On Thursday, Umar Jan, a sarpanch from Pinglena village, was elected the chairperson of the Block Development Council (BDC) for Kakapora in south Kashmir’s Pulwama. Jan secured five votes against four for his rival Manoj Pandita, a Kashmiri Pandit settled in Jammu.
A block comprising of 20 panchayat halqas — having 158 panch wards and 20 sarpanch seats — Kakapora has only nine elected panches and sarpanches, and eight of them belong to two Pandit families living in Jammu.
The Hajin block of north Kashmir has 196 panch wards and 22 sarpanch seats. While 171 panch and 14 sarpanch seats are vacant, only 33 panches and sarpanches decided the fate of three candidates, who stood for the post of BDC chairperson. And with two candidate getting 16 votes each, the winner was decided by the toss of a coin.
In its first-ever BDC elections, Jammu and Kashmir witnessed 98.3 per cent polling. But behind this turnout lies the story of vacant panchayats, elected panches confined to secured hotels far from their villages, a boycott by the major mainstream political parties barring BJP, and public indifference in the Valley.
While the chairpersons for 128 BDCs were elected in the Valley on Thursday, the candidates have been elected by few votes as most of the panch and sarpanch seats are vacant. As far as panch seats are concerned, 11,264 or 60 per cent are vacant as no candidate stood for elections in these wards during last year’s panchayat elections. Of the elected 7,569 panches, over 3500 were elected unopposed.
The figures for the sarpanches too are not healthy — out of the 2,375 sarpanch wards in the Valley, 817 or 34 per cent are vacant. Of the elected 1,558, over 550 were elected unopposed. The government didn’t even conduct the mandatory re-election for these vacant wards.
In Thursday’s BDC elections, of the 137 blocks in the Valley, there was no candidate in nine blocks, while candidates were elected unopposed in 24 blocks.
At Baghat Kanipora, a block on the outskirts of Srinagar, Ruheena Jan was elected chairperson after securing just 11 votes — six of them from her own family. Jan’s husband, father-in-law, mother-in-law, brother-in-law and sister-in-law are the panches and sarpanches from Kultreh panchayat halqa. All of them were elected unopposed last year. While the block has over 170 panch and sarpanch wards, most of them are vacant — only 33 halqas are represented by the panches and sarpanches.
Meanwhile, fearing militant attacks and public reprisal, the elected panches and sarpanches stay in secured hotels in Srinagar, far away from their villages,. Some of them are Kashmiri pandits who live 250 km away in Jammu and visit the Valley only occasionally.
The J&K government has hired at least seven hotels in Srinagar to accommodate the elected panches and sarpanches. Nisar Ahmad Bhat puts up at a hotel in a posh Srinagar neighbourhood. A panch from Khigam village of Pulwama — a militant stronghold — Bhat represents the BJP and recently met Home Minister Amit Shah in New Delhi.
“All these months, I have not spent a single night at my village,” he says. “I have visited my village a few times only during the day and have not stayed there for more than a few hours.”
Manoj Pandita, a sarpanch from Lajoora village of Pulwama, is a Kashmiri pandit who lives in Jammu. When in the Valley, he stays at a hotel in the highly-fortified Indira Nagar area of Srinagar. Pandita is one of the many Kashmiri pandit panches and sarpanches who have been elected unopposed.
The government’s decision to conduct elections when the entire mainstream leadership in the Valley was behind the bars has also put a question mark on the credibility of these polls. All the major political parties of the state, barring the BJP, have stayed away from the polls, thus making it a contest between BJP and the independent candidates.