Srinagar: Sitting across each other in a room, two Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) Kashmiri Muslim workers debate their dilemmas of being part of BJP and claim that the party “counts on proxies here as they are working on a regional third-front party.”
Farooq Ahmad Rather, 34, is standing at a shop to buy bread while a Jammu and Kashmir (J-K) police personnel, from the gate behind, is keeping an eye on him. “We aren’t even safe here but it feels safe,” Mr. Rather said. “It is just for my satisfaction.”
Behind the iron-gate, the police personnel, who stands guard in the backdrop of the poster saying “Civilians not allowed” makes sure that he frisks and registers any visitor. It is the entry for a four-storey guest house, Changa Palace – with pale colour, ill-maintained and broken windowpanes, in Barbarshah, Srinagar. The Palace has been turned into a central government sponsored Protected People (PP) area – essentially for people perceived to be under threat.
Mr. Rather is a Sarpanch from Dangarpora, Sopore, and BJP’s Sopore constituency president. On 3 August 2019, he got a call from the BJP office in Jawahar Nagar, Srinagar, when he was at his home in Sopore. The party called him and forty-five other constituency in-charges to Srinagar. “They knew things will get bad,” he said. “They asked us to find a safe place, saying, ‘People might get angry and attack you.’”
On 5 August 2019, his party-led Central government abrogated Articles 370 and 35-A of the Constitution. The administration also snapped all lines of communication in the erstwhile state and imposed heavy restrictions.
BJP has never been able to secure a seat in Kashmir Valley in either parliamentary or assembly elections. Talking to The Kashmir Walla in November 2019, Dr. Sidiq Wahid, who has a PhD from Harvard University in central Asia’s history, explained that the success of BJP and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), where the party finds its ideological roots, depends on how their workers buy their ideology and philosophy.
“In Kashmir, a contradiction may arise, especially among Muslim pracharaks (foot soldiers),” said Dr. Wahid. In the country, Kashmiri Muslims are an ethnic minority within a minority group – Muslims, which are about 180 million. I sat down over a cup of tea with two of BJP’s Kashmiri Muslim karyakartas, or workers, to understand their thoughts and how they cope with BJP’s policies.
In June 2013, Mr. Rather excitedly turned up at a shrine near his home in Sopore, to greet an ex-Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA), Abdul Rashid Dar of the Congress party. Standing in the crowd with his 18-month-old daughter in arms, he offered a handshake to Mr. Dar who refused.
“Our friendship is so strong that our blood samples might match – but when he says that it [abrogation of Article 370] is good, my blood boils. Right now, Kashmir is like a volcano. We don’t know when it will explode; he doesn’t know; even Modi ji doesn’t know that.”
“People watched it and I stood in humiliation,” Mr. Rather said. “I started weeping.” That day, he walked back home with only one thing running wild over his mind – “vengeance.”
Within the next week – while the region was preparing for the 2014 Assembly election – he came in contact with J-K BJP’s general secretary Ashok Koul, and joined the party. He started working on ground with people and holding party meetings in Sopore.
In 2017, Mr. Rather heard a loud voice: “Farooq, bahar niklo!” (Farooq, get out). “Militants were calling me out,” he recalled. “I didn’t go out and they burnt an adjacent house and left after warning me.” Following the incident, Mr. Rather was guarded with five Personal Security Officers (PSO) and granted a place to live in – Changa Palace.
Sitting inside the room, sipping tea and breaking bread, he said, “Abrogating Article 370 was a good decision by the government – Internet blockade too. Only five per cent of the population is troublemakers.”
A frustrated man and a friend of Mr. Rather, sitting adjacent to him stood in a jerk. “If that is the case, then shut their Internet. Do you know how many Kashmiris are locked up because of Article 35-A?” said his friend, and mocked, “They did a good thing. What are you saying?”
Mr. Rather’s friend, or as he introduced him: ‘brother from another mother,’ is cranky. He complained of lost wallet and over boiled tea. “Our friendship is so strong that our blood samples might match – but when he [Mr. Rather] says that it [the decision] is good, my blood boils,” he shrugged. “Right now, Kashmir is like a volcano. We don’t know when it will explode; he doesn’t know; even Modi ji doesn’t know that.”
It was in 2018, when Mr. Rather met his 46-year-old friend, Ali Mohammad. Mr. Mohammad believes that most of the things happened to him in life by accident; from entering politics at panchayat level to fighting 2019 parliamentary elections from Anantnag constituency independently – with support of J-K People’s Alliance, led by former Deputy Mayor of Srinagar Sheikh Imran.
