Grassroot Democracy on a razor’s edge in Kashmir 


Pallavi Sareen

Jammu, August 9: Confined to govt accommodations and secured hotels across Kashmir Valley, Panches and Sarpanches who were voted to power are waiting for the security situation to normalize so that they can move around and make Panchayats the cornerstone of grassroot democracy in Jammu and Kashmir.

The prospects of an early turnaround in the security situation look bleak, given the way terrorists have managed to target Panches and Sarpanches across Kashmir Valley. More than 20 have been killed in cold blood, several others have resigned and the courageous ones who have stood ground are demanding adequate security for smoothly running the Panchayats.

The announcement of Rs 25 Lakh insurance cover has received a guarded response from the Panchayat members. They are perplexed over the manner in which, according to them, “government has incentivized their killings at the hands of terrorists”.

“Why only insurance cover? Why not bullet-proof vehicles, security and a respectable remuneration? It seems the government is trying to tell us ‘Get killed and your family will get Rs 25 Lakh’. We are fighting terror alongside security forces. They have weapons and we are unarmed. We too have families, relatives and friends. We too need collateral security.” This is what a Sarpanch from Kashmir Valley told us on the condition of anonymity. He sought to be kept anonymous for the fear of being targeted by terrorists.

“If I reveal my name, my entire family would be at risk. I am staying in a hotel, frustrated, dismayed and disgruntled,” he said.

Despite Centre’s repeated attempts at empowering grassroot level democracy in Kashmir Valley, the Panchayat Members have been soft targets for terrorists since 2011 Panchayat elections. The scenario looks grim in light of recent attacks on Sajad Ahmad Khanday, a sarpanch associated with Bhartiya Janata Party who was shot dead in South Kashmir’s Qazigund on August 7, 2020. The killing happened a day after another BJP Sarpanch Arif Ahmad was shot at by terrorists, leaving him critically injured.

Whether it is the brutal killing of Congress Sarpanch Ajay Pandita or the ghastly grenade blast which led to the death of Sarpanch Syed Rafiq in Anantnag; repeated terrorist attacks have led to distrust, dread and disconnection between the Panches and Sarpanches as well as the common people of Kashmir.


The distrust in panchayat elections in Jammu and Kashmir comes not only from the outer threat of terrorists but also from the politicization of the local-level polls and the long gaps between elections. The elections in 2001 were conducted after a long gap of 23 years. And even though the tenure of the then elected members ended in 2006, for the next five years there were no Panchayat polls. And even regarding the elections in 2001, former Chief Minister of J&K state Omar Abdullah was of the view that “it was only on paper… half the seats remained empty.”

After 2011 Panchayat polls, the next elections should ideally have been conducted in 2016. However, once again, due to the security situation in Jammu and Kashmir triggered by the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani’s, the local polls were delayed till 2018. Even in 2018, when the decision was taken to hold the Panchayat elections in February, the opposition questioned the move as ‘the government failed to conduct parliamentary elections in south Kashmir for over nine months’, according to an Economic Times report. Given the heated political atmosphere at the time, with threats to the constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir, two major political parties of Kashmir, PDP and NC boycotted the Panchayat polls. Furthermore, even though the official data showed 74% voter turnout in 2018 by-polls, the ground reality is that about 12,600 posts of panch and sarpanches, out of nearly 40,000, are currently vacant in Jammu and Kashmir. According to an official estimate, 11,457 panch and 887 sarpanch seats are vacant in Kashmir, while 182 panch and 124 sarpanch seats are vacant in Jammu division.


The attacks on Panches and Sarpanches began in 2011 as soon as the Panchayat elections were announced. The Panchayat elections were conducted in 16-phases starting from April 13, 2011 and just two days later, a Panch Candidate Harima Begum (PDP) was killed in Budgam. The tendrils of fear spread among all village heads across Jammu and Kashmir. In May, a terrorist injured a sarpanch candidate namely Ghulam Mohi-ud-din Chopan in Sopore area of Baramulla district. Ever since countless Sarpanches have been injured in such terror attacks.

