In the fray for the ongoing DDC polls are the free-floating electrons whose tribe expectedly grows during election season in Kashmir. In this first story of the three-part series on the ‘development’ polls in J&K, Free Press Kashmir takes a tour into the captive and curious world of not-so-independent candidates of the valley.
In a taciturn twilight in Kashmir’s withering fall—faintly echoing with poll-fest bugle—I received an unexpected call.
“I have a story that will expose this government. I am sending you the address, please just come and meet me tomorrow morning… before 9:00 am anyhow,” the caller said, expressing frustration.
I agreed, regardless the bluff.
The address was of a hotel, close to Srinagar’s iconic Dal Gate. On my visit the next morning, I observed its main entrance was guarded by men in uniform who were deployed by the government in New Delhi. Every visitor was being thoroughly frisked, but the man on the phone, well-dressed in suit-and-tie, walked me pass the security-check with ease.
He had me seated in his room, which was sized 10×12, occupied with one queen-sized bed, couple of wooden chairs, a hookah pot, kangri, and cigarette boxes littered on the floor.
“There is no way I am spending another night in this jahannum,” he said, as we sat for the conversation. He then pulled towards me the collar of his white shirt, and said, “take a look; you see it has turned grey? I feel ashamed, but I have to tell you – this is because I haven’t bathed in a week.”
The man expressing his plight happened to be a “senior” Congress worker from Budgam, Peerzada Mohammad Shafi, who also significantly introduces himself as the “President of J&K Rahul Gandhi Fans Association”.
Having associated with the party for 16 years, Shafi is busy contesting in the ongoing local elections from Khag constituency, but on priority, that particular day, he wanted me to listen to his exposé on Kashmir’s “dirty politics”.
“I have only raised India’s flag in Kashmir… not a Pakistani flag, only and only of India. It has been sixteen long years in politics, and yet I haven’t been given any security, ever. I walk around in public, as if…” he gave a thoughtful pause, “giving an open invitation to death.”
After a near-death experience of politics itself in Kashmir, the valley is currently witnessing its so-called ‘revival’ with the “return of democracy” for the first time since August 5, 2019 – the day Narendra Modi led Government of India scrapped the semi-autonomous status of the region.
Now a ‘Union Territory’, directly ruled by a New Delhi controlled JK Administration, it is undergoing the newly-reformed District Development Council elections, DDC, after GoI-approved amendments were made to The Jammu and Kashmir Panchayati Raj Act of 1989, thus enabling the formation of all three tiers of its institution: Panchayat, Block Development Council (BDC), DDC. 280 members will be elected, 140 each in Jammu, and Kashmir.
Also, as many as 11,450 vacant seats for the post of panch, and 830 sarpanch seats will be up for contest; simultaneously, the 228 vacant seats in Urban Local Bodies (ULB).
The previous instance of an electoral exercise in the region was back in April, 2019, for the seats in the Indian parliament; whereas the local elections were held in 2018 during the months of November-December.
Cut to today, times have changed, and so has Kashmir’s political landscape. To sum it up, it bears plenty of resemblance with that of security accommodation given to Congress candidate Mohammad Shafi, which he called a “living hell”.
Self-image is not the only thing a Kashmiri politician has to put at stake, it goes to the extent of life-and-death. Since the uprising in 1990, more than 5,000 pro-India flag-bearers have lost their lives; some estimates even put this number at 7,000. This year alone, at least 10 political workers were killed in various militant attacks across the valley.
Earlier in September, the BDC chairman, Bhupinder Singh was shot dead by suspected militants. That night, could also have been “the end” of Mohammad Shafi – “I was with Bhupinder the entire day, and then he left for his home. Because we live in the same village, Khag, I was going to go along, but then I decided not to. Soon as I returned to my Srinagar accommodation, I was told… Bhupinder has been killed.”
“Look,” Shafi continued, “I never asked for security because I never needed it, but in today’s time, it is a necessity.”
Days after enrolling himself in the elections, Shafi had staged an amusing solo-protest in Srinagar’s press colony, where a large section of media houses reside, threatening to set his nomination file on fire if his demands for adequate security is not met.
He had the media file of the protest saved in his phone – at the top of his voice, he screams at the cameras: “Yeh jo aaj candidates uthe hai DDC ka, unko kaunsa chatti hai election ladhneka?” [These candidates contesting in DDC elections, what are they getting back in return?]
“Unhone kaha form bhardo, hamne bhardiya; abhi unhone kaha PSO bhi mil jayega, gaadi bhi mil jaayega – koi facility nahi hai. Inhone paise nikaalna hai, apni jebo me daalna hai” [They asked to fill the nomination papers, we did; then they promised us a PSO (Personal Security Officer), a private vehicle – but no facility has been provided. They just want to fill their pockets.]
