Panchayat Polls

A Surprise in the Valley

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The first Pandit sarpanch in Kashmir wins with the help of Muslim votes

In a stunner of sorts, a woman from the minority Pandit community in Kashmir Valley has won a Panchayat election, becoming the first non-Muslim sarpanch. Ashaji was declared the winner in the Kunzer block of north Kashmir’s Baramulla district after she defeated her Muslim neighbour

Sarwa Begum by 11 votes. And this was all thanks to the support of the majority Muslim community. Of the 1,000 odd voters in her village, only 11 are from her own community. Ashaji acknowledged this and said that she was surprised when she was declared the winner. Local residents told the media that they chose her because they found her to be nice and did not wish to discriminate against her simply because she was not Muslim.

Panchayat elections are taking place in Kashmir after two bloody decades of conflict, and this is being seen as a significant development towards strengthening democracy in the Valley. Ashaji’s victory assumes even more importance in the wake of the exile of about 350,000 Kashmiri Pandits who had to leave their homes in the 90s after an Islamist insurgency made it impossible for them to stay back. Only a handful, like Ashaji’s family, dared to.

While her victory is largely perceived as a positive story emerging from Kashmir, some from the Pandit community feel that her example would be used to tom-tom the secular credentials of the Valley—termed as Kashmiriyat, an entity they say doesn’t exist any more. Jammu & Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, for example, tweeted that ‘regardless of what the extremist elements of both sides want the world to believe, there is still hope for the valley & Kashmiriyat’.

“One swallow doesn’t make a spring,” says Ajay Chrungoo, a leader of the exiled Pandit community. “As long as there are symbols like (hardline separatist leader) Geelani in the Valley, Pandits don’t have much hope,” he feels. There may not be much hope, but one can at least expect that Ashaji’s victory will apprise the younger generation in Kashmir of their erstwhile neighbours, and stop Kashmiri journalists hellbent on calling her ‘Aishaji.’