The warnings signs were all there. Escalated tensions along the Line of Control (LoC), blatant threats from the Laskhar-e-Taiba chief Hafiz Saeed that things could turn ugly in Kashmir and is a challenge to the Indian authorities to prove his presence on the LoC seem directly connected to the attack on sarpanches in the state. It is no surprise that the militants have chosen to attack grassroots democratic institutions in the state, they did the same thing last year as well. What is worrying, however, is that apart from the usual condemnation, the state government of chief minister Omar Abdullah seems almost oblivious to this major threat to peace. The resignations of at least 20 sarpanches following the murder of one and attempted murder of another sarpanch should have sounded alarm bells in the state administration. These are the people who are the face of democracy on the ground and they must be provided security in a hostile environment. Naturally, tempers have run high and many sarpanches have even demanded that the chief minister’s security be withdrawn. Of course, this would not solve anything.
It is now quite clear that Saeed is in cahoots with at least some sections of the Pakistani army and intelligence. Nothing else explains how a man who has been responsible for atrocities in India and no doubt in Pakistan itself is roaming around freely and is able to make incendiary speeches. To expect the Pakistanis to act against him would be naïve. But surely, given the open threats of violence and the attacks, the state administration has to ensure that those who have risked their lives to participate in democratic processes like the elections to the panchayats do not pay for it with their lives. That apart, it would seem that after all the hype and hoopla surrounding the report of the three interlocutors suggesting a way towards a lasting peace in Kashmir, it has been all but shelved. The exercise was meant to be an objective one and the panel’s recommendations were based on interactions not only with officials but a broad spectrum of society. It could have been acted upon, at least in part, but so far little has moved on the ground. Last year, frustrated and frightened sarpanches approached Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi for succor.
The last thing India can afford given the developments on the LoC and worsening relations with Pakistan is more trouble in Kashmir. While it is easy to apportion blame, Omar Abdullah should at least initiate some action to protect these hapless sarpanches. Inaction will only embolden the likes of Saeed and further undermine the efforts of those who are working within the democratic system in the state. They have to be assured that they are not alone.