituency, only 6.5% people cast their ballot. What is more, eight people lost their lives resisting the election, the highest toll ever in the state on a polling day in a single constituency. All the deaths took place as the security personnel at the polling booths tried to fend off the advancing mobs of protesters. This despite the fact that the Srinagar parliamentary constituency has been Valley’s zero-militancy area over past around 15 years. The constituency has also witnessed fewer militancy-related incidents.

This forced the government to defer the South Kashmir by-poll which was scheduled to take place shortly after Srinagar election.

There is every apprehension that a similar scenario could unfold once the panchayat polls get underway. More so, in South Kashmir which has emerged as the hub of the Valley’s resurgent separatism. The area was also at the forefront of the unrest last year. Two-third of the killings and blindings in the six-month turmoil took place in the South Kashmir districts of Kulgam, Shopian, Pulwama and Anantnag.

Elsewhere in the Valley too, the situation has progressively deteriorated. So deep does the resentment of the mainstream politicians run, that none of them can hold a public meeting without a heavy security bandobast.

Similarly, so overwhelming is the support for militants that the security forces have to battle large protesting crowds before they are able to kill them during an encounter.

“Such an abysmal security scenario is hardly conducive to holding of polls. And that too as grassroots-based an exercise as the panchayat polls. This could trigger large-scale violence and a massive public backlash,” says Naseer Ahmad, a local columnist.

“The valley is normal this time. The government should have let people be,” Ahmad added.

But the state government, on the other hand, is banking on the substantial rise in the killings of the militants in 2017 and the consequent reduction in their footprint. According to the latest estimate, around 208 militants were killed this year.

Though fresh local recruitment and the infiltration has replenished a part of the depleted ranks, their presence has largely thinned out. And this is where the government sees an opportunity to move in and restore political activity.

Much depends on the behaviour of the people now. They could still choose to resist and boycott leading to more violence. Or going by the precedent, they could choose to participate, paving the way for a fresh phase of normalcy.

In either case, the outcome of panchayat polls will largely determine how 2018 will pass in Kashmir.

Edited by Jhinuk Sen

First published: 27 December 2017, 19:02 IST