In Valley's Chill, GenNext Warms Up To Civic Polls
23 January 2005
The Indian Express
Srinagar: Shrugging off the blanket of snow that has virtually halted life in the Valley, Kashmiris are slowly warming up to the idea of neighbourhood democracy. After 27 years, towns in the Valley are gearing up for civic polls, from January 29, to elect people's bodies. And this time, the Valley's youth are at the forefront of it all. Although most of these youngsters are in the race as Independent candidates, political parties, too, are banking heavily on those in their 20s and 30s. In Sopore town, a hub of separatist politics, the Congress has even fielded three 19-year-old girls, Sobiya Mushtaq, Rounak and Shakeela. 'I had no idea what civic polls are all about,' says Sobiya. 'But now I am enthusiastic. I will get some monthly salary and then I will also be able to help in the development of our locality.' Says People's Democratic Party (PDP) president Mehbooba Mufti: 'There are a number of young and educated candidates who are in the fray as our candidates.' It's a formula that the National Congress (NC) is cashing in on, backed fully by its chief Omar Abdullah. Starting January 29, civic polls will be held in Srinagar, Baramulla, Budgam, Anantnag, Pulwama and Kupwara. They will elect a corporation, 3 councils and 30 committees-with a 33 per cent quota for women. Srinagar city, for instance, will elect its first ever Mayor who will preside over 68 elected counsellors, including 23 women. 'I want to serve people, especially women in my ward,' says Nazima Rashid, a 27-year-old Independent candidate from Khwaja Bazar in downtown Srinagar. 'These polls will give us a voice in the government... Our area has always been neglected by the government. If I am elected, I will push the government to repair roads and provide other basic amenities,' says Nazima, who left studies after Class 12. 'The representative character would give these bodies more powers at decision-making,' says M S Rather, Commissioner, Srinagar Municipal Corporation, a bureaucrat who heads the body in the absence of elected representatives. 'It will not only help mobilise resources but also make all agencies providing civic amenities to the public answerable to the corporation,' says Rather. Ashiq Hussain Dar, a 21-year-old candidate from Srinagar's Aalistang, says he's in the fray to 'make a difference'. The other big reason for many youngsters to join the fray, they say, is the hope of gainful employment. Says Congress' Sopore candidate Sobiya: 'My family is extremely poor and I am the oldest among eight children. My father is a manual labourer and life is very difficult.' Sobiya's story also reflects the other, darker facet of these elections. She faces a grave threat from militants, violently opposed to the concept. One of these outfits, Al-Mansoorian, has issued threats to all candidates, asking them to withdraw. In fact, a Congress candidate from Baramulla's Jamia, Noor-ud-din Sherwani, was shot dead last week while PDP and NC candidates were targeted with grenades in the same area and Srinagar. With the Mufti government failing to provide adequate security, the terror tactics have worked to an extent. In the last few days, 152 candidates have quit the race. In Baramulla, 83 candidates withdrew after the killing of Sherwani while 23 pulled out in Srinagar city after the grenade attack on a NC rally in which three workers were killed. The separatists too are opposed to these elections, saying it's 'a mere political gimmick aimed at changing the status of the Kashmir dispute internationally'. The Syed Ali Shah Geelani-led Hurriyat Conference has called for boycott after trashing the polls as 'an eyewash'. It's a call that has been echoed by the moderate faction too, led by Mirwaiz Umar Farooq. The candidates can expect little from the government too. Says CM Mufti Mohammad Sayeed: 'We cannot provide security to such a large number of candidates...Their security is the public they have stood to serve.'