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Killings of council leaders could be prelude to more separatist violence

Kashmir fears return to militancy and violence

A security official searches a suspect in Kashmir A security official searches a suspect in Kashmir
  • Swati Deb, New Delhi
  • India
  • September 26, 2012
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Recent assassinations of two village council leaders and the mass resignation of frightened councilors in Jammu and Kashmir have led to fears that militants will renew a campaign of violence in the trouble-torn northern Indian state.

On September 12, village council head Ghulam Mohammad Yatoo was killed by suspected militants in Pahalgam district.  On Sunday, Muhammad Shafi Teli from Baramulla district in North Kashmir was also murdered.

In response, 58 members of various village councils resigned in panic or announced their resignation through newspaper and public announcements.

They resigned because they feel their lives are being threatened and because they have very little “authority to do anything” against the killers, said S. Sultan, spokesperson of the Jammu and Kashmir Panchayati Raj.

A panchayat is a traditional village council system with limited powers that administers state  developments, policy and projects at a local level.

The trouble began when suspected Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) militants last month threatened village council heads and members, and demanded they quit.

“[Council] elections were held in Kashmir last year. However, the newly elected bodies have been unable to do anything because the state government has not provided any funding,” a Jammu-based journalist told ucanews.com on condition of anonymity.

He said this has given militants the opportunity to strike and they are seizing the moment.

“The militants are trying to send a message that when elected bodies and elected village council heads are doing nothing, why keep them around,” he explained.

The elections were the first held in the state for more than three decades.

Despite boycott calls and initial threats issued by militants, the polls saw a turnout of over 80 percent.

There are 43,000 village council members in Kashmir, a Muslim-majority state which is claimed by neighboring Pakistan and which has been at the center of three wars between the two rivals.

For nearly three decades, the state has been mired in conflict with separatist militants at the forefront of the trouble, but the situation has been relatively peaceful over the last few years.

The federal government says eight village council heads and village council members have been killed in the state since the elections.

State Chief Minister Omar Abdullah has said that he would discuss the issue of providing security to village council members in an upcoming meeting with top military, police and civil officials.

“All efforts would be made to safeguard … and provide them with a safe atmosphere in which to work for the good of people,” he said.

The issue has gained national importance and was discussed in a meeting of the Congress Working Committee in New Delhi yesterday, which was addressed among others by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Congress heads the United Progressive Alliance coalition government.

Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People’s Party) leader Rajnath Singh has sent a letter to Singh, urging him to take pro-active steps to protect the members of the local civic bodies.

Trinamool (grassroots) Congress Party member Sultan Ahmed said that both the state and federal governments should awaken to the threat.

“It is taking a turn for the worse now,” he told ucanews.com.

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