by Mudassir Kuloo 

Srinagar: Javaid Ahmad, a member of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), refused to name his native village. He is afraid to go home as several people associated with political parties have been attacked and killed in recent years. "The attacks and threats have created panic among all mainstream party workers, especially in South Kashmir," Ahmad said.

A cluster of lower-rung leaders of mainstream parties have been living in a government housing colony in Pulwama for the past several years. Ahmad is unsure how any election can be held in Jammu and Kashmir in the present circumstances. "You still remember what happened when the bypolls for the Srinagar Lok Sabha seat was conducted," he said.

The Srinagar by-election was held on 9 April, 2017, amid violence. There was a voter turnout of around 7 percent for the by-poll, and eight people were killed even as voting was on. Fearing a similar backlash, authorities deferred the by-poll for the Anantnag parliamentary seat, which was scheduled three days later. The seat, which fell vacant after Mehbooba Mufti took over as chief minister, remains vacant because of the poor state of law and order in the Valley.

Even though politicians, citizens and the state administration seem unprepared for elections in these uncertain conditions, Jammu and Kashmir will vote in a number of polls in the near future. The governor has announced local body and Panchayat elections for later this year; the Lok Sabha elections will be held next year; and the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly elections will have to be held if Governor NN Vohra dissolves the Assembly. Given that the last urban local body elections were held in 2005 — after a gap of 23 years — and the last Panchayat polls were held in 2011 under the Omar Abdullah-led government — after a 37-year break — it is unclear how any large-scale elections can be held in the Valley in the shadow of the continuing social unrest and rising militancy.

South Kashmir in particular is virtually out of bounds for legislators. There is no question of holding public rallies anywhere. A police official admitted that killings and threats had created panic among all political workers in the region. "It is not possible to provide security to everyone," he said.

No One But BJP Ready For Polls

Since 2017, militants have visited the homes of several political activists, warning them to "disassociate from their parties or face consequences". Following this, several political activists have either resigned or gone into hiding, as had happened in the early 1990s when hundreds of political activists — mostly members of the National Conference (NC) — had announced 'izhar-e-la taluqi' (disassociating themselves from their parties) through paid advertisements in local newspapers. Several videos have gone viral on social media platforms, in which political workers can be seen tendering apologies and dissociating themselves from these parties.

Under such uncertain conditions, no major political party — besides the Bharatiya Janata Party — seems ready for polls. Former chief minister and senior NC leader Omar Abdullah had said that the situation was not conducive for elections. "The NC will contest elections whenever they are held," he had said earlier in July. "But the reality is that the situation in Jammu may be conducive for polls, but the situation in Kashmir is grave. It is unjustified to ask voters to come out to vote when people are getting killed. We will ask the governor to consider the security situation before announcing dates for elections (panchayat and urban local bodies)."

Senior Congress leader GN Monga said: "Everybody is aware of the present situation. We will be happy if the government creates a conducive environment for polls."

Chief PDP spokesperson Rafi Ahmad Mir is equally sceptical about elections being held under the current circumstances. "Elections can be held only when killings are stopped and a conducive environment is created," he said.

Such was the state of affairs during the 1996 elections that the Centre had to bring in polling staff from other states as local employees had refused to do the job.

The BJP, however, believes that elections should be held immediately. "We are always ready for polls," said BJP state spokesperson Altaf Thakur. "If the polls were held in 1990, why can't they be held now? We want panchayat polls and elections to urban local bodies to be held immediately so that Jammu and Kashmir can get its share of central funding."

'Parties Should Stay Away From Panchayats'

Rekha Chowdhary, a professor and political analyst, said the situation today was different from that of the 1990s, when Assembly polls could not be held from 1990 to 1995 after the then governor Jagmohan dissolved the Assembly in 1990. "Politics had completely collapsed in 1990s," she said. "It is very difficult to say which way the situation will go in the Valley (if elections are held in the current scenario)."

The joint chief electoral officer of Jammu and Kashmir, Raman Kumar Kesar, said that preparations for panchayat polls and urban local body elections were on. "The panchayat polls will be held first and then the urban local body elections," he added.

Director General of Police SP Vaid asserted that the police will arrange for adequate security to ensure peaceful elections.

The administration is exploring the possibility of the holding the panchayat polls in September-October. The election could not be held as due in 2016 because of the five-month-long unrest in the Valley following the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani on 8 July that year.

The chairman of the All Jammu and Kashmir Panchayat Conference, Shafiq Ahmad Mir, said that the panchayat polls should not be linked with the Kashmir issue. "We contest panchayat polls to address local issues," he said. "Parties should not politicise the panchayat polls."

The 2011 panchayat polls saw a substantial turnout, but after the elections, a few parties branded it as a referendum on the Kashmir issue. What followed was a string threats and attacks on various village heads who held the posts of a panch and sarpanch. The United Jihad Council had threatened panchayat representatives in 2013, saying they were being used as a "tool by Indian agencies", after which several panchayat representatives had resigned.

The author is a Srinagar-based freelance writer