J&K: It's not terrorists but leaders who messed it up

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The Congress is having a rough time in dealing with its coalition partners, both at the Centre and various states. After the Trinamool Congress's pulling out of the government, the Congress found its coalition government in Maharashtra in crisis over a scam. And now, all focus is on the murder of panchayat leaders by terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir which has led to a large-scale resignation by sarpanches.

The crisis has even led to a face-off between the National Conference and Congress over the point of empowering the panchayat system in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and opposing it. The media found its food in a 'battle between Omar Abdullah and Rahul Gandhi' over the debate.

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Inefficient politicians not ready to give panchayats a chance?

The panchayat problem in Kashmir has just shown how inefficient politicians of the country, the elected representatives themselves, are denying a chance to democracy and putting it at the mercy of the terrorists. The Indian state has failed to understand that democracy is the only way to tackle terrorism in the sensitive state. Only pouring funds and deploying military personnel can never resolve the problem.

The people of the state made a brave move by electing panchayat members in elections held a year ago and no warning from the separatist forces could deter them. The election saw 34,000 people's representatives coming to power and that was a golden opportunity for the state, which has seen a bloodied history, to chart a new way towards democracy.

But even as the people of the state preferred a strong democratic culture to evolve, the politicians felt otherwise. The people gave their nod, but their own leaders never really cared to build on the strong mandate. The panchayat elections were held but they were never backed by the process of institution-building that could lay a solid foundation for the model of self-governance.

J&K panchayats remained powerless even after popular elections

The problem is that to make the panchayat system capable of delivering changes on the ground, the higher authorities must ensure that resources and administrative powers are transferred to the local bodies or otherwise there is no point in just holding the elections. The state government must play a leading role in this and this is where the Omar Abdullah government failed.

The elections, which were held after a long time, gave the state administration a great chance to lead towards a brighter future, but it was squandered and the terrorists, who were waiting to attack, did not let go their opportunity. They started gunning down sarpanches and soon there was a deluge of resignations from the other panchayat leaders who were understandably frightened by the attack.

Omar Abdullah busy tackling coalition partner

It is unfortunate to see that the Chief Minister of the state is more concerned in coalition face-offs and bashing the media instead of finding a realistic way out of the problem. Issuing statements like 'coward terrorists' or 'we will protect the sarpanchs' is not going to be sufficient.

Abdullah's rejection of the Congress demand to incorporate the 73rd constitutional amendment in the Jammu and Kashmir Panchayat Raj Act of 1992 reportedly annoyed Congress leader Rahul Gandhi who was disappointed by the fact that the rural bodies were not empowered after the elections in a way the MLAs and MLCs are generally.

A delegation of panchayat leaders and members from the state also met Rahul Gandhi in New Delhi after getting an invitation from the latter and they emphasised on their security against militant attacks. It is said that the state government did not bother to ensure security of the panchayat members despite the Lashkar-e-Taiba issued posters in April this year that had threatened of dire consequences if the panchayat members did not quit their positions. More than 700 sarpanchs resigned in Jammu and Kashmir after the extremists gunned down eight of their colleagues in the last one year.

Terrorists fear democracy and hence attack its root

This is clearly an attack on democracy, the system that has kept India together till this day. The extremists know very well that people's involvement in the governance is their biggest challenge and hence they target the very root of the system. The panchayat system is key for any democratic system for it serves as the anchor and given the nascent state of the panchayat system in Kashmir, it is all the more vulnerable at this moment.

The queue for resignation by sarpanchs is not the real concern. The bigger worry is that it will discourage people from voting or contesting elections if the state just let it go ignored and the death of democracy will push back the state into the dark ages once again. It can be said that election to the block development councils in the state are due next month. We have also seen in parts of West Bengal where reign of terror unleashed by extremists seriously threatened the local democracy.

Hollow leadership of Omar Abdullah

By rejecting the demand to implement the 73rd and 74th amendments of the Indian Constitution in Kashmir and saying that the state constitution could be amended to effect changes in the functioning of the panchayat system, Omar Abdullah has only revealed his hollow political leadership. At a time when the state's democratic functioning is under threat, Abdullah is more concerned about history and that Jammu and Kashmir enjoys a special status under the Indian Constitution, unlike the other states. He even said that J&K only acceded with India and never merged. "We are in an agreement with India," the Hindustan Times quoted Abdullah saying.

Abdullah putting the cart before the horse?

Omar Abdullah might be trying to project before the people of his state that he is not afraid to take on the Centre when it comes to resolving the Kashmir issue but the paradox is that in trying to do so, he is actually committing a bigger blunder of not improving the governance, which can go a long distance in effecting a change. He is in a way trying to assert his state's rights vis-a-vis the Centre but the problem is unlike many other states, J&K is a sensitive region and only stunts will not address the problem.

Abdullah needs to promote democracy on the ground if he eyes to curb effects of terrorism, the biggest impediment to the state's progress. But the leaders of his government are too much obsessed with political power, which they are reluctant to part with the new grassroot leadership. Neither the NC nor the Congress showed any interest on the crucial issue all these days. Rampant corruption has also reduced the politicians' credibility.

The separatists deny giving panchayats a chance, but why are the democratic leaders in Kashmir? The answer to all woes lies therein.

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