Ahead of the next month’s crucial panchayat elections, which will be a litmus test for the PDP-BJP coalition government, the Valley has been gripped with fear after Hizbul Mujahideen threatened to pour acid into the eyes of those who participate in the polls. The open threat by Riyaz Naikoo, the operational chief of the Hizb, comes days after the Hurriyat also asked people to stay away from the polls.
In a video that has gone viral on social media, Naikoo is seen asking another top militant commander from south Kashmir’s Pulwama district, Sameer Tiger, to pour acid into the eyes of those who are going to participate in the polls, instead of killing them. “We have been killing people for a long time but it didn’t deter them. Their family gets cash and jobs on humanitarian grounds. This way (by pouring acid into their eyes), they will become a burden for those who want them to contest the election,” Naikoo, a tech-savvy operative who had secured a seat for a postgraduate degree in chemistry before taking to militancy, tells Sameer in the video, that has been shot at an undisclosed location.
The last panchayat elections in Jammu and Kashmir were held in April and May 2011 with an 80 percent turnout — a record in itself given the mayhem Kashmir witnessed during six months of mass uprising in which over 120 persons, mostly teenagers, were killed in retaliatory action against protesters by armed forces. The elections were scheduled in 2016 but the killing of Burhan Wani threw the Valley into another spree of violence, leaving a trail of fear, loss, destruction and death. These elections could not be held in 2016 in view of the unrest during most of the year.
Setting the ball rolling on 4 November last year, Governor NN Vohra, after consultations with the political leadership and security agencies, promulgated an ordinance designating the state’s chief electoral officer as state election commissioner to conduct elections for 4,378 panchayats in Jammu and Kashmir. More than 33,402 panchs will be elected during the process — 4,000 more than when panchayat elections were last held. The ordinance was mooted by the Rural Development Department as there had to be an Election Commission in the state for holding the panchayat elections.
The announcement was followed up by a meeting at the Raj Bhawan in Jammu on 25 December between Vohra and Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti. “She (Mehbooba) also informed about her government’s decision to commence panchayat elections from 15 February, 2018,” a government release said. Welcoming the announcement, the mainstream parties, including the Opposition National Conference, have asked the government to ensure a peaceful atmosphere during the electoral process.
“These elections have been delayed for the past two years due to the repeated failures of the incumbent government. Now that they (coalition partners PDP and BJP) have made up their mind, the National Conference hopes that there will be an enabling atmosphere of peace so that the elections, which are meant to bring governance to the doorsteps of people, are held without fear or favour,” Tanvir Sadiq, a senior NC leader, told Kashmir Post.
Reacting to Naikoo’s threat, a visibly perturbed party working president and former chief minister, Omar Abdullah, in an oblique dig at Mehbooba, said that people were earlier blinded by pellet guns and now they are being threatened with blinding by acid. Omar tweeted:
With polls barely a month away, the security situation is showing no signs of improvement and it seems Kashmir is bracing for a fresh bout of violence. On Tuesday, a civilian protester was shot dead during clashes with forces in Khudwani village — the second such incident this month — after a local militant was killed in an encounter in the adjoining Kokernag area of Anantnag district. The Hurriyat has already called for a “comprehensive boycott” of the elections.
“How can we vote for those so-called rulers and their parties that are hell bent on installing RSS fascism in Jammu and Kashmir and want to change the demography of this land and turn its Muslim majority into a minority, and those who snatched the eyesight of thousands by pellets, have caged thousands of young and old, are engaged in vandalising our houses and (setting) our localities (on fire) in these cold days,” the joint Hurriyat said in a statement last week.
Tensions are already on the rise in Kashmir. The new year begun with the killing of five CRPF jawans in a deadly attack on a security training facility in South Kashmir. What added a twist to the tale was the discovery of the involvement of local Jaish-e-Mohammad fidayeens in the predawn raid.
Parts of central and north Kashmir may witness some polling activity but the situation is increasingly fragile in the four districts of south Kashmir where more than hundred youths joined different militant groups over the past two years.
“There is no question of my participating in the elections and I don’t think anyone is interested. Almost every other day there are crackdowns, search operations and encounters in our district. When the elected legislators are not able to go to their constituencies and meet their people, how do you expect people to contest or participate in the process?” GA Ahanger, a former sarpanch from Pulwama district, said.