09/26/2012, 00.00
INDIA
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More than 50 village chiefs resign in Indian Kashmir following threats from Muslim extremists

The decision comes after terrorist groups kill two local officials. Extremists fear losing support among the local populace. After last year's first democratic elections in 30 years, various administrations have opened new schools, health clinics and roads, making people freer and better educated.

Srinagar (AsiaNews/Agencies) - More than 50 sarpanch (village chiefs) have resigned in Jammu and Kashmir after receiving threats from Islamic extremist groups. Their decision was made public in local Urdu-language newspaper following the assassination of a local administrator in Baramulla District, the second in less than two weeks. Locals believe the threats stem from fundamentalists' fear of losing grassroots support in favour of village chiefs.

For the past eight months, village chiefs and their aides have been the victims of intimidation of terrorist groups like Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks) and Jaish-e-Mohammad. So far, more than 700 sarpanch have tendered their resignation.

Everything began in 2011 when the first free vote was held in Jammu and Kashmir's panchayat (village-level administrations) in more than 30 years. Between 13 April and 27 June, more than 30,000 officials were elected with a 79 per cent turnout despite extremists' threats and calls for a boycott.

Rapidly, the newly elected administrators launched a series of initiatives to favour the development of the poorest rural areas in the state, including schools, health clinics, roads and electricity.

Locals believe that the wave of democracy and progress pushed Muslim extremists to act in order to stop losing support in a population that was getting better educated.

For now, the two murders have been enough to cause panic among local administrators.

Nevertheless, Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah urged panchayat officials to stay at their posts.

"The government," he told them, "will do everything possible to create trust and bring security. Creating a network of strong and functioning local administrations remains one of its goals."

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