Elections

Elections In Kashmir Bring In A Sea Of Emotions

Politicians excel at stirring up emotions at election time, and Kashmiris are torn between responding with cries or slogans

Illustration: Vikas Thakur
Photo: Illustration: Vikas Thakur
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National Conference (NC) President Farooq Abdullah asks people to rise early and pray, saying that even in ‘New India’, he feels unsafe as a Muslim, fearing the possibility of being assaulted. People’s Conference President Sajad Lone continues to share his experience of being jailed and tortured, identifying himself as one of many Kashmiris who have endured such trauma. Former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti recounts her prolonged detention following the abrogation of Article 370, remembering how the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government even investigated her father late Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s grave, but she says she will remain resilient. Independent candidate Engineer Rashid’s 23-year-old son, Abrar Rashid, campaigning for his jailed father, expresses the toll of his years of emotional turmoil, and often sheds tears. During a speech, NC leader Aga Ruhullah Mehdi’s emotional moment triggers a collective outburst of grief from the crowd.

However, the outpouring of tears from political leaders has created a dilemma for the people of Kashmir as they are torn between responding with cries or slogans, but ultimately, most choose to respond with slogans.

Abrar Rashid is one of the leaders who have stirred deep emotions in the political landscape of the Valley. With Engineer Rashid imprisoned in Tihar, Abrar led the campaign this time, making people emotional through his deeply felt political speeches that are dotted with poetry. A week after the abrogation of Article 370, Abrar’s father Rashid, a two-time MLA of the Awami Ittehad Party (AIP), was arrested by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) under the Unlawful Activities [Prevention] Act (UAPA). The NIA alleged that Rashid received funds from Pakistan to support separatist activities in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), accusations that Rashid has consistently denied.

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Abrar started one of his rallies with these lines:

Dil ko jala ke diye zamane ko roshni, jugnu pakad

ke ujala nahi kiya

Hum nay guzari fakiri mein zindagi, lekin kabhi zameer

ka souda nahi kiya

(I burnt my heart and gave the world light, not by capturing a glow worm’s light

I spent all my life as a fakir, but never begged anyone for anything)

Abrar focused his campaign speeches on his father’s long incarceration, appealing directly to people’s conscience. He urged them to look in the mirror every evening and ask themselves whether Rashid was right or wrong. “If you think he is wrong,” he said, “then don’t vote for him.”

With no established cadre, Abrar was a late entrant on the political scene, with his jailed father contesting from the Baramulla seat in North Kashmir. The main contest for the seat was between NC Vice-President Omar Abdullah and People’s Conference President Sajad Lone. Both parties were taken by surprise by Abrar’s powerful campaign.

Abrar often spoke in simple, straightforward language, emphasising that he was not in politics for personal gain. He declared that he would leave politics immediately after the polling on May 20. He argued that voting for Rashid would help secure his father’s release from jail and assist others who are trapped in similar situations.

Abrar Rashid led the campaign for his jailed father, connecting to people through his moving speeches dotted with poetry.

As he continued to talk about his jailed father, spirited young men from the crowd would stand up and engage participants and bystanders with the slogan “Jail ka Badla Vote Se, Tihar ka Badla Vote Se”. Abrar says people themselves coined the slogan. 

Rashid’s political journey has been fraught with controversies. Elected to the J&K Assembly from the Langate constituency of North Kashmir in 2008 as an independent candidate, Rashid openly took up issues of alleged human rights violations. He alleged that in 2003, he was forcibly used as bonded labourer by the Army, a case he subsequently filed with the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC), which became defunct following the abrogation of Article 370.

In 2011, Rashid introduced a clemency resolution for Afzal Guru, the Parliament attack convict, in the Assembly, although it never came up for debate. He also faced physical assault by BJP leaders in the Legislative Assembly after hosting a beef party. Rashid was frequently removed from the Assembly. He would take on both mainstream and separatist politicians. Unlike other legislators, he would roam freely without any security detail. In July 2012, he brought stray dogs to Srinagar and attempted to release them in the civil secretariat to draw the government’s attention to the growing population of stray dogs, which bite nearly 15,000 people annually in Kashmir. These actions garnered him significant support from some segments of the Kashmiri population.

