Kashmir will witness Block Development Council Elections in three days. Ahead of this 260 concerned citizens including artists, activists and academicians have penned an open letter to Ram Nath Kovind, requesting him to stall the process, as the state is not yet relieved of fear and intimidation which stemmed from Indian occupation.
The elections are scheduled for October 24, 2019.
“When the entire leaderships of bonafide political parties are under detention and there are restrictions on even personal communication among the leaders and workers of political parties, it is obvious that the grounds for free and fair elections simply do not exist,” the letter reads.
Most of the political parties in the state have boycotted the elections.
The signatories include Ajay Gudavarthy, Aruna Rodrigues, Ashish Kothari, Ayesha Kidwai, Bezwada Wilson, Geeta Seshu, Medha Patkar, Nandini Sundar, P. Sainath, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, Prashant Bhushan, Yash Marwah among others.
Here is the letter:
Open Letter to President of India
“An appeal to ensure that the Block Development Council Elections in Jammu & Kashmir are held only when the grounds for a free and fair election are restored
Dear Shri Ram Nath Kovind Ji,
We, the signatories, are concerned citizens from all walks of life, writing in reference to the forthcoming elections to the Block Development Councils in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). As the legal custodian of India’s Constitution, we write to you to express our grave concern about both the intent and timing of this decision, which undermines both democracy and the electoral process.
Various citizen-led groups have submitted alarming reports of the ground situation in J&K. On one hand, most means of communication in J&K have been suspended for almost two months. Stringent curfews have been imposed in a number of regions of the state. Exacerbating the situation, there have been reports of clashes between the public and the armed forces which have resulted in injuries and deaths. A recent instance of these excesses was the manhandling and arrest of prominent women activists for leading a peaceful protest in Kashmir. From the six or seven odd reports that have been submitted by independent teams of observers who have visited the state, it is clear that there is a general feeling of unrest in the state regarding the undemocratic manner in which the situation has been handled.
Equally importantly, all leaders and workers of the mainstream political parties, ranging from the Indian National Congress, the People’s Democratic Party, the National Conference, the J&K People’s Movement, the Awami Ittehad Party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) have been under arrest or in detention since August 05, 2019. When the entire leaderships of bonafide political parties are under detention and there are restrictions on even personal communication among the leaders and workers of political parties, it is obvious that the grounds for free and fair elections simply do not exist. Even the release of leaders from Jammu does not change the fact that most political leaders from Kashmir are still under detention.
We also want to draw your attention to the disastrous outcome of the recently conducted panchayat elections, that were conducted despite poor conditions for elections including boycott calls, and which consequently resulted in minimal participation by voters and contestants alike. As per the Election Commission (EC)’s data, only 30% of the panchayat halqas in Kashmir saw polling. Of the 2,135 halqas in the Valley, no candidate stood in 708, meaning they remain vacant. Another 699 halqas saw single candidates who won unopposed. This effectively means 1,407 halqas (or 65% of the total panchayat halqas) saw no contest at all.
Furthermore, the four South Kashmir districts of Shopian, Kulgam, Anantnag and Pulwama posted the lowest turnouts. Shopian and Pulwama, in fact, saw no polling at all. Kulgam had no polling in 99% of halqas and no candidate for 87% of its sarpanch posts. Anantnag saw no contest in 76% of its halqas. Of the total 17,059 panch wards in the Valley, only 1,656 saw a contest. This is a shocking situation for any electoral process, and the situation today is so much worse.
You may also be aware sir that the J&K Rural Development Department’s data highlights that there are no Block Development Officers (BDOs) in over 50% of the 316 blocks across the state—148 in Jammu, 137 in Kashmir and 31 in Ladakh (Leh and Kargil). The BDOs are integral in facilitating the conduct of block elections. Given this, the proposed block level elections are being conducted in a situation where the administrative infrastructure is lacking, which will lead to even greater chaos and a flawed election.
For democracy to be meaningful, it is imperative that there is an atmosphere free of fear and intimidation, where the electoral process enables citizens to exercise their democratic expression while opting for candidates of their choice. This can only happen in an environment where citizens feel free to vote without fear. Given the unprecedented socio-political situation in the state, those conditions do not exist today. Proceeding unilaterally in these circumstances will only erode faith in the electoral process not just in Jammu and Kashmir, but in the country as a whole. It is especially shocking that the EC, which was once hailed as a paragon of fairness and autonomy, is even considering conducting any kind of elections when only one party is contesting, and conditions are so antithetical to conducting fair elections. This not only undermines everything India stands for but also damages our reputation as a democracy.
Sir, given that the EC and the union government have decided to proceed with elections in spite of the desperate boycott by nearly all political parties, we appeal to you to uphold the Constitution and urge the concerned authorities to revisit this undemocratic decision.”