Friday, October 19, 2012

Service on village councils proves deadly in rural Kashmir

This story in today's New York Times tells a tale of death in the Indian state of Kashmir.  For more than three decades, Jim Yardley reports, villages in this tinderbox region had no local government councils, or gram panchayats.  But last year, in the face of threats of violence, "rural Kashmiris turned out in huge numbers" to elect these local councils "in what became a victory for grass-roots democracy in a blood-soaked land." The newly elected councils set about to undertake "long-neglected development projects," such as basic sanitation infrastructure.  In recent weeks, however, several panchayat leaders have been killed, and posters urging council members to resign have appeared in some villages.  Many elected leaders have in fact resigned, and several of the panchayats have ceased to operate.  Yardley quotes a village leader, Mohammad Altaf Malik, speculating on who or what is behind the killings:
There are forces that don't want to see the panchayats succeed.  The panchayat elections created tremendous hope among the people.  Now that hope is slowly diminishing.  
Yardley's story provides this additional context:
Kashmir is the stubborn, unsolved riddle of South Asia, a mostly Muslim region of blue skies and snow-capped Himalayan peaks that once witnessed a bloody insurgency and is still claimed by both India and Pakistan, even as some Kashmiris aspire to outright independence.
Some Kashmiri militant groups sought a boycott of the elections last year, but about 80% of voters nevertheless participated, making this aspect of Kashmir look more like the rest of India--at least for a time.
Panchayats have long existed elsewhere in India, but the absence of the system in Kashmir has meant that political power and patronage remained with state legislators and block-level administrators.  The panchayats shook that political structure, especially when their elected leaders--known as sarpanches--began complaining that the established order was not devolving power.  
Yardley quotes Omar Abdullah, the state's chief minister, who explains the tensions between different levels of government:
Let's understand that you have not had a functioning panchayat system here for more than three decades.  So an entire generation of political and administrative leadership has grown up without having to work with this group of elected representatives.  Clearly, they would much rather than deal with them. 

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