Mehrajuddin Rather, the former sarpanch of Nesbal village of North Kashmir’s Bandipora district, likes to show a video to those he meets for the first time.

In the video from 2022, Jammu and Kashmir Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha praises him for implementing central government schemes in his panchayat. “If such an individual is not appreciated then it would be injustice,” Sinha says in the video clip. “In my view, he [Rather] is our role model.”

Rather was elected as a sarpanch in 2018 after contesting panchayat elections as an independent candidate. In these five years, he claims to have carried out development work in Nesbal worth Rs 27 crore – from building a sports stadium to ensuring borewell irrigation on hundreds of acres of agricultural land.

“As a sarpanch, I was able to act as a bridge between a common villager’s problems and the administration,” said the 32-year-old, who joined the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2022.

Rather will no longer have the opportunity to act as that bridge. On January 9, the term of 4,297 sarpanchs and 33,659 panchs in Jammu and Kashmir came to an end – with no clarity about when elections will be held next.

Diminished democracy

With the end of the tenure of the elected panchayat bodies, the only elected leaders left in Jammu and Kashmir are five Members of Parliament and 280 district development councillors – the third tier of the panchayati raj system for which the elections were held in 2020.

Since August 2019, when the statehood and the special status of the erstwhile state was scrapped, there have been no elections to the legislative Assembly of the Union territory. The last assembly elections were held in 2014.

The term of elected representatives of all urban local bodies – 57 municipal committees, 19 municipal councils and two corporations – ended on November 14 last year.

The government does not appear keen to hold fresh elections – at least until the upcoming revision of electoral rolls ahead of the Lok Sabha elections and the reservation (by rotation) of panchayat constituencies for women.

On January 10, the government appointed block development officers as administrators of respective panchayats in Jammu and Kashmir for a period of six months.

Mehrajuddin Rather, the former sarpanch of Nesbal village of North Kashmir’s Bandipora district. Photo by: Safwat Zargar.

In a region which has been under the direct rule of New Delhi since 2018, the government’s decision to not announce fresh elections to panchayats and urban local bodies has amplified anxieties. “Earlier, for a common person, the government itself was in the village,” Rather said. “Now, an officer, who probably has little idea about the area, will decide which works take priority. A common villager will have to travel to different offices, far from his home, to have his pleas heard.”

The history of panchayati raj in Kashmir

Grassroot governance has had a chequered history in Jammu and Kashmir.

In 1935, the autocratic Dogra ruler Maharaja Hari Singh sowed the seeds of a local governance system in the form of Jammu and Kashmir Village Panchayat Regulation No. 1. Six years later, the Dogra authority gave panchayats additional powers and functions.

Post-independence, Jammu and Kashmir enacted several laws, culminating in the Jammu and Kashmir Panchayati Raj Act, 1989.

But panchayati raj struggled to take root in the state, as “...J&K remained highly unstable politically since independence and issues of grassroots democracy remained quite distant from people’s involvement,” argued Kashmiri professor Dr Aijaz Ashraf Wani in his 2011 paper ‘Panchayat Elections in Kashmir: A Case for Democratic De-centralisation.’

In 1992, the Parliament passed the landmark 73rd Constitutional (Amendment) Act, which conferred constitutional status to panchayati raj institutions and recognised them as the third tier of the government besides central and state governments.

The amendment could not be extended to Jammu and Kashmir due to Article 370 of the Indian constitution which required the concurrence of the state government. The local parties were reluctant, as they feared that such a system would undermine the state’s autonomy.

In contrast, after Jammu and Kashmir was downgraded into a Union territory in August, 2019, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party-led central government gave a massive push to the panchayati raj system.

Nearly three months after the August 5, 2019 decision, the polls for electing the chairman of Block Development Councils – the second tier of the panchayati raj system – were held in Jammu and Kashmir. An electoral college of panchs and sarpanchs elected the chairman.

But the elections were largely symbolic, as almost the entire mainstream leadership of Jammu and Kashmir, except that of the Bharatiya Janata Party, was in detention.