“A couple of years ago, I was abducted by militants,” he said. Unwilling to disclose exact details, he added, “They questioned me for four hours and asked me to stay away from politics.” A few months later, his video was posted online with a warning: “We won’t leave you alive if we see you next time,” he recalled. “Since then, I haven’t been to my village, or seen my home.”
It was merely weeks before August 2019 when Mr. Mohammad, his friend, joined BJP, although he denies being “an active part” on moral grounds. “I would be son of a dog if I don’t stand on front with a gun if it [militancy] had been about jihad,” he said. “I’m a nationalist and India isn’t misguiding youth here – regional parties are.”
In the clampdown, when Kashmir didn’t have communication – that continues partially – Mr. Mohammad and Mr. Rather had no one to talk to but each other. Mr. Mohammad claimed that Mr. Rather does not like discussing what happened on 5 August, 2019.
One night, when the duo was alone in the room, undistracted by continuous phone calls from the party workers, Mr. Mohammad asked his companion, “What happened, huh?”
He was trying to enter into Mr. Rather’s conscience and get him to say, what he felt, despite being a BJP worker. “Shut up right now. We’ll see,” Mr. Rather replied.
“Whole India knows that BJP has anti-Muslim policies. That’s why people don’t vote for them in Kashmir. That’s why they count on proxies here. They are working on a regional third-front – soon, you will come to know.”
Mr. Rather wants everyone, including his people in Sopore, to believe that he is walking with BJP for development. At the same time, Mr. Mohammad reminds him of his “bitter rift” with Mr. Koul.
“In 2018 before Panchayat elections, Koul sahab asked me to prepare candidates from Sopore and promised financial support to them,” recalled Mr. Rather. “Later, he didn’t stand to it. When I inquired again, he told me, ‘Go die. We won’t do anything.’”
Later during 2019 parliamentary elections, his PSOs were withdrawn. Since then he has been sacred for his life. “I requested Koul Sahab multiple times to restore my security – but he won’t do it.”
Mr. Rather believes that the root cause of Mr. Koul not doing his work lies in the 1990s – Kashmiri Pandit exodus. “He is from Pandit community and people say we [Kashmiri Muslims] were behind the exodus – that’s why he won’t do my work,” he said.
He scratched his head, went uneasy and said in a low-tone, “It feels bad and my heart aches.” Controlling his emotions, and voice, he paraded his words back on track, “But, he respects and admires my work.”
Speaking to The Kashmir Walla in November 2019, Mr. Koul had claimed that the party is pretty sure to have the next Chief Minister in J-K. “Tomorrow, if we [Kashmiri Muslims] are sidelined, we will go to Delhi and meet Amit Shah [BJP National President],” Mr. Rather said. “He [Mr. Shah] will call them here and resolve things.”
Mr. Mohammad laugh offs the claim as well. He poked Mr. Rather on the CM seat claim. “Whole India knows that BJP has anti-Muslim policies. That’s why people don’t vote for them in Kashmir,” said Mr. Mohammad. “That’s why they count on proxies here. They are working on a regional third-front – soon, you will come to know.”
A heated argument rose between the duo; Mr. Mohammad forced Mr. Rather to believe that BJP is anti-Muslim. “I have nothing to do with that – I just want development in my area,” argued Mr. Rather. Turning a blind-eye towards his counter’s claims, he added, “I’m not knowledgeable enough to say BJP is anti-Muslim.”
From Ayodhya Temple verdict, triple talaq bill to National Register of Citizens (NRC) and Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) – Mr. Mohammad supported his argument of BJP being anti-Muslim.
“Then, why do you walk with BJP?” I asked. “Today, he [Mr. Rather] is helpless; BJP is in power and, to be honest, they are doing people’s work. People will start walking with anyone who has more money and power,” he replied.
Be it Kashmiri students being beaten up by right-wing mob after Pulwama attack in February 2019 or Kashmiri populace locked down in the aftermath of the abrogation of the special status of J-K – Mr. Rather believes that he is not answerable to anyone but Allah.
“What will you answer to Allah on Judgement Day,” Mr. Mohammad questioned. Mr. Rather got cold feet. He grinned and replied, “Even if I’m an anti-Muslim, I haven’t oppressed anyone. Allah knows everything. I’m so right that I will change BJP.”
Mr. Mohammad laughed and said, “Either you don’t understand what I’m saying or you are in denial.”
Yashraj Sharma is a features writer and assistant editor at The Kashmir Walla.
The story appeared in our 13-19 January 2020 print edition.