Panchayat members angry with the authorities in Jammu and Kashmir, seek measures to protect them

Srinagar: After the killing of Congress sarpanch in his Larkipora village of Anantnag, the UT administration is facing severe criticism for not protecting him. Lieutenant Governor (L-G) G.C. Murmu met his family and provided Rs 20 lakh compensation. He assured all the Panchayat members in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir that the administration will take all necessary steps to protect them.

According to highly-placed sources in the government, L-G Murmu has sought a report from the Home Department on progress on the proposal of the Rural Development and Panchayat Raj Department as they had requested the Home Commissioner of J&K to conduct security audit of all elected Panchayat members and block Development Council chairpersons in all sensitive areas of Kashmir valley, especially in South Kashmir.

A senior official told this reporter on the condition of anonymity that it was requested by the Panchayati Raj Department that measures should be taken, including providing of security cover to those elected members who faced serious life threat. Earlier, media reports suggested that the Home Department did not act on this request even after nine months and now the killing of the sarpanch has brought fresh focus on the life threat to thousands of those elected local leaders who have been forced to live in small hotel rooms in Srinagar city along with their families.

The condition of thousands of Panchs and Sarpanchs in Kashmir valley is pathetic. After the threats, the local administration has shifted many of them in some hotel rooms in Srinagar since September-October 2018, after they received threats from terrorists in their villages. Many of them used to visit villages, but without informing the villagers who elected them because of the terrorist threat, one of them told this reporter.

“We were assured by the Central government all facilities, insurance cover and security, after we held a meeting at New Delhi with the Union Home Minister,” said one sarpanch of Pulwama village who is living with his wife and two daughters in a small hotel room at Raj Bagh in Srinagar city. Asked if he visits the village, he said that for the past several months, he has avoided visiting his native village as the threats have become more serious. He claimed that Ajay Panditha Bharti, a brave sarpanch of Larkipora village, had told him that he was facing threats and has approached police. He was killed while working in his orchard in Larkipora village on 8 June 2020.

The claim of Pulwama panchayat member was endorsed by Jammu and Kashmir Congress president Ghulam Ahmad Mir who told media that Congress sarpanch Ajay Bharti could have been saved had the BJP government provided him security.

A senior official told this newspaper that hundreds of locally elected panchayat members, including councillors, were provided with government accommodation in hotels and many of them were still living in these hotel rooms. Earlier, the government had hired some hotels in Srinagar city and designated them as temporary shelters for thousands of candidates who decided to participate in the December 2018 local body elections. “We are aware of the threats to them. The government is paying the bills for them in these hotels and all these hotels are guarded by police and CRPF. Actually, it is a pooled security cover for vulnerable local panchayat members and their families,” a senior police officer responsible for their safety and security in Srinagar hotels told this reporter.

The killing of the sarpanch, a Kashmiri Pandit living in Lokabawan Larkipora village of Anantnag, has brought a wave of fear among Panchs and Sarpanchs in Jammu and Kashmir. Latest reports suggested that most of the Panchs and Sarpanchs want police cover, but police has said that it was almost impossible for them to provide security to such a huge number of locally elected members.

A senior police officer told this reporter that he was not aware about the exact number of applications for security cover given by these local leaders to police. It is in place to mention that according to government data in the panchayat elections held in December 2018, a total number 22,214 Panchs and 3,459 Sarpanchs got elected out of a total strength of over 30,000 Panchs and 4,000 Sarpanchs. According to police records, so far, 19 panchayat members have been killed by terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir since 2011. Anil Sharma, president of All Jammu and Kashmir Panchayat Conference, said they were feeling insecure and the government should provide them with security and other perks.