In October 2020, the Ministry of Home Affairs made significant amendments to create – only in Kashmir – a third tier in the panchayati raj system, district development councils.

The first district development council elections were held in Jammu and Kashmir in 2020, and touted by the BJP as proof of “political freedom” and a sign that the people of the Union territory “were turning to democratic decentralisation”.

The Centre’s reluctance to hold panchayat elections now, therefore, has been seen as a breach of faith by those invested in the system.

‘We have been used’

In November 2016, when the entire Kashmir Valley was in the grip of a widespread uprising against the killing of popular militant commander Burhan Wani in an encounter, a meeting between panchayat representatives from Jammu and Kashmir and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi, had caught everyone by surprise.

Among those who attended that meeting was Mushtaq Ahmad Khan, a sarpanch from Beerwah area of central Kashmir’s Budgam district.

“PM Modi told us that grassroots democracy in the state has to be restored,” recalled Khan, who was part of a 30-member delegation to have met Modi accompanied by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. “He asked if we are ready for panchayat elections. We said ‘yes.’”

The 2016 meeting between PM Modi and panchayat leaders in Kashmir. Courtesy: PM India website

Khan was not exaggerating. Militants in Kashmir have often killed panchayat representatives, who mostly live in their villages, without any security. According to estimates by All Jammu and Kashmir Panchayat Conference, a representative body of elected panchayat leaders in Kashmir, more than two dozen panchs or sarpanchs have been killed by militants since 2012.

Not surprisingly, Khan is aghast at the government’s decision to not hold panchayat elections.

Khan, who is also the provincial president of All Jammu and Kashmir Panchayat Conference, said, panchayat representatives of Kashmir have been successful in taking the government’s initiatives to the people. “I can assert that there is no sarpanch in Kashmir who has carried out development works in his area below Rs 5 crores,” Khan claimed. “Everyone has worked.”

‘No oversight’

The absence of elected panchayat representatives, many fear, will end the oversight over execution of government welfare initiatives. “Let me be honest with you,” Khan said, “very few officials like us because they feel we are bossing over them. As a sarpanch, I was empowered to make them accountable. Now, I can’t do anything.”

Khan argued that instead of letting the terms of the current panchayat end, the government “should have made an arrangement” where the current sarpanchs “could still have powers to listen to the issues of people and seek their redressal from the government.”

He also links the end of panchayati raj’s tenure with a larger symbolism. “If panchayati raj elections are delayed, then how’s this a Naya Kashmir?” asked Khan.

Many villagers in Bandipora, Budgam and Ganderbal districts also told Scroll that they are worried about the absence of panchayat representatives in daily affairs.

“We could just nag the [panch/sarpanch] anywhere and anytime because he lived in the village,” said Imtiyaz Ahmad from central Kashmir’s Ganderbal district. “Whether he would address our issue or not, but at least we had someone who we could approach with our problems. Now, who will skip a day of work to visit officers?”

‘What about our safety?’

For many panchayati raj representatives, the end of their tenure brings many anxieties.

Shabir Ahmad Gojer is one of those worried about his safety. A resident of south Kashmir’s Tral town – the hometown of Burhan Wani – Gojer became a sarpanch in 2018.

That was the end of a normal life in his native village.

“The day I submitted my form to contest elections, I was brought to Srinagar by the police and put up in a government accommodation,” said Gojer.

Since 2018, Gojer along with his family and children have been living in Srinagar, far from home. He is not alone. There are scores of panchayat representatives hailing from sensitive areas of Kashmir valley who have been living in government-funded accommodations in Srinagar and towns owing to threats to their lives.

“Whenever I have to go to my village, I have to inform the police beforehand and they give me security,” said Gojer. “I go to my village in a police vehicle, take stock of work and then head back to my accommodation in Srinagar. I can’t stay for the night in my village.”

While his term is over, Gojer wonders if he will continue to have a safe house in Srinagar. “What will happen to me now?”