On the night of June 21, Ashaq Hussain Hurrah, a member of the block development council of Kashmir’s Baramulla district, attempted suicide inside his hotel room in Budgam. He had been confined to the hotel, 30 km from home, by the Jammu and Kashmir police ever since he had won the council election in October 2019.

“I want to live with my family and be with my kids,” he said, about a fortnight after the episode. “But the police tell us that there is a danger to our life. That’s why they have put all of us into private hotels and kept us under security.”

Jammu and Kashmir’s three-tier panchayati raj system, spanning village, block and district councils, is often showcased by the Narendra Modi government as evidence of functional grassroots democracy in the territory.

But many elected representatives like Hurrah are barely able to venture out, let alone perform their duties, since they are frequently targeted by militants. In March, militants attacked a meeting of block development council members in Sopore town, leaving a member and his personal security guard dead. In June, a municipal councillor from Bharatiya Janata Party was killed by militants in Tral.

Kashmir has more than 20,000 elected members of village panchayats, 307 block council members, and nearly 240 district council members. While a senior police officer declined to reveal the total number of elected representatives currently sheltered in private hotels and secure government accommodation, the leaders of the representatives claim the number runs in hundreds.

Hurrah, who is from Khoor Sherabad area of Baramulla district, said he is allowed to visit his area in a government vehicle accompanied by security guards once a week. He can speak to his constituents, but he is not allowed to stay at home.

“We were tricked into believing that we will work for the empowerment of people at the grassroots,” he said. “Instead, we have been reduced to hoisting the tricolour on two occasions. Beyond that, the government doesn’t need us.”

The experience of panchayat representatives like Hurrah assumes significance in the backdrop of talks between the Centre and Kashmiri political parties on the roadmap to assembly elections in the Union Territory. By repeatedly linking elections to the larger Kashmir conflict, observers say, the government has endangered the lives of elected representatives.

From village elections to district polls

Jammu and Kashmir’s last elected state government collapsed in June 2018 as the Bharatiya Janata Party walked out of its coalition with the People’s Democratic Party, paving the way for central rule through the governor.

Months later, in December 2018, village panchayat elections were held. The regional parties of Kashmir boycotted them, with many criticising them as an exercise by New Delhi to whitewash the absence of a democratically elected government in the state.

While the government claimed that the village council polls saw nearly 74% turnout, an analysis of voting data by Scroll.in revealed that only 30% of the panchayat halqas in Kashmir valley had seen polling. Headed by a sarpanch, a halqa is a cluster of villages, each represented by a panch.

In August 2019, New Delhi took the drastic step of stripping Jammu and Kashmir of its special constitutional status and downgrading it to a union territory. Weeks before the transition was formalised in October 2019, the elected representatives of the village panchayats voted in the first ever block development council polls in Jammu and Kashmir. Independent candidates won 217 of the 307 blocks, and the BJP clinched 81.

More recently, in December 2020, elections were held to the district development councils – the third tier in the panchayati raj system. While the Kashmiri parties participated in these elections, there were widespread allegations that the union territory administration had denied security to non-Bharatiya Janata Party candidates. Many candidates of the Gupkar Alliance, a conglomerate of Kashmiri regional parties fighting for the restoration of pre-August 2019 status of Jammu and Kashmir, refused security in order to be able to campaign freely, although at a risk to their lives.

All along, the Modi government has presented the panchayat elections as an “example of democracy”. It has organised several guided tours for diplomats, most recently for a delegation of 24 foreign envoys in February, who met elected panchayat members as part of their briefing on “normalcy” in the valley.

‘Worse than central jail’

On the ground, however, the situation is not as rosy as painted by the government.

Take the case of Ghulam Haider. A member of the block development council of Soibugh in Budgam district, he is currently lodged in a private hotel in Humhama area.

Like Hurrah, he is allowed to venture out in a government vehicle manned by security guards just once a week. When there is trouble in Soibugh, he is the last to know about it.

He even lacks the freedom to help his own family. Recently, when the blood sugar level of his diabetic wife shot up to 500, his son had to shoulder the responsibility of taking her to the hospital. “It was my relatives and neighbours who helped them to reach the hospital and get treatment,” Haider said.

It was not like this always. For the first four-five months after his election, Haider said he had been provided two security guards to move freely in his block. In the evenings, he would return home and spend the night there. “But since the last 15 months, we have been kept here like prisoners,” he said, referring to the hotel. “I think central jail would be better than this.”

What was most frustrating, he said, was that nearly two years after he had been elected, he had little to show in terms of work on the ground. “All we have got is Rs 25 lakh in accounts for which the administration has asked us to submit proposed work plans in our block. That’s the work we have done,” Haider explained. “The real work on ground is yet to begin.”

Haider also pointed out that the monthly salary of Rs 15,000 was inadequate to cover the risks involved in the job. The long absence from home meant he was unable to contribute to the expenses of the family. As a result, his son had been forced to quit his studies and work as a labourer. “The last time I visited home, he told me that he owes a local shopkeeper some money. I bluntly told him I have nothing to give him,” he said.

Far from the claims of the government that block council members would act as decision makers in villages, Haider, a former panch, said he had been rendered irrelevant in the eyes of his people.“If a representative doesn’t live among his people, what is his credibility? We are looked down upon by people,” he said. “They think of us as some gluttons who enjoy mutton and rice inside hotels.”

‘We have become a joke’

Tahir Ahmad Mir said it was the promise of working for the benefit of his people that made him quit his government contractual job to join politics. A resident of Reshi Nagar village in Shopian district, 33-year-old Mir contested and won the district development council elections from Kanjiullar constituency.

His confinement started on December 22, the day the result was declared. “I have been kept inside a government quarter since then and not allowed to move at my will,” Mir said. He has been unable to spend even a night at his home. “Recently I went home during the day and within half an hour I got a call from the police asking me to come back to the accommodation. I had to return immediately.”

As a public representative who is unable to meet the people of his constituency, all that Mir can do is field phone calls from them, note down their concerns, and then follow up with officials, again through phone calls. He finds this process unsatisfactory. “I really don’t know if the officials are telling the truth when I call them about issues and their redressal,” he said. “Also, not everyone has my contact number. It would have been better if I was home and people could walk in at any time with their problems.”

Affiliated with the newly formed Jammu and Kashmir Apni Party, Mir is aghast at the silence of political parties, including his own, about the detention of elected representatives. “Nobody talks about us. We have become a joke,” he said.

‘The government is responsible’

The only organisation that has been vocal about the confinement of the panchayat representatives is the All Jammu and Kashmir Panchayat Conference. Its leaders hold successive governments responsible for the threats to the lives of panchayat members.

“We have always said that panchayats have nothing to do with politics and conflict. They are established just to manage village-level governance issues,” said Mohammad Shafiq Mir, chairperson of the organisation. “But whenever they [government] held panchayat elections, they linked them with the Kashmir issue. As a result, the other parties in the Kashmir conflict started targeting those who became part of this system.”

In Mir’s view, panchayat representatives should be provided security inside their native villages so that they can carry out their duties. But a senior police officer in Srinagar dismissed this as unworkable. “It is logistically impossible to provide security to each and every panch or sarpanch in Kashmir,” said the officer, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “We don’t have that much manpower in the first place.”

But security is not the only concern, said Mir. “Empowerment is not only providing money for making roads and irrigation facilities. Empowerment means if you have elected representatives, they should be respected by the concerned officials and public servants,” he said. “But no public servant is giving them the due respect they deserve. This is a failed system.”