Sharing the hotel room with Mohammad Shafi, is an independent candidate contesting from the same seat. It did not amuse me, knowing two rival candidates sharing the same living space, because these are times in Kashmir politics when foes turn into friends – literally (in Part III of this political series).
This independent contestant entered the conversation when Shafi was showing me his protest video. Jahangir Ahmad, aged 26, is fighting his first elections.
“We are being told to share one vehicle between three contestants; imagine the sight, three rival candidates stepping out of one car,” he said. “Does any of this make sense?”
Followed a brief conversation that I had with Jahangir about his political aspirations, I figured why was it so hard for him to “make sense” of situation around him.
A B.Tech degree-holder, and now pursuing M.Tech, Jahangir is one among scores of unemployed youth in Kashmir, who hold valuable degrees of no use. The August 5 lockdown, followed by the COVID-19 lockdown in April, has piled up the economic miseries of the region. According to a report by local news agency KINS, dated November 3, an estimated 25 percent of educated youth in Jammu and Kashmir is unemployed.
What has driven Jahangir to where he stands today was the desperation of ‘proving something to someone’, as he himself narrates: “I am as qualified as any District Executive Engineer, but I have done nothing remarkable other than staying home… It was one fine day I decided to visit the block office where the District Commission was scheduled to hear public grievances. I went up to him and told him that I am an unemployed youth with a B.Tech degree, and I am looking for a job. He told me to write an application, which I did. Later after the session, a Block Development Officer took me to the side, talked to me about my areas of interest, and asked me to come to office the other day. I was assigned with the project of earth-filling in a playfield of Government Higher Secondary School. To be able to approve the estimate for the project, I had to visit the panchayat secretary, and what do I see there? She, the sarpanch, is an angootha chaap [an illiterate]. Being an M.Tech, I am asking from an uneducated woman to approve my work, can you believe? To add to it, the corruption – she asked me to pay Rs 10,000 for her thumb impression. I barely have Rs 200 in my account, you can check.”
“That’s it,” he stressed, “this was when I thought if she can be at this position, so can I. And I filed my nominations for the panch post.”
Right after that, he was picked up by the police, put into the van, and was brought to the hotel-room accommodation in Srinagar. When I met Jahangir, he was there for almost a week. “I haven’t even been home. This place feels like a cage.”
He says his family has given up on him, “especially my father”.
“What if I tell you, he is completely unaware of my decisions? Whenever he calls, I either ignore or I lie to him… the other night I told him I am staying over at a friend’s.”
It was after some “pondering”, Jahangir says, he “realised” – “Meine kaha chalo, ab mein badnaam hua hi hu, to DDC ka form bhardeta hu, kamm se kamm izzat badh jaayegi… Panch to kya hi post hai, usme koi baat hi nahi hai – bhala ek mechanical engineer panch ki kursi ke liye ladh raha hai, bataao” [Now that I have already maligned my image to this extent, I thought to myself, why not contest for the DDC post, I can at least earn back some respect… Position of a panch is so insignificant – a mechanical engineer, fighting for the seat of panch, not fair.]
It is hard to blame Jahangir for his political immaturity. An independent winner in Kashmir is no less than cash booty for establishments in New Delhi; it certainly is the ticket to a larger life.
A week ago, when Junaid Mattoo returned as the mayor of Srinagar Municipal Corporation, SMC, amid ‘high drama’, the same evening I had sat down with an independent councillor who was a witness to it all. He told me he only ‘sailed along the wind’, and voted in favour of Mattoo, who had in his pockets furthermore 24 independent councillors. A couple of days after reclaiming the mayor seat, Mattoo joined the newly-launched Apni Party – famously addressed as BJP’s ‘B’ Team; and so now he will follow his favourers.
For good or worse, this DDC-election is witnessing the emergence of several new faces. Advocate Talib Hussain, one of the leading activists in Kathua rape case, has for instance filed his nominations from Pulwama. Another advocate, Irfan Hafiz Lone, associated with ‘J&K RTI Movement’, is contesting from Baramulla.
But despite of all the participation, including that of the political parties, there is a dull silence on the ground. It is not just militant threats that restrict the workers to four-walls; it is also the public acceptance, which speaks for itself.
I have come across several Kashmiris, mostly young, during my time on the ground, who have not even registered for a voter ID. A majority here believe in ‘boycotting’ of electoral process, it stands as a symbol of resistance.
One such believer of boycott politics was Adil Nazir Khan, but today, he has joined the political fray, independently contesting for the DDC seat from Tangmarg.
