Congress leader Rahul Gandhi begins a two-day visit to Jammu and Kashmir on Thursday amid panic among Panchayat members who have been resigning due to threats from separatists.
The mass resignations by village council members were triggered by the September 23 murder of Muhammad Shafi Teli, the sarpanch (village council chief) of Keeri village in Baramulla district.
Since the panchayat elections of 2011 held in the state after a gap of 30 years, five village heads have been killed in the Valley.Interestingly, most of the 150 resignations of panchayat chiefs have been published in newspapers in Srinagar in the form of advertisements.
Chief minister Omar Abdullah asserts that authorities have received only 50 such resignations and none has been accepted.
After Rahul Gandhi met a delegation of village heads from Jammu and Kashmir in Delhi last week, a high-level security meeting on Monday chaired by Abdullah decided to provide more security to panchayat members.
There are around 34,000 elected village heads in the Kashmir Valley. Despite official concerns, providing individual security to everyone is an administrative impossibility. "If just two guards are provided to each village head, it will involve 68,000 guards. This is not practically possible," a senior security official told IANS on the condition of anonymity.
Rumours of a tussle between Rahul Gandhi and Omar Abdullah over the resignation of panches have been vehemently denied by both congress and national conference leaders including Omar Abdullah himself. Yet, political compulsions for Rahul Gandhi in seeking empowerment and security for panchayat members are likely to overshadow by personal preferences. Reports here say Rahul Gandhi is scheduled to address a rally of village heads in Sonamarg in north Kashmir on Thursday.
Road transport, highways and railways minister CP Joshi is also scheduled to lay the foundation stone of a tunnel through the Zojilla Pass in Sonamarg in Rahul Gandhi's presence. Rahul Gandhi is seen as a strong votary for the extension of the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments to the state which seek to empower village heads across India to devolve democracy to the grassroots level.
The state government has ruled out such an extension, asserting that the state's constitution has enough provisions to empower village heads. J&K has a constitution of its own which runs concomitantly with the Indian constitution.
Rahul Gandhi is definitely campaigning to strengthen his party in the valley and striking the right cord with thousands of elected village heads is seen as an essential step forward.
"We are definitely expecting some important announcement from Rahulji," said a sarpanch who did not want to be identified. An important event during Rahul Gandhi's visit would be his address at Kashmir University on Oct 5. He will also attend a state Youth Congress conference in Srinagar. Known for choosing his words, Rahul Gandhi might not ruffle many feathers during his Kashmir trip, police sources say.