Will 2018 polls replicate the 2011 success? There is no easy answer, Ahmed Riyaz writes

Despite the security situation deteriorating by the day, J&K government has announced the long-delayed Panchayat polls in February. This too when the fear of violence has forced the State government not to hold the already deferred by-election for the south Kashmir parliamentary seat vacated by Mehbooba after she took over as the chief minister.

 

Last Panchayat polls were held in 2011 when 79 percent of people cast their ballot defying the separatist boycott call. This was surprising considering only a few months ago, J&K had witnessed a five-month-long separatist revolt in which 120 youth were killed. Polls were held after a gap of 32 years. And they were a roaring success.

 

Similarly, fresh Panchayat polls would also follow an exceptionally troubled 2017, which witnessed most violence in the last seven years. According to South Asia Terrorism Portal, around 358 people were killed, 218 of them militants. A higher number of 375 people were killed in 2010.

 

Will 2018 polls replicate the 2011 success? There is no easy answer. Though the precedent points toward a massive participation of the people, the prevailing abysmal security scenario makes it an extravagant hope. True, the Valley has not been going through the mass unrest but the violence has only escalated.  Over the past month, the Valley has witnessed several militant attacks which between them have killed many security personnel. Five CRPF personnel were killed when the three Jaish-e-Mohammad Fidayeen stormed a security camp in south Kashmir. Similarly, four policemen were killed in an IED blast in Sopore.  Besides, the past week has witnessed one of the most intense cross-LoC firing in the past three years leading to killing of 13 people, six of them soldiers and seven civilians. Both sides have suffered the heavy loss of life of the soldiers and the civilians and the consequent displacement of thousands of people living close to the border. Similarly, the violence in Kashmir has shown no signs of abatement. South Kashmir continues to be the most violence-prone. Militants have warned the aspiring candidates against participating in the elections, threatening to pour acid in their eyes, in case they did so.

“This underlines a very fragile security situation,” says the political analyst Gowhar Geelani. “And it will be supremely challenging to hold an electoral exercise as sweeping as a Panchayat election that will involve the entire rural belt, most of which is affected by militancy.”

Such a situation, adds Gowhar, is likely to forbid participation in the polls.

“In 2011, militancy was sporadic and scattered and the anti-New Delhi sentiment had moderated,” says Geelani. “But now militancy, even though not endemic, has developed a presence which far outstrips the number of militants. Besides, the anti-New Delhi sentiment is at a record high. This doesn’t bode well for the exercise.”

Already, separatist groups and militants have called for the boycott of the exercise.

“Any sort of election under the Indian occupational system, be it for so called Assembly, parliament, municipal committee or Panchayat, is meant only to harm the interests of Kashmiris. The Indian rulers have been using this election drama to negate Kashmiris’ demand for self-determination and freedom,” said a statement issued by the Joint Resistance Leadership (JRL), comprising Syed Ali Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Muhammad Yasin Malik. “By an exemplary boycott of these elections, Kashmiris will deliver a message to India and to the international community that Kashmiris want freedom.”

There is another fear too: a potential surge in militancy-related violence and the killings of the candidates. In April last, when by-elections were held in Srinagar parliamentary constituency, eight people lost their lives resisting the election, the highest toll ever in the State on a polling day in a single constituency. What is more, a meagre 6.5 percent people cast their ballot.

“There is every likelihood that such a scenario would again unfold,” warns the local columnist Naseer Ahmad. “So, there is a need for the government to tread cautiously and not to thrust an election on the State when the conducive conditions for such an exercise don’t exist.”

 

An editorial in a local daily carried a similar warning: “Should situation go wrong and lead to bloodshed, the government will have only itself to blame. Nobody in Kashmir will want an early election after what happened during Lok Sabha by-poll early this year.”

As Panchayat polls draw nearer, a sense of déjà vu deepens in Kashmir. Few people expect the exercise to go smoothly, yet people are willing to keep their fingers crossed.

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