But what got someone like Adil into mainstream politics, especially after how the old unionists have suffered in recent times?
To decode Adil’s political mechanism, I accompanied him to one of his rallies in the interiors of Tangmarg.
“All you people who are listening to me, might be wondering…” he spoke, addressing the crowd of 25-30 passersby, “… ‘Here is one of those young politicians who has come here to advocate democracy’… but the truth is, my dear people, I myself did not have a voter ID until now. In fact, my first vote will be for my own self.”
“I am not here to ask for your votes, but to tell you, why I have decided to vote for me…”
Adil Khan, unlike Jahangir Ahmad, hasn’t joined politics in fluke. He is here for a long run. In his election manifesto, Adil addresses himself as – ‘Social activist, Political analyst, National TV debater, Advisor of Member Seat Academy, President of Independent Research Organisation for Human Rights Violation in J&K, and Coordinator Supreme Court for Article 370 petitions, etc.’
The 23-year-old continued his address: “I have 20 international participations; I have been interviewed by 20 international publications; I have been a part of 20 developmental projects – sadak-bijli-paani is really not a big deal for me. Within a year, development will reflect on ground, I know what work needs to be done, and how.
“But today, what is more important is to restrict the fascist forces in New Delhi from further intruding into our Kashmir. I don’t call these elections, elections; I call it one of their conspiracies… the conspiracy to oppress Muslims… the Muslims of Muzaffarabad, the Muslims of Godhra, the Muslims of Delhi, and, the Muslims of Kashmir.
“They know, just like every time, the people of Kashmir will boycott this DDC-election. But hasn’t this boycott politics only benefitted the BJP? Tomorrow, their candidate will be elected, and they will tell in United Nation that the people of Kashmir are in favour of all decisions they have taken.”
Fact remains that no election in Kashmir is fought on developmental agendas; you will find even a panch-candidate here, preaching to resolve complex issues like India-Pakistan, Muslim identity, autonomy and even masla-e-Kashmir, the Kashmir crisis.
“I am writing a book that will be published in the coming months,” Adil informed his handful of audience. “I have titled it – ‘Bleeding Heaven’. I want to ask, if our Kashmir is a heaven, why does it bleed?”
Adil isn’t new to activism. There are videos of his from parts of Delhi, where he had held protests against scrapping of J&K’s special status. He returned home only a month before the election dates were announced. If a source is to be believed, Adil has been close to a senior leader of Kashmir’s grand-old party, the National Conference, and was supposed to be given the DDC ticket to contest from Tangmarg, but was denied in the end.
“The kind of candidates contesting in this DDC-election, believe me,” Adil told the crowd, “will tomorrow bargain for the dignity of our women. Trust me when I tell you this – I know the importance of blood sacrificed by our men; I know what dignity means for mothers and the sisters of Kashmir; I know the importance of this land, and I am here to announce that it is not cheap!”
Adil had been giving at least four such speeches each day. He was also promoting himself on Facebook. Two private cars of his, back of it covered with a banner, ran all day in the villages of Tangmarg, with a speaker on top, on-repeat promoting Adil and his electoral symbol, the Helicopter.
As many as 12 independent candidates are contesting from this area, but Adil’s campaigning has been the loudest.
Even compared to his rivals from the BJP and its “B team” – the Apni Party, and the National Conference – under the banner of Gupkar Alliance, Adil seems to have a stronger ground.
Later that evening, I sat with him at his residence for the interview. He spoke on the same lines as that of his rally in the afternoon.
In another room, after the interview, I came across his relatives who were curious to know the result of “exit polls”, and wanted me to find out for them. One of them give me the contact of Adil’s “close-rival”, from the Apni Party – Ishfaq Mir, and I called him right there. It was 8:30 pm.
I introduced myself, and told him I would like to meet him for an interview, to which, Ishfaq responded: “Sorry, we have been asked to not speak to the media. I have not allowed any media-person to put up my picture; I have not even exposed my workers. I have a different style of work.”
I asked: “How if I just attend one of your rallies?”
“I can’t assure you anything. I have been asked to completely ignore the cameras. Even my journalist-friends are disappointed with me. I am sorry, I can’t give you my time; I am actually busy setting up a different game plan,” he answered.
“Can you tell me what that ‘different plan’ is?”
He chuckled: “Of course I cannot; that is my secret card, can’t reveal it…”
And the phone call was cut.
I later figured that Ishfaq Mir was given the mandate by Apni Party, for he is a nephew of co-founder Ghulam Hassan Mir – a seasoned politician from the times of Mufti Saeed.
And to understand Ishfaq’s alternative “game plan”, I meet his uncle – in part II of the series.
To be continued…