Failure to provide security to panchayat members threatens to disturb the peace in J&K

Neither the Omar Abdullah government nor the home ministry seems to be willing or able to come to grips with the gravity of an ominous development in Jammu & Kashmir: repeated militant attacks on panchayat members that is forcing more and more of them to put in their papers. One sarpanch was killed last Friday in Bomai village close to Sopore town. A day later a 45-year-old woman panch was shot at point-blank range in the adjacent Hardshiva village.

She is now battling for her life in a Srinagar hospital. After a spate of such attacks last year, panchayat members across the state established a body to press both the state and the central authorities to ensure their security and, no less important, to vest them with the powers they needed to fulfil their mandate.

Their pleas fell on deaf ears. The chief minister argued that to offer security to 33,000 panchayat members was a tall order. But what prevented him from deploying more police forces in militancy-affected areas? He finally took a step in this direction at a high-level security meeting held on Friday.

But why did he not do so when militants began their killing spree? The reason, it appears, is that Abdullah believed that local rivalries, and not militant designs, led to the attacks on panchayat members.

That assumption, to put it mildly, is grotesque. The head of the main militant organisation, Syed Salahuddin, based in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, first called for a boycott of the 2011 elections. When candidates and voters participated in them in unprecedented numbers, he brought intolerable pressure to bear on the newly-elected panchayat members to resign en bloc. The writing on the wall was thus clear but Abdullah chose not to read it.

To make matters worse, he has consistently refused to empower the panchayat members in order to appease MLAs who fear that such a move would curb their powers.

The Centre’s attitude too has been lackadaisical. Rahul Gandhi had given a patient hearing to members of the apex body of the panchs and sarpanchs. But no action was forthcoming.

Ineptitude on this scale could seriously undermine the steady return to normalcy in the state. Mass disillusionment with the failure of grass-roots democracy is bound to disturb the peace in ways that would be far more dangerous than the criminal acts of militants.

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