Among the panchayat representatives from Kashmir, who met Union Home Minister Amit Shah and later interacted with the media, Zubair Butt stood out.
At the conference hall in North Block, as sarpanch after sarpanch stood up to describe how the removal of J&K’s special status under Article 370 had empowered them, Butt, a young sarpanch from Harwan in Srinagar, took the mic and began speaking on the difficulties being faced by people in downtown Srinagar due to the restrictions in place.
“Movement and communication is a serious problem in downtown Srinagar. Supplies, including that of fuel, are scarce. Barring ration, getting anything else is difficult,” he said. He also said that the administration was paying for construction work in panchayats at 2012 rates.
Minister of State Jitendra Singh intervened and assured all help to Butt and promised that the rates would also be revised.
But this moment captured the difficult situation many elected panchayat members from Kashmir find themselves in following the August 5 announcements.
While most representatives made feeble complaints while speaking on record, a majority admitted privately that they were living in fear, uncertain about the future.
“We were very happy when the panchayat elections were held. The stranglehold of the entrenched families had been broken. Democracy was reaching the grassroots. But after abrogation of Article 370, we are hiding from the same people who elected us. We have been delegitimised in one stroke. People are calling us ‘gaddar’ (traitor). We are being seen as stooges of Delhi, just as the Muftis and Abdullahs,” a sarpanch from Srinagar said.
The panchs also expressed concern about their personal security. “Security is an issue. We raised it with the Home Minister. He said abrogation of Article 370 had paved the way for a more secure Kashmir and that there was no need to fear. But we are living in fear of both militants and locals. I am not even sleeping in my home,” another sarpanch said.
In the conference hall, Anil Sharma, J&K panchayat state president, said, “We stand by the decision of the Prime Minister on Article 370.” He detailed how Shah had assured all assistance for functioning of the panchayats, and addressed their concerns. He said there were some difficulties but the restrictions were necessary.
Nazir Ahmed Raina, a BJP politician from Ganderbal, said, “We had a good meeting with the Home Minister. All sarpanchs will get insurance of Rs 2 lakh. The money will now come directly into our accounts. We have become powerful because of the abrogation of Article 370.”
But some sarpanchs from Srinagar and north Kashmir did not share the enthusiasm. “They are from areas which are not under very severe restrictions. We are facing public anger. Even after the lifting of restrictions, people are not opening shops in protest. There is public anger. Then there is the fear of militants. One shopkeeper was warned by them not to open his shop. When he did not listen, he was killed,” said one sarpanch.