Late at night on November 11, a building in Brakpora village in South Kashmir’s Anantnag district went up in flames. It was a “panchayat ghar”, built to house the meetings and deliberations of local government. By the time fire tenders arrived, there was little left to salvage. The fire was lit by “some miscreants”, a police spokesman said.

Kashmir has witnessed a spate of fires in panchayat buildings since municipal and panchayat elections were announced in mid-September. They are scheduled to take place in nine phases starting November 17. Within a week of the announcement, eight such arson attempts were reported, the majority from the volatile South Kashmir. In all, at least a dozen panchayat houses have been damaged so far. “Two or three other attempts were fortunately prevented,” Qazi Sarwar, rural development director, said. “We have directed officials to ascertain the nature of damage to these buildings.”

So, who is the arsonist? While the police cautiously blame “miscreants”, residents of the affected areas say it is a mystery. In Brakpora, hardly anyone seems interested in even finding out. The police have detained four young boys from the village but it is unclear if they are among the suspects.

“It happened at night when everyone was home,” said Ali Mohammad, 58, referring to the fire. In South Kashmir, a battle-scarred population seems to have grown indifferent to such incidents. “There is no doubt that the burning of this building is our loss, but compared to the brutalities and violence we have been subjected to since 2016, it is nothing,” remarked Mohammad, who sells tea in the village.

This also explains why the local body elections have found few takers. “This election business is finished here,” Ali Mohammad said. “Forget panch, sarpanch, even MLAs are scarred to come out in public.”

‘Living in terror’

The burning of the panchayat ghars has brought grim consequences for local residents. Nearly 30 kilometres from Brakpora is the sleepy farming village of Munand Guffan in Kulgam. Here too, the panchayat ghar was gutted in a “mysterious fire” on September 21.

“That day our lives were devastated,” said Kulsuma Bano, 60, explaining her husband Abdul Rashid Khan, 61, is one of five villagers the police have held in connection with the incident. “He is the caretaker of the village’s mosque. It is being rebuilt and they had stored some timber and other material inside the adjacent panchayat building. Some days before the burning, my husband got some of the material shifted back to the mosque. This became his crime.”

She said the police accused her husband of “having prior knowledge that the building would be set on fire”. “When the fire started, he was sitting with us,” Kulsuma Bano, a mother of six, added.

On September 26, Abdul Rashid Khan was called to the local police station to help with the investigation. “He’s in jail since then,” said Gowhara Bano, his daughter-in-law. “He has a long grey beard. He’s diabetic and has hypertension. We take medicines worth Rs 1,000 for him every week.”

The villagers said they have been living in terror since the panchayat house was burnt. “It is like a wave of terror,” said Mohammad Ashraf, 27. “The soldiers and STF smash everything and beat up whosoever comes in their way when they come. Every other day, our boys are picked up and beaten. Here, arrested persons are not taken to police stations but to interrogation centres.” The STF is the police’s counterinsurgency unit, the Special Task Force.

Kulsuma Bano recalled the last time she visited her husband in jail. “He cried, saying he is innocent,” she said. “He told me that if he is proved guilty, he will go to jail even if he’s 100-years-old by then. What is oppression, if not this?”

Brakpora village’s panchayat house was set afire on November 11. Photo credit: Safwat Zargar

‘Agencies’ and ‘anti-nationals’

The arson attacks on panchayat houses have revived memories of the equally mysterious burning of schools in 2016. While Kashmir was shut for over four months after Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani’s killing in July, at least 31 school buildings were burnt down across the Valley. The arson spree coincided with the government’s effort to break the shutdown by announcing annual examinations, even though there had been no school work for months. The government blamed separatist groups for pushing Kashmir into an “era of destruction” and appealed them to keep education “conflict-neutral”. But few residents of the Valley believed it was the handiwork of the separatists.

For their part, separatists insisted that those destroying schools “could never be well-wishers of the society” and alleged “these acts are purposely used to malign the movement”. Two years later, and despite the government’s assurances of an investigation, it is still not clear who burnt the schools and why.

In the early 1990s, when the insurgency was just starting, militants blew up bridges and government buildings across Kashmir, thinking it would hamper the movements of government troops and prevent them from turning vacant buildings into camps. In recent years, the destruction of public property has come cloaked in mystery, with the blame assigned to anyone from militants to security forces and shadowy “government agencies”. In the absence of established facts, conspiracy theories have blossomed.

“It could be something else as well,” said Altaf Hussain Nadvi, 45, a religious scholar and columnist in Anantnag, when asked whether militants or their supporters could be behind the arson attacks on panchayat houses. “A number of factors are at play. There’s no definite answer. In South Kashmir, we have heard that contractors do this work. Some believe the burnings are actually a ploy to extract Constituency Development Funds. It could be the result of a rivalry between two political parties.”

The police may not be able to identify the suspected arsonists, but they are clear as to their motive. “The aim of panchayat elections is to empower the public at grassroots level,” said Additional Director General of Police Munir Ahmad Khan. “So, miscreants and militants will never like them. They have been trying to damage anything related to the panchayat elections. We have to see the arson attacks on panchayat ghars in this backdrop.”

Who exactly are these “miscreants”? The official wouldn’t identify them, but declared, “Miscreants are working at the behest of militants and anti-national elements”. “Maybe they have some militants with them at the time these incidents happen,” he added. “It’s all the subject matter of investigation.”

The police have made arrests in many of these cases, he said, but did not provide a number.

‘Set things right first’

What seems clear is the burning of panchayat buildings has deepened the fear and disenchantment surrounding the poll process. In the first phase of the panchayat elections, 1,886 candidates are in the fray for 547 sarpanch posts and 6,763 candidates for 4,151 panch wards in the Kashmir Valley. But their names have not been disclosed by electoral officials, ostensibly for security reasons, considering some militant groups have warned against participation in these elections. Municipal elections held in October saw turnouts hovering around a dismal 4%.

The panchayat polls do not promise a better response. “Our younger generation is being wiped out, regardless of whether they are holding guns or stones,” said Mohammad Ramzan Dar, 58, former sarpanch of Brakpora. “Nobody will vote here in this election. Everyone values their life and there’s no contentment in our lives. Whoever comes out to vote in this situation where we are being slaughtered will invite Allah’s wrath. He is not a human being.”

Security forces killed 163 militants this year until October, over half of them from the South Kashmir districts of Anantnag, Shopian, Pulwama and Kulgam. In early September, the police said 68 civilians had been killed as well, most of them by the security forces. Just last month, seven civilians were killed in a blast at the site of a gunfight in Kulgam’s Laroo village.

“One of my sons is at university and the other is in college,” Dar continued. “They said they would throw me out of the house if I contested the election this time. This is the situation with those whom I have brought up. Imagine how neighbours and others would react. I have quit politics for life.” He was previously affiliated with the Peoples Democratic Party.

Nadvi contended that an interplay of all these factors – bloodshed, frequent arrests, a climate of fear, sense of injustice, disenchantment with mainstream politics – is what has fashioned the current public mood, especially in South Kashmir. “Particularly after the advent of social media, Kashmiri youth have become politically very aware. Talk to a 15-year-old and then to a 65-year-old and their answers are almost similar. They understand the elections are just a military operation. Otherwise, to conduct an election, you need to set things right first. They didn’t.”