Village leader Zoona Kumar did not recognise the man who came to her house three weeks ago with a plan to kill her. His face was concealed by a scarf and he said nothing as he took out a gun, jammed it at her throat and fired.
“There was a knock on the door. I went to the door. I don’t know how many men there were,” she said, propped up in bed, her right eyelid sewn shut. “There had been no threats, not a clue. Everyone had been supportive of what we were doing.” Although Mrs Kumar lost an eye in the shooting, doctors at a Srinagar hospital were somehow able to save her life. Others have not been so fortunate.
Since 2011 when about 34,000 village council leaders – or sarpanches – were elected in Indian-controlled Kashmir in an experiment in grass-roots democracy, at least eight have been killed and countless more threatened, apparently by Pakistan-based militant separatist groups. Thousands of those who took up posts in order to help local development now say they want to quit.
The wave of attacks on sarpanches has threatened to undermine one of the central achievements of the Indian authorities in Kashmir. It has also underscored the tensions in a place that India and Pakistan have fought three wars over and where troops are still regularly killed on the unofficial border known as the Line of Control.
Last night, most of Indian-controlled Kashmir was under curfew amid fears that the execution of an alleged militant hanged in Delhi could spark attacks against Indian targets. But for local administrators, the threat of violence looms every day.
As with Mrs Kumar, when Habibullah Mir stood for office in Goripora, about 45 miles west of Kashmir’s summer capital, Srinagar, he wanted to help people in a village that has electricity for no more than an hour a day. “You only have to look at our home,” said his widow, Hajra Begum, sitting in their freezing, unfinished house. “He was too busy to finish building this.”
Most of his time, she said, was spent arranging drainage projects, road construction and the installation of lavatories at the local school and the mosque. He rarely came home before 11pm. But someone brought that work to an end. At lunchtime on 11 January, as Mr Mir was overseeing work at the mosque, he was approached by a man no one had seen before who said he had some private business with him.
According to Ali Mohammed Mir, his brother, who was working at the mosque, the stranger also covered most of his face with a scarf and wore a dark pheran, a traditional Kashmiri shawl, baggy enough to conceal a small, hand-carried stove of embers or, in this case, a pistol. “There was a cement mixer on, there was lots of noise,” said Ali Mohammed Mir, explaining why he heard no gunshot. “Ten minutes later people came shouting that Habibullah Mir had been shot.”
His brother, who grew apples on a half-acre of orchards and who had three children, was hit by a single bullet in the neck. Villagers raced to the nearest hospital, in the town of Sopore, but Mr Mir was dead on arrival. He was buried alongside his father in the village graveyard, just yards from the muddy track where he was killed.
The attacks on Mr Mir and Mrs Kumar took place within a couple of days of each other and just a few miles apart. Both of the sarpanches were elected in the Sopore district, an area known as a stronghold of anti-Indian militants 20 years ago and where such individuals are still active today.
S M Sahai, the Inspector General of police for Kashmir, said that while investigations were continuing, there was an assumption the attacks were ordered by militants, who might have “outsourced” the work to others. To try to reassure the sarpanches, he said, police were being redeployed to areas considered to have a higher threat. “But I think they know there is a limit to how much can be done,” he admitted.
Officials estimate there may be 300 militants living on the Indian side of the Line of Control, of whom 50 are considered “active”. Most are linked to militant groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Hizbul Mujahedin, based across the border in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Starting in the late 1980s and peaking in the early 1990s, the militancy and attendant operations by security forces have claimed at least 50,000 lives. Hundreds of thousands of Hindus have been forced from the Muslim-dominated region.
Today, despite claims by the state Chief Minister, Omar Abdullah, of “a significant decline in violence”, Kashmir remains home to at least 600,000 security personnel. They have repeatedly been accused of human rights abuses.
To the visitor, their ubiquity within the winter landscape is startling; a lone soldier silently stands watch in an orchard of pollarded trees; a line of troops make their way along either side of an ice-edged country road in the early morning; troops hold up traffic in the marketplace.
“There are a number of reasons for the decline in militancy – international pressure on Pakistan, disenchantment, a fence between the two countries,” Mr Abdullah said. Development projects in Kashmir were also important, but he added: “We would be stupid if we thought that by building roads and hospitals and schools that we would no longer have a problem. You cannot buy or shoot your way to a solution. You have to talk.”
While elected village leaders are commonplace elsewhere in India, in Kashmir the system had not operated for more than 30 years. Although Mr Abdullah insisted his motive for reintroducing them was to help development, others have seen them as strengthening the hand of the Indian state. Syed Ali Shah Geelani, a staunch separatist, condemned the attacks on the sarpanches but called on local officials to join the “freedom movement”.
“When the elections happened, we appealed to those taking part not to participate,” he said. “We are under occupation and no sort of election … is suitable or purposeful for resolving the issue of Jammu and Kashmir. We are under occupation and we demand we be given self-determination.”
Sarpanch leaders across the state have demanded the government do more to protect them. They have also urged members to stay in their posts. More than 80 have formally resigned while thousands have expressed a desire to do so, even taking out advertisements in local papers.
Strikingly, Mrs Kumar, the woman who answered the door to a stranger and who was shot, may not be among those giving up the post that made her proud by being able to help others. Having already turned down an offer of extra police protection, she said this week: “I cannot say whether I will resign or not. I will wait to see how I feel.”
Riots flare as militant hanged
One person was killed as protests broke out in at least two parts of Indian-controlled Kashmir yesterday, despite a strict curfew to prevent violence after the execution of a Kashmiri man convicted in a deadly attack on India’s Parliament in 2001.
Mohammed Afzal Guru was hanged in Delhi on Saturday. The authorities ordered people in the disputed Kashmir region to remain indoors indefinitely in anticipation of anti-India protests.
Today, scores of people defied the curfew.