“Everyone has to die one day…. One shouldn’t fear death.… God is the ultimate saviour.” These words are not from a sermon to believers, but were spoken by Nizamudin Bhat, general secretary of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), at an election meeting in South Kashmir on March 25. In the audience were around 300 party workers, almost everyone above 40 years of age. With no flags, festoons and banners, it looked like anything but an election crowd.
The workers had come to hear Mufti Tassaduq, the 45-year-old PDP candidate for the Anantnag Lok Sabha seat. Cinematographer-turned-politician Tassaduq is the only son of the late Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and brother of CM Mehbooba Mufti. Bhat’s “inspirational” words signalled the party’s apprehension of a low voter turnout on April 9 and April 12, when bypolls will be held in Anantnag and Srinagar parliamentary constituencies, respectively.
The fear isn’t unwarranted, indeed, as the separatists’ call for a poll boycott this time comes after several months of protests across the Valley since the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani on July 8 last year. In fact, on March 13, three days after the bypolls were announced, unidentified armed men killed a former sarpanch in Pulwama, after which panchayat members across the Valley declared they had nothing to do with any of the contesting parties. And on March 26, there was a huge funeral march following the killing of two local militants in Pulwama, indicating that any such incident could snowball into a big crisis, affecting voter turnout in the bypolls.
While the Anantnag seat has been vacant since Mehbooba was elected to the assembly and took over as CM in April 2016, there has been no Srinagar MP since Tariq Hamid Karra, who had defeated former CM Farooq Abdullah of the National Conference (NC) to win the seat in the 2014 general election, resigned on September 15, protesting the killing and blinding of unarmed civilians during clashes with government forces. Interestingly, Karra is now campaigning for Farooq, who is contesting from Srinagar as the candidate of the Congress-NC alliance.
With 80-plus deaths under its watch during last year’s protests, the PDP has clearly lost the edge it had over the NC in 2014 because of the 112 deaths in firing by government forces during protests in 2010, when Farooq’s party was in power. Mehbooba and her party colleagues are left with no choice but to canvass on the basis of the PDP-BJP Agenda of Alliance (AoA), trying to sell it to voters as their best bet. The AoA calls for dialogue with all stakeholders in the conflict and promises status quo on contentious issues such as Article 370.
On the other hand, given its own baggage of 2010, the NC has been wary of targeting the PDP over last year’s killings, but is keen to keep the focus on the “unholy PDP-BJP alliance”. “The outcome of the bypolls should send a terse message to the fascist forces that are overtly and covertly trying to establish their foothold through the PDP”—that is Farooq’s refrain almost every time he addresses his party workers. He is pitted against Nazir Ahmad Khan, 55, who joined the PDP less than a month ago and is nowhere close to his rival in political stature.
In Anantnag, Farooq’s son and former CM Omar Abdullah has been talking of a “fascist threat” while canvassing for the Congress-NC candidate Ghulam Ahmad Mir. The soft-spoken Tassaduq, however, has refused to bite the bait so far, preferring ecological issues over political conflict in his brief speeches at low-key election meetings, where his refrain is “change in thinking”. He was also unfazed by reports that a section of PDP supporters, who had been taunting Omar for marrying a non-Muslim, were disheartened when Tassaduq’s nomination papers revealed he was married to a non-Muslim.
“Whosoever wants to see this state prosperous, whether he is from India or Pakistan, or even if he is from the NC, he is my friend,” says Tassaduq. “Kashmir is called the Switzerland of India. But just look around and you can see how the environment has been degraded. Why is the water we drink so dirty? When I talk about these matters, they ask me to talk about something big, something that would make it to the headlines. Why don’t these issues get space on the front pages?”
However, it is not that the Mufti scion is unaware about the situation in Kashmir. So, unlike PDP general secretary Bhat, Tassaduq tells his workers that their lives are more precious than their votes. “It will be good if I win, but even if I lose, I will continue to work. But, first and foremost, you should safeguard your life,” he said at an election meeting.
“Our worry is not the election, but what will follow it. That’s what we have to work for,” says J&K finance minister Haseeb Drabu, who often accompanies Tassaduq during campaigning and insists their party will win hands down. “If there will be repeat of last year, it will be the end of Kashmir. There will be no business, no hotels and no industries. And we will all die,” Drabu told a gathering while campaigning at Awantipora in Pulwama district. There were barely any youngsters in the audience, comprising mostly the elderly, who listened to Drabu without reacting.
In fact, young faces have been conspicuously absent from all interactions with Tassaduq on the election trail so far. “In South Kashmir, on one side is the PDP and on the other are the youngsters, who identify with the separatists. There is absolutely no mainstream opposition here—that is our crisis,” says Waheed-ur-Rehman Parra, a 29-year-old PDP leader.
Parra believes the only State institutions that are talking to young Kashmiris are the police stations. Youngsters are frequently called for questioning by the police. “This has to end,” he says, arguing that support for separatism and militancy is radicalisation of a political, not religious, kind. In Pulwama, scores of young men have been called to police stations to explain their messages on WhatsApp groups, as the police insist that is how rumours about protests are being spread. While the police claim some of these groups are run from across the border, the youths call this harassment by the police and the army, which is pushing them towards militancy. “It has become unbearable. They are leaving us with no alternative,” a group of young men tell Outlook at Begam Bagh, where 16-year-old Aamir Nazir was killed during protests against an anti-militancy operation on March 10.
Despite the near-total absence of youth from the election process in Anantnag, the PDP expects a good turnout. People had come out to vote in large numbers even after the 2008 and 2010 agitations, so party leaders hope it will happen again. A decent turnout leading to a PDP win is perhaps the only way the Mehbooba government can salvage its image battered by criticism over the handling of protests. Victory in Anantnag, in particular—the constituency includes Kokernag where Burhan was killed last year—will most likely be projected as a referendum in favour of the government. Meanwhile, it is banking on Tassaduq’s ecology talk to work in a setting where political discourse has long revolved around Azadi, self-rule, autonomy and India-Pakistan dialogue.
By Naseer Ganai in Awantipora (Pulwama)