Mukhtar Dar

The Role of Panchayati Raj in Sustaining Peace and Development of J&K

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Local institutions can play a vital role in peacemaking as they are more involved in day-to-day life and problems of ordinary citizens. It is convenient for local leaders to approach the locals and involve them in inclusive peace negotiations.

Rebuilding and repairing are essential elements of human life. The same holds true for communities in conflict zones. In conflict zones, ways and methods of engagement of local people in communication and political processes often become the most sustainable systems for rebuilding and repairing societies affected by violence and mistrust. These processes, which seek to enable local participation in decision-making processes, provide the first platform for facilitating agency in a co-owned stakeholder narrative which brings in diverse voices and concerns for the path ahead. It is impossible for everyone to participate in meaningful negotiations or dialogues at the national level, but there is always some scope at the community level to be a part of the decision-making system. The Panchayati Raj system (local self-government), in this context, emerges as the mechanism at the grassroot level which is designed to facilitate public participation in peace-oriented processes for development in conflict-ridden areas like the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir. Unfortunately, since the inception of Panchayati Raj in India, Panchayat elections have been given minimal importance in J&K. Intentionally or unintentionally the role it could have played in the progress of the Union Territory and in facilitating peace processes was either ignored or underestimated.

The History of Panchayat Elections in Jammu and Kashmir.

Panchayat elections were held in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir in 2001 after a gap of 23 years through secret ballot as against the hand-raising procedure which was followed in earlier elections. Ten years since a drastic change had taken place in the attitudes of people of J&K as they overwhelmingly participated in the 2011 Panchayat elections. People defied target killings and boycott calls and voted unprecedentedly in Panchayat polls. The first time, in the history of Jammu and Kashmir, democracy won as over 80% turnout was witnessed in Panchayat polls. People clearly wanted to be heard and sought to participate in defining their own future.

The Sarpanches and Panches got the opportunity to represent roughly four thousand people in their respective constituencies. They could have facilitated better administration structure as well as acted as mediators between local people and the state government, but their role was never defined. The lackadaisical approach of the state, as well as the central government towards these local candidates, left them feeling ridiculed and not supported in their work.

The government hardly engaged them in political processes and developmental works of state and never assured them security, so they felt alienated and fearful. Contrary to that, the national media used them as cannon fodder to counter the local narrative of the state. Because of this, their life became very difficult. Soon hundreds of Sarpanches and Panches were seen resigning from their posts.

The dream of the local grassroots elected leaders in bringing effective change at the local level in their own communities was shattered by improper planning and ineffective Panchayat institution of J&K. The fear of militants wasn’t the sole reason that the Panchayat institution failed, but the sick policies of the government ensured that they remained fragile, ineffective, and dysfunctional. In 2016, as the term of the Panchayat ended, the government dissolved them and transferred their powers to block development officers.

In 2018 the people of Kashmir turned indifferent to Panchayat polls. According to data released by the CEO(Chief Electoral Officer), the total turnout was recorded as nearly 74% over nine phases. There was a sharp difference between two divisions of the erstwhile state: Jammu recorded 83% turnout while Kashmir witnessed Just 41.3% . The figures released by chief electoral officer (CEO) were however misleading as it hides the actual figures on record. A large number of Halqas in Kashmir valley saw no polling at all and thousands of positions went uncontested. As per electoral data, in 2135 Halqas only 30% of Panchayat Halqas in Kashmir witnessed polling. Interestingly, in 708 Panchayat Halqas no candidate was found and seats remained vacant. Another 699 Halqas each had a single candidate who won elections unopposed. So it means in 1407 Halqas no contest was seen at all.

Although militancy was a prominent cause that most people stayed away from polling booths, but there were some other reasons too like Panchayat bodies being undermined and weakened. Ostensibly Sarpanches and Panches role and aspirations were underestimated and its effects were visible in the 2018 Panchayat elections.

History and frivolous approaches have done errors, but there are always methods to rectify them. Political will and community awareness through public education can be one of the ways to correct the course at this point. An ethnographic study of political processes at the grassroots should be carried out to understand the problems and issues faced by these local leaders to meet their goals. Their personal motivation and aspirations should be heard and appreciated. Their agencies, motives, and credibility among the people should be analyzed in order to utilize their power better for facilitating grassroots peace processes. The Government should provide them funds, engage them in decision making and their role should be determined and fixed while aligning them with accountability channels for effective governance.

Potential of Panchayat institutions in Peace-making roles

Local institutions or leaders can play a vital role in peacemaking as they are more involved in day-to-day life and problems of ordinary citizens. It is convenient for local leaders to approach the locals and involve them in inclusive peace negotiations. They can play a major role in terms of serving as a bridge between the government and local people. In peacemaking, Sarpanches and Panches can play key roles in positive manipulation, persuasion and bringing negotiations into the public sphere. This local political institution can play a significant role in building and consolidating democracy and peace processes in the erstwhile state.

To inculcate and promote the new roadmap for development through practice of democratic attributes like tolerance, moderation, willingness to compromise and respect for opposing viewpoints in J&K, these grassroots leaders are indispensable and potential assets for the difficult path ahead. Grassroots political institutions, prominently Panchayats, have a vital role to play because people are feeling alienated after the abrogation of special status. Panches and Sarpanches have a direct connection with common masses so they can engage them in peace talks, democratic political processes through this difficult transition. These leaders can provide avenues for political parties and other government organizations, whose space shrinks after the abrogation of special status, to initiate their political processes. This will enhance the quality of democracy and instill trust in people for political participation.

A well-organized Panchayat institution will further help in identifying and training new political leaders. It can play a vital role in revitalizing the narrow and stagnant party and family dominated leadership recruitment patterns which has been dominating the political scene in Kashmir for decades now.

These Local institutions can also strengthen a citizen’s connection with the broader identity of the nation. It can enhance accountability, responsiveness, inclusiveness, and effectiveness. In doing so, it is expected to further engage citizens to feel more responsible towards the nation and encourage positive involvement in its social and political processes.

However, there are dangers of Panchayati Raj also if its efforts are poorly designed and executed. They could cause real harm to the goals of their institution. Proper education regarding their role should be imparted to the elected officials/ leaders. Experts and analysts should be recruited to support the institution’s actions in terms of effective utilization of the financial, technical, and practical resources provided to it by the government. Governmental, inter-governmental or non-governmental actors can also play valuable roles in the operational strategy of the Panchayat institution. They can help to create the space for debates by sponsoring or hosting meetings. They can provide financial, technical support to prepare groups for effective participation.

It is apparent that the central and state government has lost its credibility and their space has shrunk in the valley post abrogation of Article 370 and Article 35A. Recognizing this situation even before the abrogation move, the Advisory Group of Experts on the 2015 Review of the UN Peacebuilding

Architecture recommended that “new approaches need to be found, which understand peacebuilding, at least in its early phases, as having more to do with strengthening local domains of governance than trying to re-establish strong central authority.” Local self-government (Panchayati Raj) in this context, can thus be hoped to serve as a potent instrument to restore public trust in the democratic process at some level in Jammu and Kashmir and also encourage local leaders to accept responsibilities to charting out their aspirations for stronger local institutions and stronger community participation in vision building for the path ahead.

  • The writer is Junior Research Fellow, JK Policy Institute.

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