The Centre may hold, but the ground is gradually slipping away in Jammu and Kashmir. The mass resignation of about 50 panchayat officials in the state’s Baramulla district confirms a trend that has been evident over the past one year. More than 400 panchayat members have resigned since the much-celebrated local elections last year, and almost every time, they have followed up the act with paid advertisements in local newspapers announcing their resignation and, as in the latest case, their support for the Kashmir cause. Quite certainly, this is the surest way panchayat officials can save themselves from the intimidation and the threat of bodily harm from militant organizations such as the Jaish-e-Mohammad and the Lashkar-e-Toiba. Posters with dire threats have found their place on walls in the valley, and sometimes the threats have been followed up by the killing of panchayat members. On the face of it, the downturn is the result of the renewed problem posed by militancy. But blaming militancy alone for the failing experiment with panchayats in the valley would deflect attention from the other ugly truths that have to be confronted. One of them is undeniably the betrayal of trust. The public enthusiasm shown for the panchayat elections, as for the earlier assembly elections, was tied to expectations of better governance. For a state that has seen decades of cronyism and corruption, the devolution of authority at the local level through panchayats and disbursement of funds through grassroots workers who enjoyed public confidence would have provided the much-needed breakthrough.
But both the Central and the state governments seem to have failed, once again, to make proper use of the opportunity. The power-sharing arrangement at the lowermost tier of governance — the panchayat — has been caught up in the tussle between the National Conference and the Congress over the implementation of the 73rd amendment. The process has also been thwarted by legislators who are afraid of losing influence and, thereby, importance. Meanwhile, panchayat members have found themselves to be easy meat for separatist propaganda that has painted them as traitors to the cause of azaadi. Without adequate support and protection from the government, the elected local officials have little option but to follow militants’ orders to the tee.