Abrar used social media to the hilt in his campaign. He would weep on social media, recalling his meetings with his father in Tihar jail, prompting one reporter to say that his tears would make viewers weep as well. Farooq Abdullah too has a distinct style, but it often leaves his audiences unsure about how to react, especially when he appears emotional on stage. “The question in this election is whether we will survive, whether we will be allowed to live in this country,” Abdullah says. “Listen to what they are saying—whether it’s the prime minister or the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. The PM attacks Muslims, claiming we produce too many children. Children are a blessing from God. If he had kept his wife, he too would have produced a child?” he asks, and the audience laughs.

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He then transitions to religion, quoting a verse from the Quran about religious tolerance. “There is so much hate in the country. If the prime minister wins, he will change everything,” Abdullah warns. Then he gives hope and draws historical parallels, noting how powerful leaders have lost their grip on power eventually. He also brings in fear. “Even I, Farooq Abdullah, feel threatened today—wondering if someone might shoot me or stab me just because I am a Muslim.” Then he returns to religion. “We must rise early and pray, for only God can save us,” he says.

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Mehbooba Mufti’s speeches are laden with emotion. “There were times when people were unsure if a child leaving home in the morning would return in the evening,” she says. “But when my father became chief minister in 2002, he changed all that. He brought a sense of security and opened the road to Muzaffarabad. It was the PDP that, after 60 years, opened the Muzaffarabad Road,” she adds.

After a pause, she continues, “These days, mothers come to me and talk about their incarcerated children. If the government claims everything is fine, why are these youths in faraway jails?” She then talks about the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and her own situation. “I don’t have property. My father didn’t leave me wealth; he left me you, the people. I have been betrayed by many party leaders who abandoned my workers. I haven’t spent a penny; my workers are funding the campaign from their own pockets,” she says. “I have paid a heavy price. I was in jail for a long period. My elderly mother was summoned by the Enforcement Directorate (ED). My passport was withdrawn.” She also talks about how her father’s grave was investigated and how she was forced out of her home in winter. “They thought this would change my stance, but I will not succumb to any pressure,” she declares.

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Farooq Abdullah has a distinct style, but it often leaves audiences unsure about how to react, especially when he seems emotional.

Sajad Lone, also one of the most compelling orators among Kashmiri leaders, often infuses his speeches with deep emotion. “I have been jailed. I have seen torture,” he says. He also invokes the memory of his late father, Abdul Gani Lone, a prominent leader of the separatist Hurriyat Conference, in his speeches. “They said Sajad Lone doesn’t feature his father’s picture on his banners. My father was participating in the elections. When the 1987 elections were rigged, he abandoned the electoral process and pursued a different political path. Then he did not contest the polls and supported the boycott. I deeply respect his legacy. It was my choice to participate in the elections.” He says that after his father’s martyrdom, he made a conscious choice to not display his father’s picture on his banners though doing so would have increased his vote share.

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Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s recent visit to Kashmir added to the anxieties of Kashmiri politicians. In one of his rallies, Omar Abdullah alleged that Shah directed the administration, the BJP, and its “proxies” to defeat the NC. Shah concluded his brief visit to the Kashmir Valley on May 17, during which he met several delegations, including Paharis, Gujjars and BJP representatives.

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“We have not been able to understand yet what the aim of the [home minister’s] visit was because the BJP has not fielded candidates here. First, there was a rumour that he had come for a security review meeting, but no meeting took place,” Omar Abdullah said. Mehbooba Mufti wondered what the home minister was doing in Kashmir when the whole country needs him. he also alleged that the BJP “proxy parties” were using the visit in their favour. She sounded the warning that rigging elections will have huge consequences.

On Saturday, May 18, Kashmir saw a sudden spurt in militant attacks leading to the killing of the BJP grassroots leader Aijaz Ahmad Sheikh in Shopian’s Heerpora. In another attack, two tourists were wounded in Pahalgam. Farooq Abdullah sought international investigation into these attacks. PDP leader Iltija Mufti opined that these attacks were aimed at delaying polls in the crucial South Kashmir constituency of Anantnag-Pahalgam.

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Meanwhile, the head of the banned Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), Ghulam Qadir Wani, who cast his vote on May 13 at the Srinagar constituency, said that JeI has always been in favour of participating in the voting process. “We will endeavour to contest the upcoming Assembly elections scheduled for September,” Wani said, insisting that JeI has consistently believed in the democratic process. “We will field our own candidates if the Centre revokes the ban on us,” he added.

This surprising assertion has introduced another dimension to polls in Kashmir apart from tears.

(This appeared in the print as 'Peak Season In The Pir Panjal')

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Naseer Ganai in Srinagar 

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