The gunbattle started at 8 am and lasted only 15 minutes, say the villagers of Kharpora, in J&K’s Pulwama district, recalling the morning of December 14 that saw three militants and seven civilians dead. The army too lost a soldier. “The army took my two sons and two of my neighbours along with them, and used them as human shields during the encounter there,” says retired teacher Abdul Khaliq Najar, pointing towards the paddy fields adjacent to the village.
It was after the gunbattle was over that the forces fired at protesters, claim villagers, pointing out the spots where the seven civilians were killed. They dismiss as a lie the accusation that a large stone-pelting mob attacked the forces, who then fired in retaliation. “Even if a few boys threw stones at the army, they could have fired at their legs. But they fired to kill,” says Najar. The villagers instead accuse the forces of “punishing” civilians in south Kashmir for the low turnouts in the recent panchayat and urban civic body elections. “Not voting is the expression of a political opinion. But we pay with blood for making such a choice,” says a young villager.
In October, only 660 of the total 40,004 voters in 20 municipalities across the four south Kashmir districts of Shopian, Kulgam, Anantnag and Pulwama had cast their votes during the urban local body elections. It was the lowest turnout ever—1.6 per cent. The region also witnessed a low turnout during the panchayat elections that concluded on December 11. There was no polling in Shopian and Pulwama. And since April 2016, when Mehbooba Mufti resigned as then Anantnag MP on being sworn in as CM, south Kashmir has had no representative in the Lok Sabha. The Election Commission postponed the Anantnag bypolls in 2017 after the state government said the situation was not conducive.
Describing the December 14 killings at Pulwama as a “massacre”, mainstream political parties in the Valley say this would worsen an already bad situation—Kashmir has seen the highest number of killings this year since 2008. The slain include 253 militants, 84 civilians and 97 government forces personnel. Suspecting that the Pulwama killings would give the central government an excuse to further delay the assembly elections, the parties are demanding that the polls be held soon.
Former CM and National Conference leader Omar Abdullah says Governor Satya Pal Malik’s administration must focus on the security of the people of J&K. “Sadly, it seems that’s the only thing the administration is not doing,” he adds. Agrees Mehbooba Mufti of the PDP, who says, “South Kashmir has been reeling under fear for the past six months. Is this what was expected from governor’s rule?”
On the very day of the Pulwama killings, governor’s administration approved the state budget of Rs 88,911 crore for 2019-20. The parties see this as a signal that the Centre is keen on prolonging governor’s rule.
“There are Supreme Court guidelines that elections should be held within six months of governor’s rule, but Governor Malik has instead recommended President’s rule for another six months,” says a senior PDP leader. “That means there would be no assembly elections.” President’s rule will begin after governor’s rule completes six months on December 20.
Ever since the fall of the PDP-BJP government this June and the dissolution of the assembly in November, the National Conference has been repeatedly asking for assembly elections to be held. “If the governor takes credit for holding peaceful panchayat and urban civic body elections, why is his administration showing no commitment towards organising the assembly polls?” asks a party leader.
The National Conference, which ran a coalition government with the Congress from 2008 to 2014, is buoyed by the recent Congress sweep in the Hindi heartland, and expects the BJP won’t have a smooth run in 2019, unlike 2014, when it won 25 of the 37 assembly seats in Jammu region.
Early this week, responding to BJP national president Amit Shah’s claim that the people of J&K people have full faith in the BJP and that it would get a majority in assembly, Omar dared the party to hold elections. “If the BJP is so confident of the support, why is it not announcing elections and putting its assertion to the test?” he asked.
The government is not ready to take the bait. And the Pulwama killings have put the elections on the backburner for now.
- Kharpora villagers accuse the forces of “punishing” civilians for the low voter turnouts in recent civic polls.
- Mainstream parties in the Valley say the Pulwama killings could become an excuse to delay assembly polls.
By Naseer Ganai in Pulwama