The tale of these deaths are long and gruesome, spread out over the years. On February 9, 2012, terrorists shot dead sarpanch Ghulam Mohammad Dar, a National Conference worker, in Damhal Hanjipora. This was followed by an attack on panch Nazir Ahmad Lone in Tral. According to an Indian express report, in August 2012, posters claiming to be from the Lashkar-e-Toiba have come up, asking panches and sarpanches to resign, “otherwise the jihadi leadership would act against you”. The posters appeared in villages of South Kashmir as well as North Kashmir issuing warnings to elected Panchayat members who were asked to resign through (newspaper) advertisement. As a result, up until 2012 more than 350 panchayat members had resigned. The Panches and Sarpanches, however, continued to be targeted by terrorists. In September 2012, Terrorists barged into the house of Congress leader and Kreeri village sarpanch, Muhammad Shafi Teli, in Baramulla and shot him in the head four times. Teli’s death triggered resignations and an Urdu daily in Kashmir carried 38 advertisements in a day. The killing of sarpanch of Palhalan halqa Ghulam Mohammad Yatoo, outside a mosque in the same month led to a similar series of resignations.

Within four years, from 2012-14, 10 sarpanches had been murdered in cold blood – 6 in Baramullah including Habibullah Mir, Ghulan Muhammad Mir, Muhammad Shafi Teli, Ghulam Mohi-ud-din Chopan and Ghulam Ahmad Bhat; 3 in Pulwama including Mohammad Amin, Ghula Mohammad Yatoo and 1 in Shopian namely Mohammad Sultan.

Apart from the Panches and Sarpanches themselves, even their close relatives or family have been targeted. On Jan 10, 2019, the brother of a newly elected Sarpanch was killed in Tral which led to nearly 30 panches and sarpanches resigning in Pulwama. Terrorists have also used indirect fear tactics to force village heads to resign like burning of Panchayat buildings. More than a dozen Panchayat buildings have been burned down in Kashmir. These recurring incidents led to continuous resignations and not only showed the level of anxiety and fear in the Panches and Sarpanches but also the growing weakening spirit of Panchayati Raj system in Kashmir valley.


With Panches and Sarpanches being told to remain in hotels for their security instead of being able to roam freely in their Panchayats, there is a disconnect between these Panchayati Raj members with the people in their Panchayat.

“We are receiving continuous phone calls. The Sarpanches need security so they can go to their Panchayats and do the developmental work that they have been elected for. Shifting them to different places and locking them up under the garb of security will not help in strengthening grassroot level democracy,” said President, All Jammu and Kashmir Panchayat Conference Anil Sharma.

There is also a disconnect between what is happening on the ground and what the government perceives. Chief Secretary of Jammu and Kashmir B.V.R Subrahmanyam, in a statement, described the panchayat elections, held in 2018 as “good elections” saying that the polls for the vacant positions will be held soon after considering the newfound circumstances due to Coronavirus Pandemic. This, after three sarpanches, were targeted in Kashmir in the last three months. The number of vacancies themselves reveals the truth about “good elections”.

The Issues faced by Village Heads

“Despite 20 deaths over the years, when it comes to security, the excuse given is that the agencies are reviewing the security situation. Why weren’t the agencies aware that they were going to be targeted?” asked Shafiq Mir, Chairman, All Jammu and Kashmir Panchayat Conference.

“Ex-Gratia relief was announced for the family of Ajay Pandita under a special package. But the families of the rest of the Sarpanches have to virtually beg for compensation. They died in the line of work, as soldiers of democracy in terrorism-hit areas and their families still suffer,” said Mir.

Security cover has remained a major concern for the village heads. But that hasn’t been the only shackle on their feet. The Panchayat heads demand respectable remuneration and a common treatment for all. Sarpanches in Jammu and Kashmir receive Rs 3,000 as honorarium.

“These sarpanches are not billionaires. They must be paid a respectable amount for their work and I urge the government to announce at least Rs 25 Lakh as ex-gratia relief for their families,” said Anil Sharma.



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