Jammu and Kashmir will now have elected district development councils as part of its panchayati raj system. The Union Territory administration made the announcement on the weekend, just as regional political parties were regrouping after top leaders were released from detention. The changes to the panchayati raj act were intended to kickstart political activity, government officials claimed. Except, this seems to encourage only political activity that will not be a challenge to the Centre or to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

On August 5, 2019, as the Centre stripped Jammu and Kashmir of the special status it had been accorded under the Indian Constitution and split the state into two Union Territories, almost the entire political leadership in the Valley was locked up to stifle protest. With all political mobilisations – separatist as well as pro-India – stilled in the Valley, the Centre pitched local government as a new alternative. Who needs parties, Delhi has argued in Kashmir, when there is “grassroots democracy”?

A broken system

The Jammu and Kashmir Panchayati Raj Act, 1989, provides for a three-tier system of local government. The halqa panchayat, representing a cluster of villages, is headed by a sarpanch. Its members are chosen through direct elections. A council of sarpanches is meant to elect members of the block development board, representing halqa panchayats in that area. District development and planning boards formed the third tier, consisting of local members of Parliament and the legislative assembly, the heads of block development councils and other civic bodies, and a chairman nominated by the government.

The Union Territory administration now proposes to replace the district-level boards with elected councils. Each district is to be divided into 14 territorial constituencies and the members of the council will be chosen through direct elections. They, in turn, will elect a chairperson and vice chairperson from among themselves.

The old system had been broken for years. The second and third tiers of local government were never formed. As militancy spread across the Valley, elections to halqa panchayats could not be held either. When panchayat and urban local body polls were last held in 2018, they were boycotted by an angry, disaffected electorate. Thousands of seats were left empty and most candidates won uncontested. Two years later, many of these panches and sarpanches remain holed up in fortified accommodations in Srinagar, unable to return to their villages for fear of militant attacks.

A delegation from the All Jammu and Kashmir Panchayat Conference meets Prime Minister Modi in 2016. Credit: IANS

In 2018, all regional parties boycotted elections in Kashmir. Since the Congress was already a spent force, this left the stage clear for the BJP to field candidates who sailed to power unchallenged.

It might explain the Centre’s enthusiasm for local body elections. While Kashmir was still locked down and reeling from curbs after August 5 last year, it decided to hold the first-ever block development council elections. Later this year, it plans to conduct polls for the empty panchayat seats.

Meanwhile, elections to the legislative assembly remain indefinitely postponed as Jammu and Kashmir awaits a contentious delimitation.

Eye on Gupkar

The district development councils were announced days after major Valley-based parties, including the National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party, banded together to form the People’s Alliance for the Gupkar Declaration. The formation takes its name from Gupkar Road in Srinagar, once the political nerve centre of Kashmir. Leaders meeting at National Conference veteran Farooq Abdullah’s house in Gupkar last week reiterated their resolve to fight for special status and statehood.

On October 19, Abdullah was also summoned by the Enforcement Directorate for questioning in an old corruption case. Leaders of the People’s Alliance protested it was part of a government “vendetta”.

The summons certainly fits in with the Centre’s narrative of “cleaning up” the political system in Kashmir, represented by the Gupkar elite. Over the last few years, corruption cases against the Kashmiri leadership have been wielded effectively to prove this point.

Members of six parties from Jammu and Kashmir who held a meeting on the Gupkar Declaration in Srinagar, talk to the media on October 15. Credit: Sara Hayat Shah/Twitter

Eliminating politics

BJP leaders have argued that the new system dismantles old corrupt political structures to bring in greater democracy, blissfully oblivious to the fact that they speak a language favoured by military regimes in South Asia.

Take Ayub Khan, who declared martial law in Pakistan in 1958 to establish “basic democracy”, a system of urban and rural councils answerable to a powerful bureaucracy. Politicians were blamed for the “chaotic internal situation” and the public deemed unequal to electing leaders at the national and provincial level. Other military dictators in Pakistan have shared his contempt for politicians – General Zia arranged for partyless elections to the country’s national assembly in 1985.

In an authoritarian vision of government, a strong Centre rules people directly through the bureaucracy. It eliminates the tug and pull of democracy, the clutter of different political ideas. It imagines the political life of people stops at the fulfilment of material needs.

For years, governments at the Centre have pitched “development” as the answer to Kashmir’s demands for “azadi”. They counted turnouts at assembly elections as a vote of confidence in the Indian state, not realising people voted for “bijli, sadak, pani” (electricity, roads, water) without relinquishing larger political demands.

Under the BJP, the bounds of permissible politics have shrunk even further. The separatist leadership was silenced long before August 5, 2019. Parties like the National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party had built their agenda around the protection of Article 370, demanding more autonomy within the ambit of the Constitution. After special status was revoked, even this politics was outlawed as party leaders were rounded up and jailed.

The district development councils seem to be part of the Centre’s effort to fashion a new politics that revolves around quotidian issues and manageable demands. The Jammu and Kashmir Apni Party, composed of second rung leaders from the old regional parties, was reportedly floated with Delhi’s blessings. It asked for statehood, which the Centre had already promised to restore, but stopped short of asking for special status. It called for “development”, one of Delhi’s stated reasons for the sweeping legislative changes last year.

But the Centre and its allies may have picked the wrong audience. In brutalised, battle-hardened Kashmir, these banalities cut no ice.